The Florida Men behind the clickbait
Florida Man headlines are a staple in meme culture, but the stories beyond the headlines are often ridden with drug addiction and mental illness. Where do we draw the line between comedy and empathy?
This story originally appeared in The Washington Post Magazine. Used with permission.
Sporting a buzz cut, prison blues, and a chin-strap beard, the slim 24-year-old Floridian Brandon Hatfield leans sideways in a rolling office chair inside the St. Johns County Jail. With a warm Southern drawl and a crooked smirk, he says, "I remember half of what happened ... and half of what didn't."
Hatfield finds it hard to separate the fact from the fiction of what took place on the night of Nov. 5, 2018, for a few reasons. That night, at a Best Western not far from the Fountain of Youth theme park in St. Augustine, Florida, America's oldest city, he was drinking Jack Daniel's. He's sure the whiskey led to smoking weed, but he's not as clear on how that led to fentanyl, Ecstasy, and whatever else ended up in his toxicology report.
He remembers the rest of the night in "blackout splatches," which have since mixed with the stories he's heard about himself: how he jumped into a crocodile pool at a local zoological park after hours, got bit by an American crocodile, and barely escaped with his life — but not his Crocs shoes, which were found floating in the water the next day. Next thing he knew, he was waking up "at the hospital shackled to a bed with my foot gnawed off."
Another reason Hatfield finds it hard to separate the "half of what happened" from the "half of what didn't": When he woke up, he wasn't himself anymore. Much as an arachnid bite changed Peter Parker into Spider-Man, that crocodile chomp transformed Brandon Hatfield into Florida Man. His tale was being retweeted around the world: "Florida Man Wearing Crocs Gets Bitten After Jumping Into Crocodile Exhibit at Alligator Farm."
Since Florida Man was first defined on Twitter in 2013 as the "world's worst superhero," many men (and it's almost always men) have assumed the mantle. He is a man of a thousand tattooed faces, a slapstick outlaw, an internet traffic gold mine, a cruel punchline, a beloved prankster, a human tragedy and, like some other love-hate American mascots, the subject of burgeoning controversy.
Most memes — from planking to Tide Pods — fizzle fast. Florida Man has only grown stronger. There are so many stories about men like Hatfield that a "Florida Man Challenge" went viral this March, in which millions of people Googled their birth dates and "Florida Man," finding a near-endless list of real news headlines for all 365 days of the year:
"Florida Man Steals $300 Worth of Sex Toys While Dressed as Ninja."
"Florida Man Tries to Pick Up Prostitute While Driving Special Needs School Bus."
"Florida Man Drinks Goat Blood in Ritual Sacrifice, Runs for Senate."
The meme has grown beyond the inside jokes of Twitter and Reddit, spawning scores of late-night comedy routines, queues of podcasts, multiple band names, an episode of the FX show Atlanta, an X-Files comic book, a documentary, and, soon, a docuseries from the producers of Get Out.
At its most comical, the Florida Man phenomenon encapsulates the wildness of both America and the internet. At its most salacious, it's a social media update on the true crime TV of America's Dumbest Criminals and the gallows humor of tabloid headlines. At its most insensitive, Florida Man profits by punching down at the homeless, drug-addicted, or mentally ill. Florida Man has become an American folk hero with all the contradictions of his predecessors, who, from John Henry to Buffalo Bill, were always a mix of what Hatfield calls the "half of what happened" and "half of what didn't." What those old folk tales and our new viral memes have in common is that they tend to reveal more about the kind of stories we want to share than the people they're ostensibly about.
I've laughed at headlines like "Florida Man Arrested for Calling 911 After His Cat Was Denied Entry Into Strip Club." I've gawped at stories like "Florida Man Removes Facial Tattoos With Welding Grinder." But over the years I've also started to get a queasy feeling of complicity when I click on headlines that play up the quirks of horrific crimes for web traffic, like "A Florida Man Beat His Daughter For 40 Minutes While Listening To Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines,' " a 101-word BuzzFeed story that found room to tastelessly embed the supermodel-studded music video.
This past April, I set out to meet a few Florida Men behind the clickbait and answer some questions, like: Is Florida Man a hero, a villain, or a victim? And is it still okay to laugh along?
