by Brian Feldman
Over the weekend, Instagram celebrity The Fat Jew — real name Josh Ostrovsky — faced swift and concentrated denunciation over the content (“jokes”) he posts on his account — one-liners, supposedly funny pictures, lowest common denominator viral chaff. Ostrovsky, who swipes material from others without credit and does not make much of what he posts, is arguably the native Instagram celebrity, with 5.7 million followers. There are people with more followers on Instagram, but mostly because they were celebrities before they joined; the Fat Jew is wholly a product of and for Instagram.
The backlash followed news that Ostrovsky had signed with Creative Artists Agency, which reps A-list showbiz people, like George Clooney and Miley Cyrus. Ostrovsky had already inked a development deal with Comedy Central, become a spokesperson for Seamless, and launched “White Girl Rosé,” a perfectly unremarkable line of rosé. The Fat Jew’s poor sourcing, half-assed apologies, and seemingly bulletproof online presence have been complained about for years to seemingly no avail. But this past weekend, a coordinated effort to expose Ostrovsky as a joke thief managed to bring some mainstream attention to the plight of our most precious resource: struggling web-native comedians.
Given that Ostrovsky is beginning to drop the “internet” from “internet celebrity,” it’s worth looking at how he managed to succeed almost in spite of Instagram. Ostrovsky’s success is not the kind that the service is designed to cultivate: Ostrovsky filled a closed and controlled system with jokes and material extracted from elsewhere, rather than with his own photography — creating a personal brand that managed to showcase absolutely nothing personal — while the way he used the network contradicts its function as an airtight loop in which it is difficult to import, export, or move content, much less drive traffic elsewhere.
Hyperlinks, a basic feature of the internet, could have provided a chance for The Fat Jew to source his posts, if he were so inclined. Just post a link to where you found the thing! That’s it! But Instagram does not support hyperlinks — initially, because that wasn’t part of its goal, and currently, because of concerns about spam. In the beginning, the app, which was originally called Burbn, was pitched as “a new way to communicate + share in the real world” with features like location check-ins and event planning. But, founder Kevin Systrom recalled a few years ago in a Quora thread, it “felt cluttered, and overrun with features” so the company “basically cut everything in the Burbn app except for its photo, comment, and like capabilities. What remained was Instagram.”
The only working hyperlink Instagram now offers is a single URL field in users’ bios. This has led to the widely adopted workaround known as “Link in the bio” — a user mentions something in a post, and if they want to direct viewers elsewhere on the web, they just say “Link in the bio” and swap out whatever is in that field as necessary. It’s clunky as hell and requires constant maintenance. There is surely a better way: Tumblr, for instance, adopted a dedicated source field in its CMS, so that even if users deleted text from reblogs, the citation link remained constant and attached to the post. Instagram could add similar field in its upload process, but doing so would be an indirect admission/encouragement of users posting things that they didn’t create themselves. But instead, currently, even if the Fat Jew were diligent about tracking down the sources of his content, he would hardly have anywhere to make it apparent to his followers. (To be clear, none of this is to excuse his pilfering and profiteering, but to point out that Instagram’s first-party tech is woefully inadequate when it comes to citation.)
Unlike Instagram, other major social networks like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter all offer versions of reposts and quoting; Tumblr practically invented the form with reblogging, and Facebook quickly adopted a similar structure, allowing users to share media from other users on their own profiles while still allowing the original poster to maintain credit. It’s a defining lack of functionality for Instagram, but its absence hasn’t stopped users like The Fat Jew from finding a way around it in order to post others’ material without providing credit.
For a long time, Twitter’s reblog/quote function was the RT. At first that simply meant inserting “RT @username:” in front of a copy-pasted tweet. That gave way to an official Twitter retweet function, which essentially inserted the tweet into the feeds of people who don’t follow the author. This didn’t solve the problem entirely, since users were still using the old method in order to add comments to other people’s tweets — known as manually retweeting, it’s often a transparent way of jacking someone else’s work for your own gain.
people who write “RT” and copy/paste instead of using the retweet button are the same people who changed clothes in the toilet stalls at gym
— wint (@dril) December 20, 2012
That’s why earlier this year, Twitter introduced quoted tweets. Basically, posting a link to another tweet on Twitter will display the actual tweet, rather than a link to it. This nested form allows followers easy access to both the source tweet and the commentary building off of it.
At long last, all the functions are in place for users to interact with Twitter as they’ve grown accustomed to, without have to go outside of Twitter’s system to do it. They can quote and reshare other people’s work without stripping out the credit those creators deserve. It’s also very much worth noting that all of these functions on Twitter were created by users, and Twitter built better functionality in response to them. On Instagram, users who want to reshare other people’s pictures need to use third-party services like Regram, a service so pervasive that it has already become a verb; adding repost functionality has become a cottage industry.
Other platforms contain these processes in order to make it easy to share other users’ content while letting creators retain authorship. If a user wanted to remove the source link on Tumblr, or credit on Facebook, or credit for a one-liner on Twitter, they would have to save that content locally and then create a new post. In other words, if people wanted to scrub ownership from someone else’s work, they would need to put in more effort to do so. Instagram, on the other, works in the exact opposite way.
The Fat Jew and his ilk — Fuck Jerry, Beige Cardigan, Betches and other shitpic peddlers — have no doubt kept a lot of users coming back to Instagram, likely even a substantial portion of the three hundred million monthly active users that the site boasts. For years now, Instagram has served up sponsored posts to those users, bringing in revenue for itself and its parent company, Facebook, while taking little action in response to how users actually behave on its service. It believes that if it deprives users of certain tools, users will change their behavior to fit Instagram’s narrow view of how the service should work. It simply does not account for those that don’t. The Fat Jew might be hiding behind Instagram’s lack of functionality and profiting because of it, but he’s not the only one. Instagram is too.
Stolen material from The Fat Jew via Storify