A man in a T-shirt and sunglasses holds a cardboard sign which declares: “stop ‘replying-all’ to company-wide emails.” On another street, his sign proclaims, “I just want to go to a concert.” A third sign simply states, “Abolish cilantro.”
Each of the posts on @dudewithsign’s instagram deliver what the username suggests: a dude with a sign. The concept is simple but effective: since Seth Phillips first created the account in October of 2019, it has garnered 8 million followers, and its posts consistently generate hundreds of thousands of “likes.” Yet the swift, widespread acceptance of Phillips’ protests stands in stark opposition to simultaneous—and often polarizing—protests such as Black Lives Matter and the backlash against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Why are @dudewithsign’s signs successful? What does the account’s popularity reveal about the type of protest we are willing to accept?
To understand @dudewithsign’s success, it may be useful to consider the account’s similarity to performance art. The performance art movement formed in resistance to the idea that art is a static object made to sit in galleries. By holding his signs on street corners and circulating them on social media, Phillips dissolves conventional artist/viewer and viewer/object boundaries. Moreover, by holding the signs himself, Phillips poses as the “dude,” or the owner, of the signs. Like a performance artist, he showcases himself in addition to his creations.
However, Phillips betrays a central tenet of performance art. Whereas performance artists reject the commodification of art objects, Phillips frequently sells the space on his signs to brands seeking publicity. For instance, in December 2021, four out of his nine posts were paid endorsements. In using his signs as advertisement spaces, Phillips reduces the signs into sources of profit. The signs’ status as commodities means their success cannot be entirely attributed to their success as performance art.
Nevertheless, the signs’ commodification is the result, rather than the cause, of their popularity. The initial draw of the signs lies elsewhere. When asked in an interview to explain the intent of his signs, Phillips claimed that he and his colleagues aim to convey “something funny that is relatable.” But are the signs funny because they are relatable?
Not entirely—statements such as “walk faster” and “double dipping isn’t that gross” might impel readers to nod in agreement, but not burst into laughter. Evidently, the humor of the signs consists of something beyond the mere relatability of their statements.
Why do we find Phillips’ posts funny? The answer may lie in philosopher Immanuel Kant’s incongruity theory of humor. “Laughter,” Kant claims, “is an affectation arising from the sudden transformation of expectation into nothing.” In other words, we laugh when reality overturns our expectations. Phillips’ posts are funny because, in using protest signs to broadcast trivial messages, he subverts our expectation that protest signs should be used to address critical issues rather than petty ones.
Phillips’ use of humor reveals the crucial irony at the center of his signs’ appeal. In disrupting the conventional usage of protest signs, Phillips eliminates the disruptive potential of their actual messages.
Whereas conventional protest signs often use humor to elicit sympathy in onlookers, Phillips does not use humor in an attempt to persuade people. Rather, he attempts to elicit the sympathy of those who already agree with him. For Phillips, humor is a metric by which he confirms his own relatability.
Phillips’ relatability, in turn, rests on his privilege. Phillips protests “first world” problems: problems complained of in the perceived lack of more urgent concerns. Phillips’ complaints have no purpose beyond being “funny” and “relatable” to those whose privilege allows them to sympathize with such minor concerns. Phillip’s very use of protest for mere entertainment—and even as a source for his own profit—only highlights how his protests are not aimed at enacting actual change.
Protest that is not aimed at change is not protest: it’s just complaining. The “protests” of @dudewithsign are successful because they are not protests at all.
In fact, Phillips strips protest of its function to assert the voices of those silenced by society. For the oppressed, protest is often a necessary means by which to resist their oppression. But as a cis-gender white man, Phillips’ identity allows him to escape considerations of oppression altogether. His choice to present himself as an anonymous “dude” reveals that Phillips even has the ability to detach his identity from his messages. His identity lends him not just comfort in speaking freely, but the privilege of assuming that he will be heard.
Beyond their similarity to performance art and their humor, the “protests” of @dudewithsign appeal to us because they allow us to enjoy an illusion of free speech without forcing us to question the structural inequalities which prevent that illusion from becoming a reality. As a result, @dudewithsign does not just deprive protest of its meaning, but further entrenches the inequalities that make actual protest necessary.
Our eagerness to accept these palatable “protests” reveals how crucial it is to resist the temptation to consume media passively. Instead, we need to reckon with the privilege that allows us to laugh at protest in the first place. We need to question the structural inequalities that make protest humor for some, and a means of survival for others.
Edited by Elodie Hollant