"The biggest question I get is: What were you thinking?" Brandon Hatfield continues, from his seat inside the St. Johns County Jail. "Every time, my answer is: I wasn't." Hatfield is telling his entire Florida Man story for the first time, and in much more detail than the thousands of versions told without his input. The details matter: Take the two Croc-like shoes found floating in a crocodile enclosure, which prompted jokes and led the zookeeper to suspect a prank.
Hatfield is, on this April afternoon, wearing the same style on his scarred left foot, the one the crocodile attacked. (Five months and six surgeries later, doctors have barely managed to save it.) The pair of shoes found floating in the park had also been issued to him in jail, after his first drug conviction at age 23.
On Instagram, Hatfield has claimed to be a descendant of "Devil" Anse Hatfield, the wildcat outlaw who sparked the Hatfield-McCoy feud: Rebelliousness, he bragged, is in his blood. He grew up on his father's nearby dairy farm, herding cattle, fishing, hunting, and "doing crazy stuff, especially anything to do with animals." When Hatfield was 10, he says, he captured a rattlesnake and hid it in an aquarium in his bedroom closet, until it killed his pet boa constrictor and terrified his mother, a nurse. After that, his amused stepdad stuffed the rattler — "so we'd always remember," Hatfield says. From then on, Hatfield bounced between his divorced parents' homes.
In middle school, Hatfield says, he started using marijuana. Then, at "15 or 16, I got into prescription medication: opiates, benzos, stuff like that." When a friend died of a cocaine overdose in 2012, he says he stopped using, but "I crept back into it."
"After pharmaceuticals, I graduated to cocaine, methamphetamine, everything." He got high to party and deal with social anxiety. He compares himself to "Adam Sandler in that movie Click: It's like you hit pause on life. Before you know it, you wake up and you're grown."
On Nov. 2, 2018, Hatfield was convicted of grand theft auto and possession of a schedule II substance. He tells a convoluted story about how the car was his own and the methamphetamine was his ex-girlfriend's; the judge sentenced him to two years of parole. When Hatfield showed up for his first parole appointment, he panicked, certain that if he went inside, he'd be sent to state prison, since he'd already violated parole by leaving the county. Wearing his jail Crocs, Hatfield sneaked out to the parking lot and called some friends, figuring, "If I'm going to prison, I'm going to do it big for the weekend — and then turn myself in."
A few days later, well into his bender at the Best Western Bayfront hotel, Hatfield boasted to friends about how he grew up wrangling alligators from one pond to another on his papa's land, to "balance the ecosystem." Nobody believed him. "I said, 'I'll catch an alligator right now!' My friend said, 'I know a perfect place ...' " The friends drove two miles to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, the world's only home to all 24 crocodilian species, with a main pen holding 210 alligators. When Hatfield saw it, he nearly chickened out. "But I got girls behind me," he told me. "So I go in."
News channels and sites told Hatfield's story through video clips stitched together from four hours of night-vision security cam footage, in which he is the zoo's acrobatic attraction: Florida Man, in his native, ersatz habitat. He climbs onto a corrugated metal rooftop about 12 feet above a shallow pool occupied by large American crocodiles. He leaps in and thrashes as he's bit. But what most news videos missed is that Hatfield escaped, unscathed, after his first jump. Then he jumped back in, turning himself into literal clickbait. "The whole thing was, I dropped my phone inside the pit," he says. "A brand-new iPhone. That's whenever he death-rolled me. It de-sleeved the bottom of my foot, until it looked like a chicken breast; I'd wiggle my toes and you could see my tendons move."
On crutches at his first court appearance, he heard the bailiffs and others "cracking jokes and calling him Crocodile Dundee," says his defense attorney, Jill Barger. She took his case pro bono because she pitied him, and also — "I'm not gonna lie," she admits — because Florida Men get valuable media attention.
His new convictions of criminal mischief and trespassing compounded his early charges. Judge Howard Maltz, who saw Hatfield on TMZ the night before meeting him in court, sentenced him to 364 days in county jail, plus two years of community control. At Hatfield's sentencing, Maltz told him, "You should not be alive. God has a plan for you. We may not know what it is, but God has a plan for you."
