Yes, Fyre Fest was a thing that was both funny and sad. Also, it is boring, there are a million trivial takes and possible interviews with influencers.
The real story is about Fuck Jerry, the instagram/facebook account that trafficked in stolen content. When I first talked with students about the idea of Fuck Jerry as an agency account a few years ago, there was some incredulity. Most of the time my students are pretty with it, this was one of those times when they weren’t. The idea that a pretty funny meme page based on a joke from Parks and Recreation was really a strategic actor was just not going to compute. This morning it seemed like a patently obvious idea to them that all insta pages are strategic deceptions. Times change.
The story here is about the rise of Fuck Jerry and what it says about social media strategy. Why does this company exist? Why was Comedy Central paying for Jerry Media (the polite name for Fuck Jerry) to steal jokes from their creators? What can we do about these bad actors? And why does Facebook allow them to run amok?
Why were they getting paid?
For those of you not in this world, you can make money with a well-liked Instagram account, like $30,000 a post. That was something of a special premium for this account, generally think a few hundred. The problem here is that content is stolen. For what it is worth, they promise to stop stealing. If they do this, I predict that they will face the same fate as everyone else: failure.
Aggregation as a business model is nothing new. Huffington Post boxed and resold content regularly. Google News packaged headlines and briefs to capture traffic, do we actually know how Google News works or why they claim it is worth so much — well no. Upworthy tried the same thing, but with uplifting content (how many times do we need to hear the same old “good news” pitch), only to fail when their nonsense got boring. Take a look at the big image I am using on this post, Jazzy, this became popular with the Vaporwave community which is why it is used by Jerry Media — they didn’t convince us to enjoy faux nostalgia, this was the basis of a decade old musical movement. Ramona Xavier’s brilliant 2011 album, Floral Shoppe (as Macintosh Plus) is the key.
So now you get that they steal tons of content from awesome people, but why do they get paid to do that?
This is my new graphic for this that explains that weird intersection of a dual product and a two-sided market:
Platforms make money when they can sell themselves to you, the user. This is where the narrative of “addiction fails” people use platforms because they enjoy them, when they stop being fun, they stop posting. Think about your experience of Facebook after the 2016 election: this likely marked a major change in how you talk online. People post less and have less fun. These platforms are not magical, people really need a reason to keep using them. There are things that make you want to use the platform: good feels from family, and things that make you want to burn it with fire like fake news and MLM solicitations from desperate people. This is where bad actors like Jerry Media come in.
Why do platforms allow this?
The role of an aggregator like Jerry is not as a buyer, although they may need to buy seed to “go viral.” They are also not a user, they are a strategic corporate actor who is paid by a third party and abetted by the Platform as they make the “first sale” in the market: the sale of the feed to you. They routinely provide a stream of moderately high quality content at what is near zero cost (the content is lifted from other comics) which can fill all the gaps in the flow. In this hybrid market, firms like Jerry become like the syndicated program producers of the past, they just spam in decent content to fill time. Facebook doesn’t want to do this, and it is expensive to produce new content. These firms provide a crucial ecosystem service at the expense of third parties who are not a part of the platform.
You might think: isn’t this what copyright law is for? And the answer is kind of, but not really. Lawyers are really expensive and unlike the record industry chasing content off YouTube there doesn’t seem to be enough horsepower in the joke and meme industry to sue. More important, depending on how they deploy the borrowed content, it may be fair use. Basically, this would be way too costly.
And attribution (the idea that the aggregator would say who invented the joke) really doesn’t help. The traffic needs to be driven to the correct accounts to matter in the first place. Instead of it being: hey here is a great toy I found somewhere, it is hey this is a brand name toy in a box that fell off a truck. In neither case is the sale made.
The Broader Context
The last few weeks have been brutal in the media industries. Heavy layoffs have hit hard, even in the bastion of digital power, Buzzfeed. People are now coming to the realization that without a natural floor in the market caused by distribution difficulties, the market capacity to finance journalism is basically zero. The news was a positive externality of an inefficient communication system.
Jerry Media is in this space because they have again demonstrated that disruption is about offering the minimally sufficient replacement product. In a world where the platforms have a structural incentive to allow filler accounts to produce feeds of junk that just sort of is there (like stripped sitcoms at 5pm in the olden days) they can drink the margin from the content industries. The problem here is that the platforms are also in trouble.
Facebook is slowly using daily active users and is increasingly forthcoming about the number of fakes — they publicly say about 10% (some folks think the number is far higher). Their revenue spread is increasingly ad driven, at now 98%. In the past, partner payments from “friendly fraud” helped more. For reference, ad revenue at FB was only 85% in 2009. I would guess that in the golden days of FB it was closer to 70%, or at least that is the number I thought I knew at that time. If you dig deeply into Facebook’s SEC filings, you will notice that they are not really focused on that product anymore, the game is in Messenger, Insta, and What’s App. Amazon is the army at the gate, now the third largest player in the ad space. Facebook acknowledges that payments is a dying product: their ambitions to a bank are coming to an end. Facebook users an opaque measurement, so we really don’t know about platform health. And to be completely frank, people just don’t trust Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, or Facebook.
Facebook now is about three times the size of CBS and Netflix (yes those companies have the same revenue), less than half the size of Comcast, a quarter the size of Google, and a sixth the size of Apple. Facebook is a profitable player, but this seems like the “good old days,” future anterior.
How to fix this?
First, buyers need to stop paying for these mezzo content accounts. Comedy Central finally stopped paying Jerry. Stop paying 30k for a post of questionable provenance on Insta and things will be better for everyone. This is a lot like the death of programmatic in the last few years: if an ad product is bad, you can stop paying for it.
Second, users can start getting their content directly from purveyors. Yes, these aggregation accounts are easy, but they really are like the network TV “best of the web” formats from 2005. Why do we need a show to curate what we see on our computers? Tosh.O is the example of how this can be done successfully, which involves quite a bit of skillful writing and a really solid presenter. Go to your favorite magazine websites, follow your favorite people. It isn’t hard.
Third, Facebook (and I mean them directly, not a metaphor here) needs to think hard about the quality of the feed. Just as depending on Facebook for your lunch has been devastating for creators, the role of these aggregator and regrann accounts is risky for Facebook. Mother Jones released their data, and in the post-2016 election zone, Facebook dramatically reduced the visibility of MoJo. Facebook wants to believe that people just didn’t like news, not that they screwed up by allowing bad actors to do whatever. File this under: Facebook has no idea how Facebook actually works. Google may suffer the same fate. By this I mean that they are seemingly oblivious to the social logic and cultural motive of the platform. Better flows on FB and Insta would eliminate the space in the market for bad actors like Fuck Jerry. Perhaps with all their analytical power, they could see what was trending from Jerry and promote the originals instead. Using these intermediaries to fill the feed is a lazy, sloppy solution that is producing real negative externalities.
Aggregator models are persistent in this space, and they should be dismantled, quickly and often. Platforms need flows of content, and aggregators realize that they can provide that content by ripping it off. Sometimes platforms decide to allow this strategy to flourish because it is nice when problems with the feed solve themselves. Jerry didn’t invent this strategy and they will not be the last. It is important that over time we get smarter about this particular cleavage in the market and work to stabilize actors who produce and promote excellent content. If platform level agents wait too long, there won’t be enough of these basic feedstocks left to sustain the platforms. After all, content is key to democracy. What we is basic support for those who provide good content. Failed markets need to be fixed.