The Problem of Twitter Joke Theft
Have you seen that tweet suggesting a reboot of The Addams Family starring Oscar Isaac and Eva Green? It was a very popular idea and it spread across the internet like wildfire. I thought it was a cool suggestion, a fitting one by fan-casting standards, and would totally be up for the idea. The only problem is that I have no clue whose idea it originally was. I’ve seen that exact tweet - the same photographs, the same words, even the same punctuation - at least a dozen times over the past couple of years. It’s never the same account twice, and often the tweet is seemingly new, only a couple of days old, even though the message itself predates it. Other accounts just lift the tweet verbatim and repost it in order to reap the like and retweet benefits. More and more, I see other users calling the tweet out as blatant plagiarism in the replies, but it does little to reduce the number of retweets. They say people like to experience the same things over and over, but even by that reasoning, this has all become rather ridiculous.
Twitter joke theft is the ultimate game of low stakes and high emotions. It’s also a system with remarkably sophisticated labour behind the scenes. Buzzfeed recently posted an article revealing the surprising amount of work that goes into this level of tweet theft and promotion. The model, nicknamed tweetdecking, involves an incredibly organised system of mass retweeting through various Tweetdeck groups. This can lead to tens of thousands of retweets and possibly millions of views, essentially forcing a viral message. Many of these Tweetdeck groups have made thousands of dollars through charging for the service, and their workers tend to be in their teens and early twenties.
Tweetdecking is an explicit violation of Twitter’s spam policy, which forbids users from trying to ‘sell, purchase, or attempt to artificially inflate account interactions.’ The problem has also exacerbated the joke theft issue, as most of those forced viral tweets were blatantly lifted from other users. The site has tried to clamp down on this in the past, but as we’ve all witnessed, Twitter is not a platform that excels at doing the right thing. This practice isn’t just popular with people who want to go viral and get internet famous; it’s been harnessed by brands to spread the message too.
Accounts like Tweet Like a Girl, Sex Facts of Life, Not Will Ferrell, and the infamous Dory are able to charge potentially thousands of dollars for a mere tweet. A Buzzfeed piece detailed how @TweetLikeAGirl worked with the YA adaptation If I Stay and got a tweet with the trailer over 4m impressions. David Rhodes, who runs several Twitter parody accounts, claimed that someone in his line of work could easily make 6 figures a year. Between joke theft and the quiet commodification of tweeting, it’s no wonder so many users are pissed off.
A lot of users don’t even know they’re being marketed to with tweets like this. They see a silly joke or something that raised a smile and just mindlessly click the retweet button without thinking about it. Technically, it doesn’t break any rules, although it leaves you wondering about how deep stuff like this goes. Most tweets like those that were stolen by commodified accounts are inconsequential, particularly when we think of everything else Twitter needs to sort out first (seriously, get rid of the fucking Nazis already). Yet this is an issue that should be dealt with. Blatant theft is bad enough, but when those stolen tweets - which are a form of labour, however minute - become a property to be paid that allow someone else to profit, there’s a clear problem at play. Add to that the possibility that some of those tweets may then be used by corporations to sell you shit and that mere retweet doesn’t feel so innocent.
Whether we like it or not, Twitter matters. Do it well and it could change your life. I speak as someone who would not be in this career if it weren’t for Twitter. We’ve seen how writers like Megan Amram and Kelly Oxford used the site to establish their names and talents to audiences who previously never would have encountered them. Amidst this explosion of online behaviour, an abstract democratising of ideas, we’ve also seen how people have become famous through appropriating the ideas and labour of others. The Fat Jew became a recognizable figure solely through taking other people’s tweets, Instagram posts and memes, and reposting them under his name as original content. Even being called out repeatedly as a thief hasn’t diminished his financial clout.
Joke theft is nothing new. Comedians have been doing it for decades. Robin Williams did it. Someone took Conan to court over an accusation of joke theft. Some dude named Nick Madson did a Patton Oswalt routine verbatim in a comedy club and only got called out after a YouTube video of it made its way to people in the know. It wasn’t something you could get away with even before there was Twitter, but what the site has done is dramatically speed up the process and make such thievery almost inevitable. I’ve seen jokes from comedians - big name comedy stars whose style and humour are iconic - go viral under another handle almost immediately after the original gag was posted. Not only is the process easier and quicker than ever, but it’s another symptom of the meme age: We love the joke for five minutes, replicate it repeatedly until we get sick of it, then dump it into the ether. People’s jokes and tweets can be stolen, sometimes for profit and other times for mere kicks, and by the time we stop to think about the issue at hand, we’re bored of the joke.
It seems that Twitter may finally be dealing with the problem. Several of these major accounts have been deleted, and users couldn’t be happier. This has happened before, and the suspension was only temporary, but there’s reason to believe things might change for the better. Explaining this problem to social media novices can be a task - it’s all too daft to take entirely seriously - but when the stakes are both pathetically low and surprisingly stacked, it’s clear that griping about the pointlessness of it all won’t do much to change the problem. It’s ridiculous that such obvious theft was not only overlooked by Twitter for so long but made legitimate through sponsorship deals with companies who see Twitter as a frivolity. Perhaps now, some people will finally get credit for their own jokes.
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