"I hear it all the time," Hatfield says with a shrug. "Daniel in the lions' den." In the Bible, Daniel was thrown into a den of carnivorous beasts but found "blameless" by his God and saved for a higher purpose. Hatfield likes this idea. He vows to get clean and do outreach. He says he'll warn Floridians not to follow in his bloody footsteps and become a Florida Man like him, because he wishes he'd done the same for his stepbrother, who died of a heroin overdose while Brandon was in jail. He's lost three relatives in the past year to drug-related deaths, he says. "My little brother, Bo, passed away on heroin at 17. He was probably looking up to me. I went to jail and left him out there by himself."
There's nothing funny about this part of Hatfield's viral story. It's the "half of what happened" in most Florida Man stories that doesn't fit in a tweet — the bummer half that has to do with how people end up doing reckless things, and what follows viral infamy. "We laugh at these stupid things," Maltz tells me in his chambers. "But there are tragedies behind many of them."
I came to the jail to see how Hatfield ended up in that crocodile pit, but also to ask how the media attention had affected him. I assumed that he would be mortified to go viral on the worst day of his life — that the retweets would only add shameful insult to actual injury. But that's not how he saw it. "At first I was embarrassed," he says. "But I'm prone to do stuff like this anyway, so it was just a matter of time before something blew up."
Hatfield talks about his newfound internet notoriety like he's Brer Rabbit, thrown into the digital brier patch where he was born and bred. "I was always on the internet: I go live on Facebook. I live on Instagram." Drugs have been Hatfield's escape from the real world, but social media is where he feels most honest: "It's the real me."
In jail, he's enjoying his notoriety (although he "can't wait to get my phone," he says). "There ain't nobody in this jail who don't know who I am," he says. Especially since the whole cell block saw him on Inside Edition. He estimates he's signed at least 60 autographs for inmates with his various nicknames: Gator Boy, Croc Boy or his favorite, Crocodile DunGotti — "John Gotti mixed with Crocodile Dundee." He reads fan letters, including some from people who "think I'm like an animal activist or something." He's considering a clothing line with a Gator Boy logo of himself "wrangling or riding a gator like it's a bull." The only problem, he says, staring at his hands, is this: "I'm meant to be a superhero. Nobody ever sits down, says: 'You doing all right?'"
Before leaving St. Augustine, I visit two of the town's most popular attractions. At the Old Jail, built in 1891, I watch tourists hang their heads and arms through the old oak public stocks, like shamed Florida Men of yesteryear. At the Medieval Torture Museum, a goth-y tour guide tells me that her museum's stocks and punitive masks don't terrify her nearly as much as the thought of becoming a Florida Woman. "If my mug shot got out there? Oh God, I'd have to leave town!"
Her fear makes sense, because there is always another Florida Man or Woman. Within days of Brandon Hatfield's arrest in November, the internet moved on to "Florida Man Dressed as Fred Flintstone Pulled Over for Speeding." It's been this way every day since the meme's birth in 2013.
By then, Florida's pop-culture reputation for drugs (Scarface), crime (Miami Vice, CSI: Miami), partying (MTV's Spring Break), and craziness (James Franco in Spring Breakers) was well established. The 2000 Bush-Gore recount had made the state a punching bag for comedians like The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, who once called Florida a "giant cockroach-choking, hazard-infested, Hooters-dining, reptile-abusing, Everglades-draining, election-ruining, stripper-motorboating, ball-sweat-scented, genitalia-shaped, 24-hour mugshot factory." Pick an issue, any issue, and Florida, the state with the most lightning strike fatalities, has become a lightning rod for it — whether that's climate change ("Florida Man Jumps in Canal of Toxic Blue-Green Algae"), immigration ("Here Is Trump Loving a Florida Man's 'Joke' About Murdering Immigrants"), or poverty ("Florida Man Tries to Pawn His Baby.")
On May 26, 2012, a homeless man named Ronald Poppo became patient zero for Florida Man's viral outbreak, when a carwash employee named Rudy Eugene attacked him on Miami's MacArthur Causeway. "He just ripped me to ribbons," Poppo, who barely survived, later told a news crew. "He chewed up my face, he popped out my eyes." Eugene was shot dead on sight by police, and, though his toxicology report was ultimately inconclusive, he became a bogeyman for the drugs collectively known as bath salts. He went viral as the Causeway Cannibal and the Miami Zombie. According to Google Trends data, this is when the term "Florida Man" first peaked.
