Despite Picasso’s infamous declaration that “great artists steal” — which he probably stole from someone else — plagiarism remains a cardinal sin of that most divine art: comedy. Standups consider accusations of joke theft deadly serious, as they can derail and discredit entire careers (see: Dane Cook, Carlos Mencia). Screenwriters will take great pains to differentiate their TV series and movies from any they might resemble. And God help whoever lifts material from printed sources, the easiest of all to search and compare against, not to mention sue over.
The world of internet memes and punchlines, meanwhile, is sort of lawless as far as originality and authenticity are concerned. Perhaps because these gags so often remix existing content—and so rarely result in any financial gain—people have come to see them as public property, with the consequence that the funniest ideas are stolen over and over again. Occasionally, when someone appears to be profiting from this practice — as with Josh Ostrovsky, who landed a book deal and talent agent through his web persona “The Fat Jew” — there is a definite backlash. But by and large, people will still follow the anonymous Twitter and Instagram accounts that repackage other users’ mega-viral posts as their own by stripping out identifying information.
That’s not to say meme fans feel great about giving their faves to cynical aggregators, though. Which is where Samir Mezrahi comes in. A former social media director at BuzzFeed and the current head of social media at The Dodo, “the digital media brand for animal people,” Mezrahi knows all the ins and outs of memedom, and he’s determined to give credit where it’s due. The result is @KaleSalad, a Twitter feed that, for the past several weeks, has done nothing but track down and retweet the actual author of posts that have since gone supernova by way of thieving “parody” accounts like @Dory, @tinatbh and @girlposts.
Gathering viral momentum in its own right, @KaleSalad is already up to 46,300 followers. It seems Mezrahi is performing a noble duty that no one had considered before.
He’s even launched a private Slack channel where hundreds discuss fire tweets on the reg, some of which make it onto @KaleSalad even before the unethical meme accounts find them.
MEL caught up with Mezrahi to ask about his meme philosophy, the importance of laughing online, how to give back to the internet and his strategies for uncovering original content.
So how did this project come about?
I am a big fan of “great tweets” and always wanted a way to reward and even boost these viral tweets and their creators. I had been doing it on Instagram for a little while now, where unlike most meme accounts I give credit and even try to find the source’s account for attribution. About two weeks ago now I kicked off the Twitter [account] in the same vein and it just took off.
Tell me a little bit about the response — did it seem like people were yearning for some authenticity and accountability where meme origins are concerned?
Yes! The response has been insane—so many people were happy that they don’t have to follow the meme accounts anymore, and even looking for vindication for having their tweets taken.
How do you go about choosing which memes should be investigated, and how do you typically find the originals?
I have some Twitter lists of the meme accounts [and] generally try to look into things that seem “new” to Twitter. For finding originals: Twitter search, Google search. People DM some, too. With videos you can sometimes also click the video URL to get to the source if they did not straight rip the video.
I think I am actually often better at finding new memes or viral tweets than the meme accounts and have seen them posting my retweets after the fact. (Not necessarily as the authority, but just another place for them to find stuff to scrape and post.) So the account is a combo of finding the source of the meme account tweets [plus] viral tweets I’ve found on my own accord.
So the major meme brands are even stealing content they find on an account that exists to give credit where it’s due? That’s wild.
Ha, yes — that seems to be the case.
What’s your favorite kind of Twitter joke? What do you think makes a meme go viral?
I love the “dialogue” jokes that people do that are really smart. Like this, for example:
As for memes going viral, there are the “original stories” — some crazy thing that happened that tells a story with photos that end up being relatable or funny, like this:
A lot of generic memes that go viral may have even been thought of by a ton of people, but sometimes a specific version hits. Like, I am sure this pic has been tweeted many times, maybe even with similar language, but this one happened to spread as much as it did:
Have you ever tried your hand at making up your own memes? Anything that really took off?
I do tweet myself via @samir and make memes and riff off the news occasionally. I have had a few things take off, like:
Ha, that rules. Finally, one last thing: Do you think the internet will get funnier in the year ahead? A lot of people think we’re in for some dark times — can memes survive?
Oh yes, for sure, things only seem to get more funny and more ridiculous over time. Memes will be fine.