During this year’s Super Bowl, a T-Mobile commercial featuring a text-message joke made people on Twitter very angry. Immediately after it aired, many were quick to point out that the concept of the spot was pulled from a viral tweet by the user @decentbirthday. A knee-jerk reaction followed: “TMobile just stole a meme.” “Hahaha @TMobile really stole the Uber meme for their Lyft #SuperBowlAds commercial.” “@tmobile stole a tweet!”
Except that wasn’t the case: T-Mobile CEO John Legere confirmed that the company did, in fact, pay @decentbirthday to use the Twitter joke as the ad’s inspiration.
The T-Mobile spot is an example of how viral tweets and jokes have real, tangible value for brands hoping to reach a younger, meme-devouring audience through advertising. The initial backlash to the ad, when viewers just assumed it was stolen, is also an example of something else: It still feels like the norm to swipe someone else’s online content without permission or payment rather than to pay for it. For that assumption we can largely thank the megapopular Instagram accounts @thefatjewish and @fuckjerry, who have been called out by comedians, writers, and other content creators for the way they built their followings — and in turn, their brands — on the backs of other people’s work.
Despite the criticism, nothing has really stopped their momentum. @thefatjewish and @fuckjerry continue to post other people’s work on their Instagram accounts with no pushback from the Facebook-owned platform. Thanks to years of stolen content, both self-identified “curators” have reaped handsome rewards in the form of book deals, alcohol brands, and ad dollars from big brands. More recently, FuckJerry surfaced in the news due to its involvement with Fyre Festival and the subsequent Netflix documentary about it. So I made a decision a little over a week ago: I’d had enough. That’s how #FuckFuckJerry was born, a hashtag that quickly grew into a full-fledged movement, with comedians from Amy Schumer to John Mulaney calling on their followers to unfollow the account.
A version of this conversation first sprung up in 2015, after news broke that @thefatjewish, whose real name is Josh Ostrovsky, had been signed to the Creative Artists Agency and also had a Comedy Central show in development. Considering Ostrovsky rose to Instagram fame thanks to other people’s funny content — posted without permission or payment, and for a long time, no attribution — comedians had a field day roasting him on Twitter, starting with a tweet from writer Maura Quint. “He is making a living off of the hard work of other people. They would love to be able to profit from THEIR OWN WORK but can’t because this complete waste of a person is monetizing their words before they even have a chance to,” Quint wrote. “This man makes nothing, contributes nothing, originates nothing, he is a leech, he is a virus, he is what is wrong with the world. Please please do not support him.” Ostrovsky later defended himself to Vulture, saying, “I didn’t realize that if you don’t have a source for something, then you couldn’t necessarily post it … I’m up on a lot of the newest shit first. So, if I didn’t realize all this about attribution and sources, there are probably other people who also don’t.”
But the @thefatjewish controversy was short and ultimately ineffective.
Ostrovsky went on to publish a book, launch a wine brand, and appear on various television shows. Meanwhile, FuckJerry, by far the biggest and most popular offender with over 14 million followers, was left out of the conversation. Founded by Elliot Tebele in 2011, the FuckJerry brand has since expanded to a network of accounts including his wife Jessica Tebele’s @beigecardigan (a rip-off of @browncardigan) and FuckJerry CCO James Ryan Ohliger’s @krispyshorts. Tebele has grown it into a social-media marketing agency (Jerry Media), earning $30,000 per sponsored post (as of a Forbes report in 2016) for brands like Burger King, Bumble, Hinge, Oprah, USA Network, Syfy, and more. The company also profits off its own products, including a popular Cards Against Humanity knockoff game called What Do You Meme as well as their own tequila brand, JAJA.
Then came Fyre Festival. Not only did FuckJerry’s company, Jerry Media (now Jerry Studios), do the social-media marketing for the scam event, it also produced the Netflix documentary about it that came out last month. Netflix’s Fyre conveniently skips over holding Jerry Media accountable for its role in the festival, resting all of the blame on Billy McFarland. Meanwhile, Hulu’s Fyre Festival documentary paints a different picture. Former employee Oren Aks reveals that Jerry Media deleted any critical or concerned Instagram comments leading up to the festival and blocked the users posting them, knowing full well that a disaster was about to unfold. It’s disturbing to know that Netflix decided Jerry Media was a trustworthy choice to tell the full story.
Soon after the Fyre documentaries, I checked out FuckJerry’s Instagram account and discovered it was running ads for Comedy Central stylized to look like stolen tweets — which, considering it’s a network that champions comedians’ work, twisted the knife a little too much for me. Between the documentaries and the Comedy Central ads, I was left with some nagging questions: Why were so many people watching FuckJerry’s Fyre documentary without noting the clear conflict of interest? Why were over 14.3 million people following an Instagram marketing account? And most importantly, why hasn’t FuckJerry been effectively called out and held accountable for all of its scammy, exploitative behavior?
I started poking around the @fuckjerry Instagram account, where I noticed even more shady practices. On top of using content from other creators, @fuckjerry regularly posts screenshots of tweets by comedians and everyday people and turns them into ads for its card game and tequila. I reached out to several of the people whose tweets were turned into ads, including Chase Mitchell and Alyssa Limperis, and they all confirmed that they were not asked, alerted, or paid for the ads. Writer and actor Ted Travelstead tweeted that the same thing happened to him when a tweet of his was turned into a What Do You Meme ad on the @beigecardigan Instagram account. “I knew my tweet was viral on his page, however, I didn’t know it was used as an advertisement on his Insta,” another Twitter user who got the FuckJerry ad treatment told me. “I was excited at first by the coverage, but I didn’t know it was used for profit. My whole identity is being used and that feels pretty dirty.”