Nine months later, the @_FloridaMan Twitter account debuted with the tagline, "Real-life stories of the world's worst superhero." The first tweet set the tone: "Florida Man Arrested After Pocket-Dialing 911." Within weeks, the account had gone viral and was covered by legit outlets like NPR and Slate. Over the past six years, the account has grown to over 400,000 followers, but its creator remained anonymous — partly at first because he didn't take it all that seriously, he tells me, and more recently because "I feel like I created a monster."
Florida Man's Dr. Frankenstein is Freddie Campion, 33, who finally agreed to step out from behind his face-tattooed Twitter avatar after a series of long of-the-record phone calls, in which he shared his growing unease with what he'd created. "The irony is not lost on me that I thrust some people into the spotlight when they didn't want it," he says by phone from his backyard in Los Angeles. "I was asking for the courtesy that wasn't afforded to a lot of other people."
In early 2013, Campion, now a video producer and writer, was an associate editor at GQ, "desperately anxious to impress everybody" in an office where the best way to do it was to make top editors laugh. (I was a senior editor at GQ but didn't overlap with Campion.) As a culture writer, he loved The Onion's character Area Man, which spoofed local news, and the South Park action figure Alabama Man, which spoofed macho toys. "The face-eating zombie story had happened, and I was just thinking: Florida's a crazy place," he says. "I don't really know what my reason was, beyond: This doesn't exist, so why don't I make it?"
To Campion, who was raised in the United Kingdom, Florida was pure, undiluted Americana. "I never thought I was making fun of Florida because Florida is America," he says. "It's made up of people who moved here five years ago. Even when I think of Florida Man as a character, he moved to Florida after he faked his death in another state."
For Florida Man to evolve from the primordial swamp-gas of the internet, the environmental conditions had to be just right. Florida is the third-most populous state, so it naturally has a lot of everything — good, bad, and weird. The state's sunshine laws, passed in 1967, make public records — mug shots, arrest reports, video evidence, and 911 calls — available to anyone, with the ease of one-click shopping. Then there's the state's strange geography: swampland infested with alligators and pythons, the most sinkholes in the nation. As for law and order, the state counts about 2 million concealed weapons permits, 1.4 million felons, and "stand your ground" laws. Thanks to the temperate climate, there's no offseason for criminals or pranksters or nudists. And, as local writers from Carl Hiaasen to Dave Barry to Lauren Groff have noted, the water table of weirdness is just naturally high in Florida. Strangeness seems to bubble to the surface.
The perfect Florida Man tweet always seemed to get at the state's reputation for being, as comedian John Mulaney said on an episode of Late Night With Seth Meyers, "the Costco of upsetting people. ... It's just everything at once." Campion's funniest tweets seemed to pile one gag, or clickable keyword, on top of another, like a Marx Brothers routine. "Other states have heat, lax gun laws, lack of regulation — even alligators — but not all at once," says Campion. As an example, he singles out a Floridian who was arrested for illegal foraging. "Then you find out he's foraging for magic mushrooms," Campion says. "That probably wouldn't happen in Minnesota. And he's on magic mushrooms. And then they open his backpack and there's a baby alligator in it. Any one detail isn't a big deal. But combine them: That's a Florida Man story."
The success of Florida Man parallels the rise of smartphone video, and a generation of people "trying to go viral in their own little networks," says Campion, "and then it working too well." He points to the Florida Men who filmed their pranks, went viral and then got arrested for, say, riding manatees (they're endangered) or throwing an alligator through a Wendy's drive-through (animal cruelty). Not to mention digital freak-show pranksters like Alisha Hessler, aka Jasmine TriDevil, who tried to convince the world she had surgically added a third breast.
Campion says he didn't so much create the meme as popularize it — largely because, as soon as he launched the account, it took on a life of its own. At first, he was just thrilled to get direct messages "from cool people on Twitter." Then spoof news sites and clone accounts popped up, screen — grabbing his tweets. A subreddit exploded to over half a million members. All over the internet, sites began doing "best Florida Man" listicles. Journalists began sliding into his DMs and pitching him their stories, thirsty for retweets. In 2014, Seth Meyers began hosting a late-night "Fake or Florida" trivia quiz.
