Josh Ostrovsky -- or, as 5.7 million people on Instagram know him, The Fat Jew -- was living your typical Cinderella story of Internet fame ... until this week.
People liked his sense of humor. He landed a modeling contract, a book deal, an ad campaign, a contract with talent agency CAA for "representation in all areas," and launched his own rosé. According to a recent Financial Times profile, his income from advertising alone -- brands will pay $6,000 for him to mention their products on his Instagram -- may be "running at a rate of several hundred thousand dollars a year." He can also charge appearance fees for events.
In recent weeks, however, some of the Internet denizens who helped make him a star have seemed hellbent on bringing him crashing down to Earth. It's all a fuss over the Internet's Golden Rule from the early days of blogging: If you use someone's work, credit and link back. Original creators should be acknowledged and rewarded. It applies everywhere from message boards like Reddit to news sites -- this one included.
"If it’s my stuff you’re posting, and if you give me credit, then I get traffic to my site, maybe that traffic goes to my comedy album and then I get paid for my work," comedian Davon Magwood wrote in a bristling open letter to Ostrovsky on his website. That traffic is good for plain, old-fashioned exposure, but if a individual's website contains ads, it also leads to a more concrete perk: revenue.
Many, many, many, many different sites are pointing their digital pitchforks at Ostrovsky for breaking that most sacred rule of Internet publishing -- posting creative work without proper attribution. Some even accuse him of malicious cropping in order to obscure a watermark or other identifying information. Internet aside, the Golden Rule of comedy has long been this: Don't steal jokes. Posting without credit, some argue, is akin to breaking that rule, too. But often, tracking down an image on the Internet is easier said than done.
"It can be tricky to find the original source of the content," Katie Schurman, who posts some original and some aggregated content to her Instagram for 57,600 followers, told The Huffington Post in an email. "If I repost an image, I will try to give credit to the original creator if I know absolutely who it is."
That's not a problem if you have 50 followers, or even 500. Friends share memes with friends every day. But once your follower account reaches Fat-Jew levels, there's money to be made off the Internet's gnat-like attention by both the Instagram user and the creator of the original work. At that point, it's fair to ask if the onus is on the user with a massive audience to dig around and figure out whose work he's sharing, especially if he's pulling in money or other tangible perks.
To his credit, Ostrovsky has been sealing each of his Instagram posts with a credit for the past several weeks. But that credit sometimes goes to the blog where he found it, the social media equivalent of a blogger's hat tip. That's fine if it's where the content originated, but by the time Ostrovsky plucks a lol-worthy image from the ocean of Internet content, it very well may have traveled between several social media platforms -- Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram -- and, along its journey, been altered to remove the creator's fingerprints. (Ostrovsky's publicist declined multiple requests for comment on this story.)
On Aug. 17, Ostrovsky credited an image with text reading, "The international hand symbol for 'what the hell is this guy doing?'" to Schurman. A quick Google search for "The international hand symbol for 'what the hell is this guy doing,'" however, reveals an earlier poster: Twitter user TheFunnyTeens. Whether TheFunnyTeens originally found the image and placed text over it remains unclear. But for less than a minute's worth of effort, we're at least a little bit closer to the source.
Another post, an image of a dog with a severe overbite reading, "When u get all comfy on the couch and realize the remote is across the room," is inexplicably credited to defamerican, who appears to be friends with Ostrovsky. The image was originally captioned by Tom Curtin -- according to a still-visible credit in Ostrovsky's post -- with an original photo by tunameltsmyheart, an Instagram-famous dog owner.
Aram French is one cartoonist whose work -- a comic showing a pumpkin-headed woman ordering a "human spice latte" -- Ostrovsky posted without credit. He told HuffPost in an email that Ostrovsky's failure to track down and post original images with all credit information intact was unacceptable to him.
"One or two times could be put down to ignorance or laziness, but his behavior is [habitual]," he wrote, adding that "a reverse image search on Google only takes a few seconds."
Ostrovsky presents himself as easily reachable -- his personal email, Emalio.Addresstevez@gmail.com, is right in his Instagram bio -- but some requests for attribution by the original artists have gone unanswered.
