We all love social media and having a fun, good time with all of our anonymous friends making jokes about Ice Plums or whatever nonsense our serotonin receptors are demanding. It’s a place where the President of our country tries to start a new world war but also where we edit funny songs behind video of Nazis getting punched or loop Porgs shouting. To paraphrase Monty Python: it is a silly place.
It’s also an outlet where comedy is thriving and where we can discover new important voices. It’s also a lawless wild west where taking control of your creations can become a full time job. I was woefully unaware of how terrible this could be until I unknowingly became a part of it.
In early November, I saw that a Twitter Friend was selling a shirt through their Threadless store that I found funny. The t-shirt had a joke on it about musician Sufjan Stevens, who once started a project that promised to do a different concept album for all fifty states in the country. He has released two. It is a funny joke for fans of regional singer-songwriter multi-instrumentalist concept albums. (Or, if you’ve followed breaking news, are real into dudes that turned down minor roles in Call Me By Your Name.)
I bought the shirt. I put on the shirt. I took a photo in the shirt.
Then the picture was retweeted 1000 times.
To back up, the Twitter friend was the way I use that term loosely that annoys my wife when I say “A Twitter friend is coming to stay with us” and then I have to admit that I do not know this person at all. In this case, the account in question was called Dread Singles (@hottestsingles) and it is an anonymous account that mostly does all caps Lovecraftian sex posts. I know; it’s a very mainstream kind of humor that everyone of all ages loves and celebrates. I’m fairly certain I found the account for the first time after Joss Whedon retweeted it. Anyway, we have similar Humor Brands and are the sort of friends that will occasionally say “Good joke!” like two sportsmen doing butt-pats after a good play. But we’d never spoken as people.
A weird thing that comes from a “viral” tweet you’re both tagged in is that you and a stranger can suffer a weird postmodern hellscape together. There’s the basic stages of Shit This Tweet Is Doing Well, which include being tagged in lots of tweets that just say “Haha” or something to that effect. Then you have the second phase where people want to let you know that there is a problem with the thesis of your joke. In this case, some folks believe that one of Sufjan’s albums should count as an album about Oregon.
In response, this shirt was created.
Sure, why not respond to everything by monetizing it. Hell yeah, capitalism. And beyond this, there were certainly folks who responded with annoying tags or seemingly deliberate misunderstandings or any of the other stock situations you would expect from a tweet that more than just your actual friends can see. Me and the person behind the t-shirt began DM’ing and sharing jokes about this stupid situation we had created for ourselves. There were jokes about how often I had to let folks know where they could buy the joke shirt or could correct them that it wasn’t my joke, just a joke I enjoyed.
My wife, before I even took the picture, asked “Who is this joke for?” The answer, I assumed, was “no one” but then the tweet did well. And then the next thing happened, which blew my mind.
Robots stole the funny t-shirt about the emotional music person and his failure at delivering on promises.
I started seeing @hottestsingles issuing legal threats in my mentions. Sure, I hated a lot of the response I got, but I wasn’t sure what was happening. Turns out, Twitter has a level of Bot Nonsense that when people start at-replying with questions about where they can buy something, said bots will duplicate the art and begin selling it from other online stores.
To recap: a joke about Sufjan Stevens was on a shirt I took a picture in, and Twitter has a nightmare structure that allows an autonomous and far reaching system to begin selling stolen designs.
From a distance, I’d seen this happen to people who made, say, Tumblr art and then found that large retailers had directly ripped off their graphic design or jewelry or what have you. But I’d never seen it happen to something I was wearing and had tagged the creator in from the start. This is when my friendship with the person behind the Dread Singles account began to border on concerning: they were spending entire days just having to issue various takedown requests to companies and bot-based retailers, asserting their ownership of the property of a shirt that displays a joke that is for no one.
I knew that things like this were an issue in social media, I’d just never felt responsible for it. So that’s when me and the account creator began to talk in a real way.