In the beginning, Campion had to rewrite headlines from local crime blotters. But before long, he says, even "local news channels in Utah" and international tabloids were adopting his style and chasing high-traffic keywords — broadening the reach of Florida Man to include politicians, celebrities, and YouTubers. Indeed, if aliens were to arrive in Florida — a state that ranks third in UFO sightings — they could tell a pop history through the way the Florida Man virus grafted itself onto other trending topics: "Florida man shoots at Pokémon Go players outside house." "Florida man changes name to Bruce Jenner to preserve name's 'heterosexual roots.' " "Florida man says it's okay to grope woman on flight because Trump says it's okay."
When Campion's Twitter account hit the front page of The New York Times in May 2015, "Book agents were DM-ing me, telling me if I write a one-paragraph treatment they can sell it that afternoon," he says. "But I didn't want to write a toilet book."
By 2016, Campion began to worry. At this point, he says, he realized his little face-tattooed boy had grown up and left him behind. Soon, Campion was noticing that, while people were still sharing harmless or satirical tales, "90 percent of the stories people were sending me were mean-spirited."
Moreover, as cash-strapped media brands laid off journalists, Florida's sunshine laws, combined with Florida Man's viral appeal, enabled outlets to efficiently feed the internet with a high volume of sensational crime stories, at minimal expense, and with relatively little legwork. Since Florida Man is cheap news, and his search-engine-optimized popularity is self-reinforcing, he's more likely to be shared than some random Kansas Man. Now Florida Man seems to have become the whole internet's local news.
Initially, the account was like Florida Man Mack Yearwood, who posted his "Wanted" photo on Facebook, never suspecting it would lead to his arrest. "If I was to start this whole thing again, I'd be thinking about it in a very different way, because now we think about the internet in a different way," Campion says. The big difference is that, "in 2013, we didn't think what happened on the internet could affect real life."
Like many of us, Campion gradually became more aware of social media's real-world consequences and downsides: election interference, internet bullying, and privacy concerns, for starters. He saw the way the Florida Man meme immortalized even misdemeanors and seemed to overlap with the pay-to-redact mug shot publication industry, which the American Bar Association has dubbed an "online extortion scheme" and which Florida only recently regulated, in July 2018 (though many newspapers still host for-profit, ad-supported microsites devoted entirely to searchable mug shot databases). Campion also began to worry that Florida Man reinforced the simplistic good-cops-and-bad-robbers narratives of reality entertainment like Cops and Live PD, and cut against the grain of movements like Black Lives Matter.
In 2017, Campion briefly stopped posting to the account. The comedy felt stale, but he was also asking himself, "'How much do I want to be a party to essentially making fun of people on the worst day of their lives, even if they have done something wrong?' Like, who gave the internet the right to add to someone's punishment?" After a several-month hiatus, Campion returned to the Twitter account, determined to "steer it in a better direction." He began alternating funny tweets with social-justice petitions and news stories about police abuse and reform. After little more than a smattering of retweets and signatures from his near half-million followers, he decided that @_FloridaMan should meet the fate that greets so many in Florida: This March, he marked the account "RETIRED."
Florida Man is a microcosm of the way so many of us are struggling with the ethics of how to behave on the internet, and how easily an ironic joke, multiplied by millions of shares, can begin to feel like freak-show mockery or viral cyberbullying. As isolated jokes, Florida Man riffs seem harmless enough; in aggregate it feels as if they've become part of a larger culture that reduces people in the criminal justice system to villains or punchlines, while stripping away the context of systemic problems. The Reddit forum moderator has asked contributors to remember that Florida Man "doesn't do dark and overly morbid things" — to no avail. Craig Pittman, author of "Oh, Florida!," a loving compendium of Floridian shenanigans, told the Columbia Journalism Review that he had begun to be more selective about the stories he promoted. "Is the person homeless?" he said. "If that is the case, I won't post the story."
Campion says he hopes people, as he is, are learning to be more responsible about what they share online, but he doesn't seem too optimistic. With the air of a disappointed father who loves his wayward son but doesn't know how to help him, Campion adds, "I'd still love to see Florida Man have a happy ending."
