Joke theft is a hot topic at the moment: with perpetrators like The Fat Jew finally facing repercussions for their comedy larceny and Twitter removing plagiarized tweets, it appears we’ve reached a day of reckoning for those who lack the wit to write their own jokes.
It’s not like this is anything new. High-volume “comedy” accounts are both the worst and the most profitable segments of Twitter. Painstakingly unfunny “parody” accounts like @WorldStarFunny and @WolfpackAlan rack up follower counts in the millions on the backs of jokes lifted from other people. This is the story of one of those tweets—something we believe to be the most stolen joke across the entire internet, having been posted tens of thousands of times—and retweeted, reshared, or reposted millions of times more.
As Luke O’Neil illustrates in the above-linked Washington Post article, finding “patient zero” of any given purloined tweet can be near-impossible. (Tools exist, but they don’t really work.) But we’re relatively confident this is the original version of the Internet’s most stolen joke:
That’s former NFL running back Clinton Portis—dressed as his alter ego, “Choo Choo”—speaking to reporters in 2007. The @haz4002 original earned some modest attention, but the tweet-stealing scavengers came along just a few hours later:
These were just the first of hundreds of Twitter accounts that tweeted the Portis photo with a similar joke construction over the next few months; dozens alone tried to claim it as a contribution to the September 2013 #SecondarySchoolMemories hashtag flood. That’s also where the tweet experienced its first evolution:
Sure enough, the José Mourinho version of the joke went on to be ripped off by dozens more Twitter accounts, racking up thousands of retweets along the way. It never displaced Portis as the dominant version of the joke, which in late 2013 was being tweeted out by someone, somewhere, roughly once an hour, only to peter out in popularity (its frequency slowing to around once a day) in the first two months of 2014.
But in March of that year, everything changed:
This evolution of the joke steamrolled all competitors. By the end of the day, every major “parody” account had tweeted out its version of the joke featuring the Lil B shot (which itself originates from the rapper’s “Fuck Kevin Durant” campaign). Most importantly, @brandonpitzer’s version made the joke a crossover hit, bringing it to Black Twitter and a new audience.
Within 30 hours, some rendition of Lil B and “the only one who saw” had appeared in one million Twitter timelines—and yet accounts continue to tweet out their (presumed original and unique) versions to this day. Each time a prominent “parody” account tweets the “only one who saw” joke, it draws thousands (sometimes, tens of thousands) of retweets. (For scale: Deadspin’s most popular tweet in the past 12 months only managed 3,500 retweets.) The only version that came even close to approaching Lil B’s popularity was, of course, “Beyoncé Reactions”:
Every parody account is a cannibal feasting off its competitors. And, yet, the average Twitter user eats all this up. The complete lack of creativity among these accounts—combined with their popularity—suggests that Twitter users are far less sophisticated or attentive than Twitter would have you believe. This is how social media really works: Accounts embrace an identity that belongs to someone else while tweeting out words and photos that were also created by someone else. The less funny your plagiarism, the better!
If you’re blogging, you’re working too hard.
Here’s an obviously non-comprehensive Twitter list of its appearances over the past few months; this is collected solely from appearances in my timeline, and numbers in the hundreds.
Lead art by Jim Cooke.