Sam Rosenberg: How online copycat culture has become the soul-sucking pit of American capitalism

Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 5:31pm

We live in an age where originality is gradually dying out. From superhero blockbuster movies to Top 40 pop music to network sitcoms, almost every medium relies on a formula and it’s becoming more apparent every day. Though certain works have tweaked their respective formulas in new and exciting ways, there are some that can’t help but be processed and standardized into the same product with a subtly different appeal. What’s even more appalling is how people who use these formulas are able to accrue social currency and monetary value by simply copying off of more talented and lesser-known artists.

This pattern of copycatting other people is especially evident on social media outlets like Instagram, where popular users like @TheFatJewish (8.9m followers) and @fuckjerry (9.7m followers) are known for reposting funny memes that have originally appeared on Tumblr, Reddit, Imgur and Twitter. They may credit the original creators, but the way @TheFatJewish, @fuckjerry and similar accounts capitalize on other people’s creativity feels somewhat greedy and even downright immoral.

@TheFatJewish, @fuckjerry and other copycat Instagrammers — @miinute (80k followers), @thefunnyintrovert (237k followers) and @americadoingthings (81.9k followers) — have managed to make a lucrative lifestyle for themselves, simply by re-captioning a picture to make it seem as though they’ve changed it to fit their own personality. In particular, @TheFatJewish, whose real name is Josh Ostrovsky, has become a massive success due to his immensely popular Instagram account. Currently raking in six figures, @TheFatJewish signed with CAA in 2015 and also helped launch White Girl Rosé, a wine targeted to his millennial audience. @fuckjerry, also known as Elliot Tebele, has also made a paramount empire for himself, having founded his own agency titled Jerry Media. He is set to make $1.5 million to 3 million in revenue over the next 12 months, according to a Forbes interview in April. Tebele has also branched out, creating other meme-filled accounts, including a Kanye parody account (@kanyedoingthings, 919k followers) and a daily pizza picture blog (@pizza, 455k followers), and a fashion meme Instagram (@beigecardigan, 2.5m followers).

Both of their successes are definitely admirable, considering how they know exactly how to market themselves. However, that doesn’t excuse the fact that both @TheFatJewish and @fuckjerry make careers out of stealing intellectual property from other people for the sake of entertaining avid Instagram users and subsequently grossing lots of money. @TheFatJewish has especially attracted controversy from other artists and comedians for stealing jokes and ideas, provoking the ire of Timothy Simons, Patton Oswalt and Kumail Nanjiani. And while @fuckjerry has attempted to expand on his social media enterprise, he continues to capitalize on providing “funny, relatable” content that already exists on other platforms and attempts to fit his own spritz of a joke in the caption to make it seem more “authentic.”          

To me, it seems rather unfair for people to dilute posts, made by others who actually put in effort, to make a buck. Twitter accounts like tina (@tinatbh, 777k followers) and Common White Girl (@girlposts, 6.44m followers) also share similar copycat approaches, generating a massive amount of followers from reposting funny videos and memes that are clearly from different sources. On a more psychological level, online copycat culture also reinforces the idea that in order to be funny or make money, you as a millennial should take advantage of social media and copy other people as well. Do people not see the plagiaristic façade behind these accounts? Is anything even original anymore? Does God exist? The answers to these questions are uncertain.

Granted, for those wanting to succeed, it is really hard to make your own individual voice stand out from a crowd of like-minded people. This is probably why it’s much easier to use other people’s work as a means of not only generating content, but attracting a bigger audience. Heck, I’ll even admit that in high school, I used to copy funny Tumblr posts and pass them off as my own Facebook statuses without crediting the original creator. I loved getting likes from people, but I didn’t know then what I know now about the morals of intellectual property. As a social media user, the most effective way to honestly portray your ideas and thoughts is through your own voice. It’s OK to be inspired and influenced by other artists and yes, sometimes using borrowing (and crediting) the work of another person can help articulate your idea for an essay or article more clearly. But if you want to make a genuine living, please don’t try and steal someone else’s work and pass it off as your own. Simultaneously, even if you credit other people for using their work, it still doesn’t justify taking advantage of them and making gargantuan amounts of money. Sure, you might be able to score an interview with Katie Couric like TheFatJewish or create your own meme-based board game called “What Do You Meme?” like fuckjerry. But to quote from a cool Pinterest post I saw, “Create a life that feels good on the inside, not one that just looks good on the outside.”