For now, some Florida Men are taking matters into their own hands, figuring they shouldn't be the only ones who aren't profiting off the meme-like Lawrence Sullivan, who tattooed his entire face to look like the Joker from The Dark Knight, and has been releasing disturbing shock-rap videos, or Charles McDowell, who went viral in the fall. Propelled to infamy by an Escambia County Sheriff's Office Wheel of Fugitives TV segment, McDowell was mocked relentlessly for his extremely thick neck. With the help of a Florida-based crew of social media strategists called the Shrimp Gang and an MMA fight promoter, he flipped it around, rebranding himself as @DamnWideNeck. He gained 1.3 million Instagram followers, including DJ Khaled and Snoop Dogg, and teamed up with scrawny white YouTuber Daddy Long Neck for the goofy racial-harmony-and-babes music video "All Necks Matter," which scored over 10 million views across platforms. After McDowell's recent rearrest, his management posted, "He will be out in the Neckst 4-6 months."
Recently, the storm of controversy over Florida Man has been upgraded to perhaps a Category 4, after a high-pressure surge of criticism in outlets like The Guardian and the Columbia Journalism Review. The podcast Citations Needed created a browser plug-in that substitutes the term "Florida Man" with "Man Likely Suffering From Mental Illness or Drug Addiction." On Facebook, the otherwise sunny page Feel Good Florida has been pushing the hashtag #deathtofloridaman. It seems Florida Man is, to quote a Batman film, one of those heroes who lives long enough to become a villain. Or maybe, like Brandon Hatfield, he can be an instructive example: a focal point for a conversation about what we're doing when we share funny news on the internet.
Any such conversation, however, has to account for the redemptive side of Florida Man — the simple fact that a lot of people don't just mock him as a villain or exploit him as a victim. Two of Reddit's 10 most popular Florida Man stories are actually exposés of police corruption, including "Florida Man arrested for possession of laundry detergent — not heroin — among 11 freed after deputy allegedly faked drug tests." What's more, many Floridians embrace their native son as an it-coulda-been-me populist hero, standing up for the state's stubborn strangeness. In Tampa, Florida, Cigar City Brewing has named its Florida Man IPA after "a hero who's forgotten more about amateur taxidermy and alligator rasslin' than you'll ever know." In Miami, a drag performer named Florida Man has gone viral for performing an Ariana Grande hit in a Voldemort costume. In Orlando, Florida, there's been a Florida Man Music Festival and a "Florida Man" one-man play. In Tampa, a tour guide leads Florida Man walking (and drinking) tours, and writer Tyler Gillespie has published an empathetic book of poems about Florida Man, including one inspired by his own DUI.
In Jacksonville, Florida, Mike Alancourt, a white-bearded, 43-year-old teacher's assistant, went viral this winter as "Florida man wins the internet with hip-hop dance routine." He ended up on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and in an official Post Malone music video, and though he describes himself as "technically the antithesis of Florida Man ... a gay bearded hippie who belongs in Seattle," he's since embraced the label. "I can't necessarily get with everything Florida Man has done, but I get with the part that says we should all be who we are," he says. "That little bit of weird you have? Florida Man says: Embrace it. The redeeming quality of Florida Man is he don't give a f---."
Per Google Trends data, the meme has never been more popular. Particularly in his home state, many people reject the idea that Florida Man should be internet-canceled. Since he's on the verge of becoming an unofficial state mascot, it's appropriately absurd that the proper way to honor him is being seriously debated by Jacksonville's goofy minor-league baseball team, the Jumbo Shrimp. In late July, the team will host a Florida Man Night, featuring a jorts-clad Florida Man bobblehead, a performance by at least one actual Florida Man and the breaking of "weird Florida laws." The night's advertising sponsor is the law offices of John M. Phillips, an attorney who says he's become "Florida Man as a lawyer."
It's not just because Phillips has represented a Florida Man who shot off his own penis, and five Florida Women — in separate instances — who were run over by vehicles while sunbathing on the beach. Online, you can find a clip of Phillips on Let's Make a Deal dressed up like Alexander Hamilton as he wins a Sea-Doo watercraft. He has sued Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, defended a man who made Super Bowl-inspired "Left Shark" figurines against copyright claims by Katy Perry, and represented Omarosa Manigault Newman.
