World

Have Social Media Celebrities Warped America's Perspective on Hard Work?

"The struggle" is real—for some.

Photo Credit: Dean Drobot / Shutterstock

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

I can’t tell you exactly why I clicked on the article, but it was probably the title: “The Double-Tap Couple.” To me, a “double tap” is the technique of firing two gunshots in quick succession or employing two strikes in a row, as when U.S. drones or Hamas carry out attacks and then follow-up strikes to kill first-responders arriving at the scene. But this piece was about something very different. The headline referred to the popular app Instagram where you double-tap to “like” a photo.

The article turned out to be a profile of two twenty-somethings, a married couple who go by the noms de social media, FuckJerry and Beige Cardigan. They are, says author David Yi, “micro-celebrities” of the modern age. He is “tall, with a chiseled face, handsome”; she “has big doe eyes with cherub-like cheeks.” They dropped out of college and—first he and then she—became Instagram meme curators; that is, they find photos with wry or funny captions elsewhere on the internet and post them for their millions of followers. “Though both are social media sensations, neither is quite content with what they’ve accomplished,” Yi tells us. She “wants to pursue her first love, fashion, but isn’t quite sure what she’d want to do.” He’s currently cashing in with FuckJerry merchandise—hats, t-shirts, even “Vape juice.”

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I read the article to the point at which FuckJerry (née Elliot Tebele) told Yi about his long slog up the Instagram follower food-chain: “It took a shit ton of time to get to, and it took a long time with a lot of work.” I stared at my phone in abject confusion. Something wasn’t right, so I scrolled to the beginning of the article and started again. But it was just the same. Justin Bieber is a fan. Followers include the “Kardashian-Jenner family.” He wears “skinny jeans and vintage Nikes.” She sports a “statement coat and a pair of sparkling Chloe boots.” Then I hit that quote: “shit ton of time... a lot of work.” I still couldn’t make sense of it and began studying the article as if it were a riddle. I read it maybe five times and again and again when I hit those phrases about time and work my brain would buckle.

At that moment, I was nearing the end of a month-long reporting stint in South Sudan and waiting to find out if I’d be able to talk to a teenage girl, a late millennial with more than memes on her mind. She had rebuffed the 60-something man her family had arranged for her to marry and her relatives had displayed their displeasure by beating her to the point of unconsciousness. That conversation never happened, but I’d already logged several weeks' worth of interviews with shooting survivors, rape victims, mothers of murdered sons, wives of dead husbands. All this in a country where, for firewood and water—that is, the means of life—women walk desperately far distances in areas where they know that men with AK-47s may be lurking, where many are assaulted and violated by one, two, or even five men. In other words, a land where few would consider meme curation to be “a lot of work.”

I’d obviously hit that unsettling juncture where voices from home become dulled and distorted, where you feel like you’re hearing them from deep underwater. I’m talking about the vanishing point at which your first-world life collides with your crisis-zone reality—the point of disconnect. Mark Wilkerson knows it well. He found himself in just such a state, serving with the U.S. Army in civil-war- torn Somalia during the 1990s. That’s where he begins “One Man’s War,” a rumination on his journey from soldier to veteran to chronicler of the all-too- brief life of another veteran, in his recent and moving book, Tomas Young's War.

I eventually gave up on Yi’s article, unsure why I couldn’t understand the life and times of FuckJerry. After I got back to the U.S., however, I signed up for Instagram and took a look at his account and Yi’s story began to make more sense to me, if only in a tragi-comic way. Later in the piece, he writes of his subjects being “caught in the maelstrom” when a competitor is criticized for “stealing” memes. It’s a strange society that produces both meme maelstroms and, in distant lands, lethal ones that leave millions dead, maimed, desperate, or displaced. So before you become FuckJerry’s 9,200,001st follower, let Wilkerson guide you through slivers of two American conflicts, their aftermaths, and the points of disconnect along the way.

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Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award and American Book Award winner for his book Kill Anything That Moves, his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Intercept, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His latest book is Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.