His name is Jordan Shiveley and he’s a cool fun nice type of dude. We have a lot of things in common and we started to talk as actual human friends and I bought a few other shirts from him. I also was shocked that the shirt going viral translated into almost no further sales, despite the number of folks tweeting and demanding to know where they could buy said shirt. We joked about the shirt winding up on some Sufjan shit-posting board where a commentator was angry about the tacky font used. Jordan DM’d to say that this cut him directly because the font in use was actually a font whose creation he’d Kickstarted. I said that “Fuck you, I kickstarted that font” should be his next shirt because that’s the only joke for less people than this Sufjan joke.
But what was becoming apparent was that fighting the technological uphill battle against this theft system was becoming a full time job for someone that had a full time job. I started apologizing and Jordan informed me this wasn’t my fault, but also this was something he’d suffered through with some frequency before. William Gibson had retweeted a shirt and, obviously/hilariously, that’s what bots first stole from Jordan.
This lead to Jordan having to reach out individually to companies and accounts to demand they remove the shirt. The most telling exchange is screencapped below, where a company seems to initially hear the request to remove the shirt and then threatens to hire the most expensive lawyer imaginable in order to sue him for rights to his own joke. Again, admittedly, over jokes that are for such a specific audience that the audience does not exist.
“You’ve had some moderate success and you’re beginning to have this glimmer of hope, that maybe, just maybe this is going to become something,” Jordan tells me about what happens in this recurring process. “Then it’s taken away. You still have your modest success but you see these people who have more time or whatever flogging the thing you created and to all appearances (likes, shares, whatever) reaping all the reward that you had been inching towards. Because they wrote a fucking bot or a data mining program or whatever.”
Jordan confirmed to me that this wasn’t a personal issue, but that he has lived at a point where he gets to witness it from a perspective between “success” and “normal creator.” The level of high performing posts are somehow tracked by this, but the machinations for translating it into physical objects is still a poorly defined (and therefore poorly defended against) system.
“I’ve had friends’ / acquaintances’ designs ripped off all over the place, even by Urban Outfitters, and I always thought that’s shitty but I guess that’s the cost of being on the low end of the market in a digital age,” Jordan says, echoing the high level versions of this I always considered to be the only version of this IP theft online. “I always thought that if it ever happened to me I would respond with that type of logical equanimity but… nope.”
And that gets into the echo system that makes this even worse. Once a single bot begins to steal, it seems that all the other bots are programmed to keep that ball rolling. “They immediately make many identical pages across the different t-shirt platforms,” Jordan says. and then have bots start tweeting links at all the people who have responded to you, the original poster. Then when confronted/reported they either bluster back or take it down and post it again, over and over and over.”
It’s a goddamned horror show. Why would anyone bother making or sharing anything like this if the treatment is to get Borg-ed to death by self-reselling merch sites? You can threaten legal action but to what degree does a robot or the captain of an army of robots need to listen to you? What do they have to fear and what do you need to do to just stamp out an area that you can call your own, creatively?
“They obviously know that I have no financial recourse to take them to court but they decide to be a bully as well as a thief,” Jordan says. There’s a mix of being a dick and being A Dick here that reduces my belief in humanity by at least ten percent. And that’s before noting how often Jordan gets the retort of “Everyone else is stealing it too.”
I feel ignorant, because I’d watched this happen on so many scales and in different mediums before, but having been tangential to this shit show is what made me care. Because I made a real friend go through the process of fake people stealing a few words of a joke mixed with a simple design that should’ve just been a funny detail on a shirt that a dozen people over the course of my life would point to and say, flatly, “Ha.” Or would really get it. I don’t know, it feels difficult at this point because the shirt is a reminder of totally screwing up someone’s life for more than a week.
I feel bad because this is the stupidest thing I can imagine, but also because this seems to be a prominent threat to a system that comedy thrives upon. That’s why I ask Jordan if he forgives me.
“Of course, there is nothing to forgive,” he says. “The adage of there is no bad press is true in this case. Even with all the bots and theft a high performing post like yours still nets me more sales than if it hadn’t happened. I will always happily take the sales, new hopefully repeat customers and followers as the sweet that goes with the bitter and eventually learn to take the bad in stride as well.”
Jordan sends me this response, and almost immediately after finds a new site ripping off a shirt. I don’t know why he keeps fighting this, except for the principal of the thing. And you don’t expect to find a random internet friend who’ll teach you a new appreciation for principles.
Jordan Shively is on Twitter and has a Threadless store.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.