When I was in college I joked with a friend of mine that there were so many bands online that we could start a band that covered all of our favorite indie songs and build a fanbase that had no idea we weren’t writing our own material. We never did it, but it turns out we’re not the only ones who had the idea.
Josh Ostrovsky, aka The Fat Jew, has been taking the same tactic except, instead of music, it’s with jokes and internet ephemera. He’s made a name for himself on Twitter and Instagam (to the tune of millions of bankable followers) by appropriating work from other people and actively hiding or obfuscating that someone else made it. In simple terms, stealing.
To be clear upfront, this is the problem people have with him. It isn’t his name, it isn’t the frivolousness of the content he posts, it’s only that he’s taking it from other people – without credit – and amassing wealth and fame because of it. Now that he’s been signed by CAA (the agency who reps Tom Cruise, Anna Kendrick and many others) and gotten a deal with Comedy Central, the backlash against his legitimization has begun in earnest. The signpost of which can be seen in this plea from @behindyourback being shared widely:
The focused criticism is clear, righteous and valid.
The largely unspoken criticism is one based on fear: that Ostrovsky is a symbol of the internet’s core weakness. There’s an ease of theft that allows for and even incentivizes stealing jokes before disappearing into the fog of LOL. The formula here is to gain a lot of followers by repurposing content from all over the web (a virtually untraceable lattice work filled with every wacky dog picture your friends retweet and every Trump meme your uncle forwards). After you get all those followers, you sell your broadcasting space to advertisers who want access to those numbers. Then, profit.
Sorry, underpants gnomes. Turns out it’s simple.
To be clear again, by not attributing the joke or the image to its original author, it’s plagiarism, which is theft. It’s amazing how people cannot grasp this concept. In defense of the backlash I’ve seen people claim that what he’s doing isn’t that bad (it’s just exploiting the people who create what he profits on), that he’s no different from comedians (except they make what they sell and work hard to sell it), that he’s only one person utilizing a broken system (wait, that’s true).
The reality is that one of the internet’s ills, blown up to Godzilla proportions by social media, is the ability for any rando to appropriate jokes and images and stories from a vast ocean and submit it back into that ocean under his own label. Which is why I understand the defensive crouch for some people who see what he’s doing reflected back at them. How many times have they shared something they thought was funny? How many times do they even know what the original source was in the tangle of internet tubes? The difference, of course, being that Ostrovsky isn’t merely retweeting or sharing from someone else’s Instagram page. He’s taking it, cutting their name off, and reposting it.
Even then, maybe you don’t see that as being all that bad. He’s become a hub for content. He’s become internet famous. Who cares. However, the line he crossed after the first five he crossed is that he’s cashing in. He’s monetized. He’s a museum curator pretending he painted everything on the wall, and now people in positions of power are taking that seriously.
Of course, some people (Comedy Central) are taking the backlash seriously, too; they’ve dropped his project. Good for them. It’s unclear what he could have brought to the development process, anyway, considering that he’s shown no skill at crafting his own material.
This is the natural evolution of the new brand of fame.
When Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian got famous for being famous, people scoffed and rolled their eyes, but at least they were the ones making what they were selling (themselves, their personalities, whatever). While an underclass of celebrity bottom feeders became mildly famous in their own right by obsessively writing about the new breed of aggressively public celebrities – people who maintain and grow their celebrity by staying as conspicuous as possible – a new breed of popular entities has now emerged. I’ll call them stealebrities, because I have no self respect, but you get the picture. It’s become a viable job choice to become an aggregator. To earn an audience (and money) by collecting and displaying things that you didn’t make.
It’s great that Comedy Central has realized their error with Ostrovsky, and I hope CAA recognizes that they’re representing someone capable only of following comedians on Twitter, but I’m still generally pessimistic about this new breed’s fate. They will conquer. Or, at least, they’ll continue thriving.
For one, it’s far too easy to copy/paste someone’s words instead of retweeting them. Far too easy to chop off a username from a message and repost it fresh. Even as advertisers grow more concerned with image and reputation (as opposed to pure numbers), it’s still too easy to find brands who relish the opportunity to reach 5 million people directly (and often clandestinely). It’s also not likely that the dent being put in the system or the unearned dollars being claimed by Ostrovsky will be enough to stop genuine creators from creating all the stuff he ends up stealing.
If my college friend and I had actually started our cover band, we would have been able to gain only as much fame as awareness of the other bands would allow. There’s a safeguard there. People start to notice as you get bigger. Ostrovsky may not be able to crack the code beyond internet fame, but that’s more than enough to thrive. He can continue selling his followers to the highest bidder and making his rent.
But the real nail in the coffin is that corporations are doing almost exactly what Ostrovsky is. If a company (even a media company) sees a cool video they like, they can use it to make free money on Facebook. The views on re-uploaded videos constitutes views in the billions each quarter.
The nature of our relationship with art and authorship is changing, and has been changing, and Ostrovsky’s rise and incipient downfall is only one indication of that change. It’s the latest signal that the marketplace is overrun with consumers who demand to be entertained, but who either don’t value the very things that interest and entertain them, don’t care that someone, somewhere had to create them, or don’t understand the true value of creation – from a grin-worthy comment on Twitter to a multi-million-dollar film.
Theft has been a part of art since the beginning, and it’s been profitable just as long, but hiding your theft has always been a necessary component of making that success work. Now, for maybe the first time, social media has allowed for some to cultivate an audience that openly don’t care that the content is being lifted. They want a human RSS feed and don’t mind occasionally being sold Doritos for the privilege.
Thus, the true test of whether this is a genuinely new phenomenon will be in whether Ostrovsky can maintain the strength of his followers even as he loses his development deals. I have a sinking feeling that he’ll do just fine.