Signs of the Times

I hate "Dude with Sign," and other thoughts

You have maybe seen the “Dude with Sign” (@dudewithsign) Instagram account at this point. 

If you haven’t, congratulations! 
If you have, apologies. 
If you like it, let me (hopefully) ruin it for you. 

Dude with Sign is, as I texted someone recently, an Instagram account where “a tall dude who I guess is attractive? stands around Manhattan holding signs that hold twitter platitudes from two years ago.” 

Image ID: a cartoon version of “Dude With Sign” with only eyes visible peeps out from behind a sign that reads “nobody cares about your Spotify”

Started on October 3, 2019, the account already boasts 2.8 million followers. If a friend sent it to you and you only saw the blonde-ish, shaggy haired, sunglass-wearing, alluring-because-he’s-tall? white man holding cardboard signs broadcasting hyper-relatable missives, you might miss the bio. “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” it reads, right before clarifying that yes, this is a project by FuckJerry. He is photographed holding the timely signs (“Yes Netflix, I am still watching” and “Middle seat gets the armrests”) around Manhattan, held above and within throngs of people, no doubt photographed without consent. None of the coverage I’ve seen of the page mentions why this account got so popular so quickly. Spoiler, it wasn’t the creative genius at work i.e. FuckJerry. 

The Dude with Sign is a sign of our times, a grim one, in many ways. In the most obvious reading of this project, the most ungenerous: Dude with Sign epitomizes the apathy of these viral curators, who needn’t worry about their sources, knowing if they brand it correctly no one will care. What could be a bigger apathy than going through all this effort to create a sign about nothing to stand in Manhattan, where there are protests all around, not to mention unhoused people who are often holding their own signs asking for money TO SURVIVE while this tall fucker stands begging you to not repost your Instagram post to your story? He is here to provide “comedy” defenders will say. But what good is that comedy when it says nothing? And when it says nothing in the guise of looking like giving a shit about something? The digital existence and success of this project parallels the analog, where a man exists, seamlessly, while the infrastructure around him crumbles. 

It’s a cynical reading of the Dude With Sign. It’s probably a reach, although, who gives a fuck. He’s holding a sign that signifies nothing. Nothing. In the most literal reading of this man holding a sign. He is a gift, a symbolic and literal emptiness that, I won’t lie, is a bit exciting on a semiotics level.  To me, it perfectly encapsulates the ability for white men in “comedy” to just… not care. And of course—we need art, we need storytelling, we need laughter. But what does “comedy” in this form do when it looks nearly identical to tangible ways of civic engagement and pleas for help? 

People clapping for Dude With Sign = people clapping for a white man “protesting” privileged grievances that will likely be, somewhere along the line, turned into a branded empire. Even with the thin veneer of comedy, it’s still about a man “standing up” for what he sees, what a boardroom of white Hype Men see, as the comedic causes of our times. 

“Humor is a coping mechanism and will always be a coping mechanism,” Clarkisha Kent wrote in a recent piece for Wear Your Voice titled “When Is Humor an Appropriate Response to Societal Turmoil?”. “But coping doesn’t necessarily mean living,” she continues. Kent writes about her discomfort with the recent “World War III” jokes after delving into her own experience with using humor in grim times, tiptoeing the fine line between disconnection and necessary pause. She writes that as Americans, it’s of course reasonable to be fucking terrified and scared for the world, to wonder how this will impact us, but...we’re not in a war zone. The memes and humor that have arisen—quite clearly and obviously a means to cope with the unimaginable—often undermine the potential benefits of humor in this moment, instead making a mockery of a lived reality that isn’t ours. 

Kent’s example is more poignant and relevant, for obvious reasons, and you should read the whole article. It’s an incredibly important framework that many people have publicly struggled with: seeking humor as a way to release, regenerate, versus humor as a way to disconnect, to dissociate. But who has to care about this? Whom do we expect to care about this? Whose feeds do we look at and think “wow, utter lack of care for the world,” and with whose do we anticipate they care and take what they offer as a half-hearted panacea to our own wounds? 

We should know better than to demand all public people discuss the world at any given time -- why do we want Alyssa Milano and Meatloaf weighing in at all, pray tell. But the hollowness that comes from the silence of not saying anything is profound, and often only afforded to a few. Almost everyone I know online (which is to say, mostly non-cis-men) have been messaged by strangers asking why they haven’t posted about this cause, or that crisis, as if 1) we don’t know and 2) people over a certain threshold of followers are inextricably bound to become spokespeople for… everything… irregardless of their actual knowhow. 