So I decided to conduct an experiment: Since FuckJerry charges brands for ads based on its number of followers, why not at least try to get people to unfollow it by tweeting incessantly about it? Early on, comedian and 30 Rock alum Judah Friedlander suggested the hashtag #FuckFuckJerry, and we were off to the races.
By now, you might have read or observed what happened after that. Tim Heidecker, Patton Oswalt, and Vic Berger were the first comedians with large followings to urge their fans to unfollow the account, and after that it snowballed. Within a matter of days, a long list of supporters had joined the #FuckFuckJerry cause by posting on social media: John Mulaney, Whitney Cummings, Colin Hanks, Amy Schumer, Natasha Rothwell, Bobby Moynihan, Julie Klausner, Mike Birbiglia, Aparna Nancherla, Paul Scheer, Nick Thune, and Rachel Bloom were just a few of them. Notable people who previously followed the @fuckjerry Instagram account supported the cause by unfollowing, including Ronan Farrow, Antoni Porowski, Ben Schwartz, Phoebe Robinson, Lauren Lapkus, Eric Andre, Neal Brennan, Nikki Glaser, Busy Philipps, Perez Hilton, and Billy Eichner. Tim Heidecker even recorded a #FuckFuckJerry theme song, and Vic Berger made a video detailing FuckJerry’s thievery that, in a perfect twist, later received a copyright takedown request from Jerry Media’s James Ryan Ohliger, a.k.a. @krispyshorts.
My DMs filled with messages from comedians, writers, directors, actors, animators, and others whose content had been stolen by FuckJerry and were excited to see the movement take off. A man who said he’d been bullied by one of the FuckJerry guys during childhood reached out to tell me it was “personally validating” to watch the campaign’s popularity. An attorney offered his services to anyone who might be interested in taking legal action against the company for their stolen work. Another source leaked details about an MTV pilot FuckJerry had in the works in 2016, which offered a not-so-flattering look at what happens when the company is tasked with creating original content rather than pirating it from others. A former employee of another popular Instagram account similar to @fuckjerry thanked me for the campaign in an email, writing, “I think there are more people like me who are terrified of their shitty jobs in the brutal industry of media. This is why many of us are watching you, desperate for you to succeed, but scared to help.” Negative feedback was, surprisingly, almost nonexistent, save for a dummy Instagram account that defended FuckJerry by comparing it to the Louvre.
The campaign’s biggest progress occurred over the past weekend. Comedy Central announced they had pulled their ads from the account and said they had “no plans to advertise with Jerry Media in the future.” FuckJerry’s Instagram ticked from 14.3 million followers, to 14.2, to 14.1. #FuckFuckJerry encouraged over 250,000 unfollows of the account across the span of the campaign’s first few days, with over 132,000 unfollows on Saturday alone (thanks, John Mulaney!). And it wasn’t a campaign championed just by comedians — actors, YouTubers, artists, men who definitely aren’t actually wolves, Steak-umm (yes, Steak-umm), and smaller meme-creators who are tired of FuckJerry building a profitable empire on a foundation of stolen content all made noise on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The initial results of the campaign were covered by a handful of news outlets, and when it seemed like Super Bowl Sunday had put a damper on the momentum, Patton Oswalt urged people to keep going; Joe Rogan covered @fuckjerry and @thefatjewish on his podcast; and 24 hours later, @fuckjerry’s follower count ticked down again from 14.1 million to 14 million.
In response to the backlash, FuckJerry stopped posting as frequently on Instagram, archived hundreds of its posts, switched its Twitter account and @krispyshorts Instagram to private, and put an “Under Construction” notice on its website. Tebele even released a statement on Saturday, which most comedians and artists thought left much to be desired. While Tebele acknowledged that he’s “made enemies over the years for using content and not giving proper credit and attribution to its creators,” nowhere in his statement did he address a criticism put best by Akilah Hughes: “It’s not just about credit. It’s about compensation.” Reposting memes and jokes found on the internet on a personal Instagram account for fun is one thing, but profiting off that thanks to major brands’ ad dollars — not to mention using stolen content to advertise your own products — is another story. As Brian Feldman notes at Intelligencer, the @fuckjerry account has been violating Instagram’s Community Guidelines for years, but the company has taken no action to stop its long history of copyright infringement, likely because of all the engagement the account rakes in: “Tebele’s mortal sin is not just a few slip-ups here and there when it comes to proper attribution: it is in systematizing an economy of theft over a period of years. In a way, Instagram meme accounts are a (very depressing) version of organized crime.” (Instagram would not respond to a request for comment on this story.)
Tebele made some misleading claims in his statement — particularly that there were no “well-established norms” in “meme culture” for crediting creators for their work when @fuckjerry was reposting content in 2011, and that he’s made a “concerted, proactive effort to properly credit” and be “responsive” when creators reach out. Attribution is not a new concept, and reality tells a different story that comedians and others knew long before the past week. As recently as 2016 (one year after @thefatjewish was called out), Ohliger told comedian Vic Berger to “shut up” when he asked for his video to be credited or deleted. And hurling insults like “cumbucket of salt” and “virgin nerd” at critics doesn’t exactly paint a picture of a meme “curator” who claims to respect and be responsive to the creatives whose work has made him rich.
It remains to be seen whether or not the @fuckjerry Instagram account will continue to lose followers or if brands that have advertised with it will follow Comedy Central and Bumble’s lead and sever ties. Either way, the experiment made a dent. Throughout the past week, nearly 300,000 people learned that the Instagram account they once thought was just a silly, harmless collection of screenshots is actually a highly profitable marketing agency built on stolen content, and then made the choice to stop supporting it. I think that’s a pretty promising start.