The week of September 6, 2015

Living outside the law

By Jesse Hicks

Even us straight and narrow citizens can have a conflicted relationship with the law, and sometimes we find ourselves valorizing those who step outside its bounds. Recall how John Dillinger became a folk hero for his audacious bank robberies and flamboyant attitude. (It didn’t hurt that he styled himself as a modern-day Robin Hood in the midst of the Great Depression.) Similarly, we know the names of Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, and Billy the Kidd—outsized figures who’ve eclipsed nearly all the law-abiding citizens of their eras.

As we’ve forgotten the specifics of their crimes, our moral judgments of them have grown equally cloudy. Were Bonnie and Clyde “good guys”? Was Billy the Kidd? Regardless of the answer, their names live on. Closer to our own time, we’re drawn to the adventures of anti-heroes such as Tony Soprano and Walter White, who stepped outside the law (or, in Tony’s case, were born outside it). Both were irrefutable monsters who delivered death and destruction to everyone around them. Yet they were captivating and charismatic—not despite their law-breaking but because of it.  

Bob Dylan sang, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” That captures the fundamental allure of the outlaw—the sense that shaking off society’s mores means necessarily defining your own. (“A man got to have a code,” as Omar summarized on The Wire.) In this issue of the Kernel, we’re looking at outlaws (a popular copyright scofflaw), the people who love them (the aspirational Instagram posters of #narcostyle), and areas where not even the law or a personal code seem to apply (what, exactly, are the rules for sponsored social media posts?).

To live outside the law, you must be honest.

In our cover story, Chris Stokel Walker looks at Matthew Gregg, the 27-year-old creator of Botchamania, the long-running video series that compiles “botches”—flubs, fails, and bloopers from the world of professional wrestling. In doing so, Gregg rather cavalierly (but with an essentially dry, British aplomb) disregards the rights of dozens of copyright holders. That means his work is usually pulled from YouTube within hours if not minutes, but he’s won over enough paying fans that he’s quit his day job. Fans, wrestlers, and even at least one wrestling league owner appreciate what Gregg’s doing to market the sport. Still, he’s breaking the law, and he knows one day it could all come to an end.

It’s hard not to wonder whether a similar sense of fatality—albeit with markedly higher stakes—animates some of the Instagram users posting pictures of guns, money, and women alongside hashtags like #narcostyle and #narcocultura, meant to signify life among Mexico’s largest and most dangerous cartels. As Stephanie Stark details, these and similar tags have let users posture on social media, aligning themselves with a familiar “get rich and die young” life philosophy. But they also demonstrate the complex view of cartels among the Mexican people. Cartels are often seen as providing essential services neglected by a broken government; that view certainly serves the cartels, but it’s not entirely wrong, either. And in a country wracked by poverty, the narcos’ conspicuous consumption holds an obvious, visceral appeal.

Finally, Aaron Sankin looks at the rise of another social media trend: the sponsored post or tweet that doesn’t look like an ad. Some advertisers see these ads as the next big moneymaker, the logical next step in monetizing Twitter followers and Facebook friends. And no doubt you’ve already seen these ads, which for a brief moment look like they’re simply recommendations from social media celebrities. That’s a problem, at least according to the Federal Trade Commission, which demands that paid advertisements be clearly identified. Industry analysts say the rule’s largely gone unenforced on social media, but that may change. Even if the status quo prevails, how long is it before friends and followers stop believing anything coming from their favorite celebs—thereby undermining the whole point of advertising? Sankin’s story is yet another dispatch from the impending dystopia that is social media.

Enjoy the issue.

Photo via Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr (PD) | Remix by Jason Reed