The Limits of Extremely Online Organizing

The remarkable #FuckFuckJerry has been as successful as a spontaneous campaign can be.

A crowd of people hold up their phones.
Charles Platiau / Reuters

The setup to this story can be contained in a few sentences that would have made no sense a decade ago, but that now make perfect sense.

There is an Instagram account called FuckJerry, which grew by taking jokes and memes created by other people and posting them, eventually growing an audience hungry for ever more jokes. The account spawned a media company, Jerry Media, and desperate ad executives from the world’s biggest companies now pay to be seen on FuckJerry, on the premise that that’s where they’ll reach young people who don’t have their eyeballs on the places they used to.

FuckJerry embodies some essential component of life online now—the same principle that leads everyday people to repost “BREAKING” tweets and treacly Facebook videos about cops giving kids ice cream. You can’t create the most popular content every day—but you can definitely see what it is and simply repost that. Some algorithm sees that post did well for you, and some number changes on a server in Ireland and your next post is slightly more likely to do a little bit better. Do that pretty well with other people’s jokes 5,000 times and you’ve got FuckJerry.

Creators of funny things have long hated the account, along with the many, many similar viral aggregators. And it was in that context that the #FuckFuckJerry campaign began, as described by its creator, Megh Wright, in New York magazine. Wright’s request was that people unfollow the account as a start to dismantling its unjust profit machine. “It wasn’t a campaign championed just by comedians,” Wright wrote, “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.”

#FuckFuckJerry’s villain was unlikable. The downside to unfollowing was tiny. The entreaties powering the boycott were funny and well done. Celebrities with major followings got on board. The campaign worked about as well as a campaign like it could.

And here’s what the effect was: FuckJerry went from 14.3 million followers to 14 million. The larger system of other rip-off accounts appears to be untouched. Comedy Central pulled its ads from the account.

FuckJerry’s creator, Elliot Tebele, responded with a Medium post promising that, going forward, the account would both credit jokes and get “advanced permission” before using material.

And so it was that #FuckFuckJerry ended up in the same boat as #DeleteFacebook and, before that, #DeleteUber: worthy, impassioned protests that have not changed underlying economic structures.

The sociologists Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport have studied the ways that protest tactics and schemes have spread out of political culture and into other spaces, especially entertainment. They coined the phrase ubiquitous movement practices to describe how petitions, boycotts, and the like—once tactics used solely for political goals—are now deployed across all kinds of social and cultural concerns, from trying to ensure that Family Guy remains on the air to trying to get the Postal Service “to issue a Marx Brothers stamp.”

The economic system undergirding the influencer economy—the advertising agencies, marketers, companies—wants the FuckJerrys of the world to exist. So do the big platforms, which profit from these accounts’ ability to serve up and accelerate crowd-pleasing memes. The obvious way to target the system is to withhold the currency of the realm, which could be money or attention. And boycotts—even ones that don’t truly disrupt a business—can work because companies are concerned with their reputation.

But many of the recent attempts to reform individuals or platforms have had no organization attached to the boycott. “The ability to use digital tools to rapidly amass large numbers of protesters with a common goal empowers movements,” wrote the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci in 2017. “Once this large group is formed, however, it struggles because it has sidestepped some of the traditional tasks of organizing.” Networked protests, as Tufekci calls them, offer new possibilities for creating change, but she has “also seen movement after movement falter because of a lack of organizational depth and experience, of tools or culture for collective decision making, and strategic, long-term action.”

The most effective online campaigners, such as Color of Change, have an organizational infrastructure for applying pressure on their targets alongside viral mobilizations.

This is no knock on Wright or the promoters of the various boycotts. They’ve shown that there is demand for reform, and harnessed the latent anger of creators. Now comes the other part.

Really going after FuckJerry would require implicating the whole economic system of attention. In a world in which distribution power gets built through viral influence by any means, the FuckJerrys of the world will exist.

In the 20th century, the historian Jeffrey Hornstein argues, we became, as the title of his book puts it, a nation of realtors: Buying into the housing market meant buying into the country’s ideals, but also its less laudable economic practices. The online equivalent is that we’ve become a nation of influencers. To participate in public debate, tell jokes, or make art, one must also produce consumable posts that create the distribution pipe for your actual work. Some people use that power to sell flat-tummy tea or sneakers or hotel stays in the Maldives, but most people are just trying to sell themselves.

To live among the extremely online is to buy into this hierarchy of meaning. What grates is not just that FuckJerry is doing something wrong, but that it’s gotten so popular doing it. It’s cheated! But what if it’s not so much cheating as a revelation of the true nature of the game?