It’s hard to look around our world in 2019 and say that the cyberpunk prophets of the 1980s were way off. In fact it is quite impossible to say so. Pretty much everything they set down to paper has been born out in reality today: grimy urban sprawl, widening inequality, simultaneous mass loneliness and disappearing privacy, lethal drug epidemics, household objects that can be hacked and turned against their owners, decline of contentment and a rise of anxiety either from abundance of freedom or the lack of it, vanishing employment, vanishing independence, vanishing birthrates, encroaching sea levels, political order hanging by a thread, etc., etc.
In a way, this would have been fine. Having foreseen this emerging world, we can also own it. But as ever, there is a hitch. It turns out that this was the optimistic assessment. What our bold sages missed 35 years ago was how stupid the future would be. This sounds a bit like I’m saying Mike Judge’s Idiocracy was more right after all, but that, too, was optimistic. His film has a striking aw shucks lack of guile that adds some Gomer Pyle to the Neuromancer blueprints.
Unfortunately the stupidity of 2019 is far cruder, pettier, more stubborn, and totally unaware of itself. It’s the kind of stupidity where corporate brands tweet about depression or where presidential candidates stake their election on how viral they can make themselves go. Our stupidity has immense power over our attention. It can make trivial distractions seem important and push our top priorities far out into the boondocks. It can fool us into thinking that what little happiness we still have is completely compromised or vastly expanded by this One Neat Trick. It persuades us that everything we could hope for is just past that goalpost while also pushing that goalpost further back ad infinitum. Most of all it takes our time. It parades through our feeds, timelines, and our conversations either for weeks on end or for minutes that seem like days. We looked out at our scorched, lonely future and thought “At least it’s not dumb,” then found stupidity was the first to arrive and ready to prove us wrong. No parade of stupidity is more symbolic of its total control over us than the one parading around us right now.
You may or may not know the social media account that goes by @fuckjerry. It is run by Elliot Tebele, a sort of cyber-hoarder from Brooklyn who compulsively gathered images off the internet that amused him in some way and disseminated them with little rhyme or reason onto a Tumblr page. When he transferred over to Instagram, his meme library became immensely popular; like, the over-14-million-followers kind of popular. He now makes up to $30,000 for posts sponsored by Burger King, Tinder, or Warner Bros. The success has ascended the account into a full-on marketing firm, expanding from social media posts to news and film production. To wit, they turned their Fyre Festival lemons into viral lemonade when they produced one of the two documentaries on the famed non-event this year.
Yet no success sits well with everybody. Jerry Media has acquired what used to be a small but vocal chorus of detractors who took issue with Tebele’s “curation,” which to them amounts to little more than lifting memes from random internet accounts and reposting them with no source attribution. It’s essentially what he’s always done, except now he makes a living doing it, yet in the last week, that chorus has swelled into a tsunami of censure, with one person surfing confidently at its crest.
Like Tebele, Vic Berger IV is something of a digital collector. He collects videos of public figures, particularly public figures who are widely disliked, reorders their sequence, removes context, and adds annoying sound effects like air-horns. The desired outcome is something approaching comedy. One of his favorite targets is Mike Cernovich, whose rambling YouTube and Periscope monologues are made more crankish and scatterbrained through Berger’s technique. Cernovich’s totally reasonable, good-humored, and proportionate response of accusing Berger of being a pedophile only served to increase Berger’s profile and his standing among comedians. Jerry Media also took a shine to Berger, going so far as to lift one of his videos without his consent. When Berger DM’d Jerry Media’s James Ryan Ohliger (aka @krispyshorts) to at least get credit, Ohliger told him to “shut up.”
Jerry Media’s below-level curation tactics have been known for years, but the Fyre Festival limelight gave greater voice to their detractors. Berger trended the hashtag #FuckFuckJerry, which went viral with the help of comediands like Patton Oswalt, Jen Kirkman, and Paul F. Tompkins. Tim Heidecker wrote a song for it. Berger spliced interviews and promotional videos from Jerry Media in his trademark unflattering style. When Ohliger, in a technically just but not very self-aware move, flagged the video for copyright infringement on YouTube, Berger’s fans reposted it on Vimeo and Reddit. As of now, the @fuckjerry Instagram account has lost 300,000 followers.
At least on the surface there’s nothing here that the most reasonable person could find stupid. Building a business model on screencapping Twitter jokes and mems is both idiotic and lazy; it is only sensible that they be stood up to by their most effective counterweight. That’s certainly one way to look at it, and not entirely wrong, but the whole framing of the conflict loses much of its potency the more you think about it. The conflict between Jerry and Berger (#JerryBerger?) is centered on control. Precisely what they want to control, however, is not entirely clear.
The meme is an ambiguous medium. It combines the rough intimacy and purity of folk art with the communal messaging of advertising; on the digital plain, a single meme can reach thousands of eyeballs in a matter of minutes. Memes survive by replication. A single joke is told and retold with only slight variation. Memes also borrow from preexisting creative work—photos, video stils, .GIFS, etc.—to accentuate the joke. Memes have less to do with craft or creation than with popular resonance. Few know who first created Slender Man, but most understand what Slender Man signifies. A copyright lawyer could spend an entire career untangling the weeds of meme ownership; but Jerry Media understood this environment enough to exploit it with ruthless opportunism. They monetized something everyone enjoyed but for which very few expected to ever be paid.
But while Jerry Media was made by memes, they can just as easily be broken by them. Even if the firm right themselves into a more ethical path, as they claim to want to do, there’s nothing stopping more sophisticated “curators” from improving on their model. The Twitter account @dasharez0ne has over 130,000 followers. It has earned a great deal of press for its brand of crude computer graphics, dark irony, and popular angst. Much of what they create is aesthetically and tonally inert, but it is at least created and admired among smart and hip web denizens. If whoever is running the account doesn’t ascend into marketing, there is likely no shortage of shrewd bystanders willing and ready to appropriate their style.
The complexity of memes and the environment in which they thrive takes a lot of air out of Berger’s crusade in the long run. Indeed, Berger’s problems with format theft and replication may only just be beginning.
For the longest time I was very perplexed by fact that anyone thought Vic Berger’s videos were funny, let alone many people. Taking stock in the swath of mainstream comedy, however, which prides indignation, smarm, and humor in that order, it makes more sense. At the root of Berger’s appeal is his talent for target selection. He zeroes in on anyone unpopular and reviled among his fanbase and sets them up for easy ridicule using their own words. I would be shocked if he is not tapped by the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee’s campaign to produce his brand of satire on an official basis. Even so, that his style is easily duplicated. Turning Point USA could borrow his tricks to appeal to that sliver of hipster Republicans; or any old tech-savvy school bully can take just as much inspiration. In an era where everyone is a content creator, anyone is subject to some other content creator’s indignation, righteous or otherwise.
The conflict between Vic Berger and Jerry Media is less like David versus Goliath and more like Ragnarok. Both parties ultimately find themselves fighting amongst each other surrounded by the waste and flames of the world they each had a hand in creating. If it makes you feel any better, things are going to get a lot dumber before they get worse.