Artist Saint Hoax emailed Ostrovsky after finding an image he'd created -- imagined Michael Jackson emojis -- on Instagram sans credit. In the silence that followed, Saint Hoax told HuffPost that he tagged @thefatjewish in another work he'd posted to his own Instagram account as a kind of digital tap on the shoulder. Nothing. A week later, that exact image showed up on Ostrovsky's account. Saint Hoax's logo had been cropped out.
"I completely understand that he reposts existing content on the Internet," the artist said. "[There's] no harm in that, a lot of people do this. But it's not that difficult to find who the source is."
French also couldn't convince Ostrovsky to add his name, despite actually getting a response from him on Twitter. His cartoon remains uncredited. At this point, however, the post is so buried in The Fat Jew's Instagram feed that French would receive little to no attention if the caption was even updated.
"One of the followers of 'thefatjewish' says in my comment sections, 'That’s how social media works,'" Magwood wrote. Meaning that anything we post to the Internet may be stolen and repurposed as fast as it takes to tap copy, paste. But Magwood disagrees. "It shouldn't be the nature of the beast."
Nerds and lawmakers sometimes refer to the Internet today as the new Wild West. We're still figuring out how to police it. And while Ostrovsky is making headlines, he's far from the only one aggregating content from different corners of the Internet. Others run rampant, impeded by only the (often unspoken) Golden Rule.
Elliot Tebele, for example, runs the Instagram humor account fuckjerry, which counts about 100,000 more followers than Ostrovsky and earns him an income. A similar account, Daddyissues_, counts 1.8 million followers. Tebele's wife Jessica Anteby runs beigecardigan, with 1.2 million followers. That's on par with girlwithnojob, who also receives perks for her Internet fame. Any of these could be accused of "stealing" because of their lack of given attribution, but, in the Internet age, the line between an amateur curator sharing with friends and a professional curator sharing for income is blurry. (None of these account holders responded to request for comment by publication.)
It's a messy subject and a new terrain, one filled with lots of clear questions and unclear answers. One thing is obvious, though: When credit is given where credit is due, everybody wins.
After seeing his work reposted without credit on thefatjewish and other social media pages, a comedy writer who goes by Trevor S. told HuffPost about the first time Ostrovsky credited a joke of his. He did so at the time it was posted, too -- a key detail. Within two minutes, the writer said, he had 7,000 new followers. Brands contacted him wanting to chat.
Ostrovsky reached out to Trevor S., and the two met for drinks in New York.
"I was fully prepared to not like him," Trevor S. admitted, "but he was immediately and disarmingly very likable."
Bearded and jolly-looking, with an unnaturally vertical ponytail (his "Jew unicorn" or "hair erection"), The Fat Jew is also immediately recognizable to the Instagram crowd. His digital fame was not lost on the other patrons -- Trevor S. recalled people coming over to ask for pictures with Ostrovsky. People sent drinks to their table. Mothers wanted to put daughters' numbers in their phones.
While Ostrovsky is now pretty good about crediting Trevor S.'s work, the writer still remembers what it was like on the other side.
"I know a lot of these people in real life and they bust their asses trying to make it," he said of the comics and writers who aren't happy with accounts like thefatjewish and fuckjerry. "I'm really grateful to Josh for the way he credits me."
"If @thefatjewish properly credited my posts," Saint Hoax wrote, "my work would've been exposed to over 5.7 million followers and he would've probably attracted thousands of new people to my account, which I make money out of."
"He needs to credit his sources, period," French said.
It's nice to imagine a Utopic future where, through some Silicon Valley magic, everyone who takes part in launching a social media page to stardom can share its success in an even more concrete way. Imagine a comedian whose joke gets 300,000 social media "likes," and, in thanks, gets a little slice of the account owner's revenue. Content creators are everywhere, and content distributors -- the most popular Internet blogs and personalities -- are relatively few. That imbalance could shift if Internet users agree on the necessity, and definition, of giving credit. (Are you out there, disruptors? We're throwing your bat signal into the sky.)
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