Perhaps they—the Alyssas,—have good intentions, like we all like to think. But are we giving them permission to speak to things far outside their scope of knowledge simply because they have ingratiated themselves as someone to look to, something decided by how well they can curate information, or repackage in a way that best suits their brand? Are we putting people on pedestals simply for speaking about our reality, our world, as if that’s enough? It speaks, perhaps, to the collective desire to make heroes out of nothing, too. To uphold nothingness. To resist engaging at all costs. To paint Greta Thurnburg on the side of a wall despite her repeatedly asking not to be made into an icon. To bow to painted Greta. To feel hope from consuming the absolutely empty image of supposed heroes instead of looking at the crisis itself.  

Which brings me back to Dude With Sign. And yes, I have seen his post about donating to the wildfires. That’s great. Money raised for ecological crisis = good. But why are we so willing to let this be his only cause, at this particular moment in history? Yes, there is too much to worry about. Yes, the chaos is overwhelming. But it feels a bit like choosing veganism as the hill to die on. 

I am angry about a lot, as we all should be. Dude With Sign has provided a neat little catchall for anger. I am angry that Seth—The Dude With Sign— is allowed to be just Seth, despite the “Fuckjerry” bio lurking ominously below. I can’t help but think that anyone who did not look like Seth would be immediately questioned for this ENTIRE project, let alone for associating with a notorious comedy villain. But our brave, tall, anonymous, blonde Seth is not asked why these signs are the signs to be holding right now, at this time in history. He is not asked where these platitudes come from, or why they are passed off as new. He is just there, seemingly innocuous because wow! It’s not blatantly offensive, and so, there it is, already racking up the kind of numbers that make an account seem like a given, untouchable, expansive. 

I can see this only as FuckJerry trying to rebrand as someone who “makes real things” the “real things” here being the signs, held in public by a face. This isn’t an isolated trend: people take obvious truths and sayings, almost always not their own, and spin them into DIY crafts (often for sale) that give a wholesomeness to otherwise generic platitudes. 

And in theory, this isn’t bad or even unusual. But where does it come from? With smaller accounts that remake and remix, there is often a purpose, to create a more shareable educational resource or use the remixed work as a way into a more nuanced discussion. But still — and I ask myself this about myself often — who the fuck are these people? Why are we looking to them (why do you look to me?) as voices of reason, or of anything? Merely because they curate something that is relevant? How are we supposed to treat creators that are not creators as much as they are curators, especially when on this big, and monetizable, a scale? Using a common reality, a common phrase, rewritten in a medium of your choosing, you can funnel your way into fame, situate yourself as a creator because, though we’ve all seen this phrase a million times, doesn’t this version look pretty enough to post? 

The DIY wholesomeness is seen, by many, less critically than the Meme Men theft, for the Meme Men monetize in a way that’s more egregious, or perhaps just more obvious, than smaller creators who steal from even smaller creators. Megh Wright of Vulture has documented meme theft fuckery thoroughly, and started the hashtag #FuckFuckJerry early last year, encouraging people to unfollow and for those who’d had their material stolen and branded by the Meme Man to share their experiences.In an article about the hashtag she writes,  “On top of using content from other creators, @fuckjerry regularly posts screenshots of tweets by comedians and everyday people and turns them into ads for its card game and tequila.” In short, their whole enterprise = a Roomba that funnels through Twitter on any given day, sweeping up crumbs and then regurgitating it for personal gain. 

When you try to talk about the potential problems with a thing like Dude With Sign or [insert person rewriting things in their medium of choice], you will often be met with a quizzical “why does it matter?” Followed by the “there are worse people” and “they are doing something.” 

Is “doing something” as defined by a different stranger everyday exempt from critique? In the scheme of things, I agree it’s a non-issue. I don’t want a hashtag campaign to cancel Dude With Sign, but I do want us all to be more critical consumers of everything. That means questioning why this dude is holding these signs, at this moment, and receiving the sort of attention he does. It also means asking ourselves why we look to public figures -- and what that definition even means -- to be the voice of anything. It means questioning why we are so ready to elevate people who post about the right things—curate the right things—to pedestals. It’s about questioning when comedy is effective and deepening or distracting and pointless. It’s a rousing reminder that you really don’t need to look to celebrities, let alone MEAT LOAF, for the right takes. Research on your own, talk to your friends and family, get out there. Do something. Remember to post about it or it didn’t happen. Rinse. Repeat. 

Around the web + world:

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Image ID: my dog Clementine sitting like a frog — her bottom feet are tucked under and she’s giving off an amphibian vibe — while also wearing a beige knit sweater.

Until next week!
Shelby + Clem (AND also my extremely smart and great newsletter editor Lexie Bean, who you can follow here!)