You have seen the ads — oh, God, have you seen them. Ever since the cheap-ass labor provision company Fiverr (“Freelance Services Marketplace for the Lean Entrepreneur”) started plastering New York City subway cars with its “In Doers We Trust” ad campaign early last year, straphangers have been complaining about their Tony Robbins-on-meth taglines: If “Thinking big is still just thinking,” does that mean Fiverr — whose business model is built on having freelancers post tasks they’re willing to do for as little as $5 — wants us all to leap into self-starterdom before we look? Is “Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice” an attempt to compliment hard workers, or a call to work yourself to death? It all felt like, as Jia Tolentino wrote for the New Yorker, being hit each morning with a firehose of jargon “through which the essentially cannibalistic nature of the gig economy is dressed up as an aesthetic.”
Sometime in the last few days, one subway rider decided to strike back using the oldest of urban protest tools: the magic marker. Over one image of a millennial in a hijab with the slogan “Nothing like a safe, reliable paycheck. To crush your soul,” they wrote, “That’s why ‘Fiverr’ only wants to pay freelancers five dollars per task!” On a neighboring ad reading “Somewhere, someone is planning a meeting about taking immediate action” — meant, presumably, to chide overly comfortable wage earners who refuse to drop everything and start their own Fiverr-staffed animation studio, via comparisons to the People’s Front of Judea — the unnamed penperson scrawled: “In West Virginia, teachers went on strike and won higher pay. Is that immediate enough for ya?”
The Voice managed to track down the mad scribbler, who agreed to speak about their actions on the condition of anonymity. (The MTA tends to get sue-ey over billboard liberation.)
Upon first seeing the ads, the writer said they thought, “This is bullshit.”
“I don’t know which got me more: the lie that everybody who’s got a shitty job can liberate themselves by starting their own company? Or that the name is built into a price structure of five dollars per task” — actually less, once Fiverr’s commission and PayPal fees are taken into account — “so the key to your success is screwing over as many freelancers as possible?”
It took several trips underground before this particular rider found themselves on a Fiverr-bedecked car with Sharpie convenient: “I had the inspiration, I just didn’t have the means of production.” Adding one’s own tags to a subway ad campaign, it turns out, isn’t that difficult, or even particularly risky. “This one guy from Denmark was taking a picture of it,” says the graffitist. “I do this a lot, and I’ve never been busted for it. ‘Don’t do it in front of a uniformed cop’ is about the extent of my caution, and I’ve never had a problem. New Yorkers don’t mind — they either have the subway face on and they’re not reacting, or they love it.”
Billboard liberation, as the term of art goes, has a long and gloried history, arguably peaking in the 1980s after such modifications as the famous “If this lady was a car she’d run you down” image went the 20th-century version of viral. The practice may have suffered setbacks with the advent of graffiti-proof subway cars and the general chill that fell over public protest under the post–9-11 security state, but it never entirely went away, notes Fiverr’s antagonist.
“I see some pretty cool stuff,” they say. “There were some stickers repurposing the MTA’s ‘a crowded train is not an excuse for harassment’ to be aimed at Trump. Sometimes on ads for the School of Practical Philosophy, which has an anti-gay background, I see people adding just the word ‘cult.’ A little buyer beware, that’s all it takes.”
All of this is important, says our correspondent, not just to tweak ad buyers for their cynical posturing, but to provide regular folks a say in what’s left of the public sphere, even if it’s just scrawling the URL (or a bit.ly) of an article providing a dissenting view. (The Village Voice neither endorses nor condones vandalism, but if you, dear reader, did happen to arrive here via Sharpie-media outreach, hi!) “What is free speech today in a world that’s run by plutocrats’ money?” says the subway scribbler. “I don’t have a lot of money. Do I not have a right to express my views on the subway just because I don’t have venture capitalists pouring money into my pockets like Fiverr does?”
The Fiverr ad modifications are likely still out there somewhere, at least until the next MTA cleaning crew discovers them. But the person behind them has no intention of stopping now: “I look on it as fact-checking.”
Correction: This article initially misstated the details of Fiverr’s business model. Freelancers post their services on Fiverr for vendors to purchase, rather than the other way around.