‘Florida Man:’ The Rise and Fall of a Digital Antihero

19 April 2021 | Tyler Gillespie | LitHub (original link)

I have a theory that any true Floridian is less than five degrees of separation from a Florida Man story, a headline like “Florida Man in Pirate Costume Arrested for Firing Black-Powder Guns.”

My theory rests on a Floridian knowing the neighbor’s son, a “Florida Man Learns Hard Way That He Stole Laxatives, Not Opioids.” Since Florida Man can also be Florida Woman, a Floridian might know a friend’s cousin who went viral as “Florida Woman Charged with Stealing Rental Car Says ‘Demons Took It.’”

In my case, a family member called the cops when a drug deal went wrong. Her dealer tried to rob her, and she wanted him to get arrested. I found the pre-viral Florida Man story in one local newspaper. The story happened in the early 2000s, so it’s all but buried on the internet.

In the mid-2000s, Fark.com—a website with the tagline “We Don’t Make the News. We Mock It”—began to track weird Florida news and contributed to the genesis of Florida as an internet meme.

A major increase in searches for the term “Florida Man” later occurred in June 2012, around the time of the viral Miami Cannibal story. A guy had reportedly smoked bath salts and chewed off the face of a homeless man who had passed out near a road.

The Cannibal story was shocking, fear-inducing, twisted, and sad. The victim went through a slow and difficult recovery. The story was morbidly intriguing to some, and it became a primer for Florida Man—who has been described as a “Yankee nightmare in human form” and “everything frightening about white trash life in one meme.”

Florida Man entered the cultural zeitgeist soon after the cannibal story. An associate editor at GQ noticed the Florida attention and created the @_FloridaMan Twitter account to make his colleagues laugh. The account received nearly 64,000 followers its first month.

The account used a mugshot of a man with black marker all over his face. This man was not an actual Florida Man, but a man arrested in Indiana for trying to “attack his roommate with a sword.” The account’s headlines contained an element of wildness, hopelessness, and physicality. Florida Man may have been out of control, but he had a certain ingenuity, often fueled by drugs and/or alcohol.

The internet loved these headlines and their accompanying mugshots. Florida Man may as well have been the mayor of Reddit with over a half million members in the subreddit dedicated to “news about the terrible superhero ‘Florida Man’ and his latest misadventures.” He lodged himself into pop culture, depicted on the TV show Atlanta. He had his own beer, tour guide, and music festival once headlined by the indie rock band Weezer. He’s apparently quite lucrative.

Journalist and author Craig Pittman interviewed me for a story he wrote about an attempt to trademark “Florida Man.” I had written a book of Florida Man poems, and Craig wanted my thoughts on the guy who owned the aggregated site “floridaman.com.”

The site sold T-shirts and other merchandise. The owner had begun the process to trademark the term to thwart Oxygen TV. The network had announced a true crime show inspired by the meme. They described the show as when a crime is so outlandish that it “sounds like something from a Hollywood screenplay—there’s a good chance it was actually committed by a ‘Florida Man.’”

The guy who owned the website “floridaman.com” wanted to trademark the term before the show aired. His attempt proved unsuccessful, but, hopefully, he won’t try to sue me anymore.The internet turned Florida Man into a Southern Gothic figure of indulgence, decadence, and bad decision making.

Florida Man lived for about six years before his peak internet popularity. For the “Florida Man Challenge,” sites like Twitter and Reddit encouraged people to Google their birthdates along with “Florida Man” to help people find their “inner Florida Man.”

The internet turned Florida Man into a Southern Gothic figure of indulgence, decadence, and bad decision making. That’s a nice way of saying the meme allowed people to make fun of people who were often poor and dealing with addiction or mental health issues.


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