Phillips understands the contradictions of Florida Man more than most. He grew up in Alabama and hung a Confederate flag in his white fraternity's dorm room. "Everything changed for me," he says, when he represented the family of Jordan Davis, the unarmed black teenager murdered by a white man, Michael Dunn. As Phillips explains in a TEDxJacksonville talk, the case caused him to reconsider his racial privilege and reorient his career around civil rights.
I ask Phillips the obvious question: How can you celebrate the meme's comical side, knowing that it also makes light of horrific crimes? "I would never call Michael Dunn a Florida Man, because Michael Dunn was a murderer, and to associate him with Florida Man minimizes what he did," says Phillips carefully. Then he sighs and concedes: "But that's how the article would be written: 'Florida Man flees after shooting three teenagers, claiming Stand Your Ground.'"
Phillips says he recognizes that the joke often isn't funny, "because of the mental health issues and drug dependency that do sometimes cause the quote-unquote Florida Man syndrome." He cites the problems facing military veterans and the homeless, the opioid epidemic, and the country's most concealed carry gun permits. "In the Gunshine State," he says, "Florida Man can turn on you real quick." He knows the meme is messy and often offensive and cruel. But he also thinks Florida Man can be admirable. With lawyerly precision, he defines Florida Man as a person who embodies "free-spirited recklessness" and "doesn't put other people in harm's way."
"There's a level of Florida Man in all of us," Phillips says. "The question is how you channel it."
Is it okay to laugh at Florida Man? In the comedy business, the answer to such a question is always an unsatisfying "It depends." When you're joking about real people, it mostly depends on whether you're laughing at someone, in a dehumanizing kind of way, or if you're laughing with someone — often because, even (or especially) in their worst moment, they remind you of yourself. The once-absurdist Florida Man meme has undoubtedly curdled into callous jokes at the expense of the vulnerable. But plenty of people laugh with Florida Man, knowing how easy it is to become one. Ultimately, many of these stories aren't as extraordinary as the headlines; they just have that one odd detail — or one memorable mug shot — that, if spun correctly, might turn one person's DUI into another's LOL.
Like a lot of memes, Florida Man's popularity doesn't exactly prove or disprove the inherent wisdom of the crowd so much as it highlights our collective contradictions. We like to cheer on the underdog and revel in someone else's pain. We enjoy mocking and empathizing with the unfortunate, partly because clickbait-or-bust social media is essentially built to multiply one superficial behavioral extreme or the other.
So when the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp planned their Florida Man night, they looked for a family-friendly mascot who represented the best of Florida Man without dragging along the worst of his baggage: a Floridian who hadn't hurt anyone, who wasn't being exploited, and who was happy to have people laugh along with him. They found Lane Pittman, a multiple-time Florida Man who rallies the crowd at Jacksonville Jaguars NFL games, waving flags and firing T-shirt cannons as part of the Jax Pack hype team.
At the Jumbo Shrimp's Florida Man Night, Pittman will play the national anthem on electric guitar because, the first time he went viral, he was "Florida man arrested after playing national anthem on July 4." In the video seen everywhere from BuzzFeed to Fox News, Pittman, wearing jorts and an American flag tank top, shreds like Hendrix on a Neptune Beach sidewalk until hundreds of people gather around and he is arrested for obstructing traffic.
"I was like: This is American as crap! Freedom, baby!" Pittman reminisces. "I had everybody dabbing me up, high-fiving me. I had one old lady kiss me on the face. Then two cops came over."
The second time he went viral, he uploaded a nine-second video of himself — no shirt, no shoes, just board shorts — headbanging and holding an American flag against the torrential wind and rain of 2016's Hurricane Matthew, to the blare of Slayer's "Raining Blood." The video was viewed nearly 4 million times. His rock gods, including Slayer, retweeted him. Foo Fighters simply tweeted: "LANE PITTMAN." Frontman Dave Grohl posed in Billboard, wearing a T-shirt with Lane's flag-waving, headbanging caricature.
When I meet Pittman at a hard-rock music festival in downtown Jacksonville, the lean 26-year-old surfer dude with long red hair is wearing jorts and an American flag tank top — what he calls "my Hurricane Lane persona." Amid the roar of speed metal, Pittman hypes up fans at a pop-up advertising space, where a long line of autograph seekers wait on members of Korn and Evanescence.
Pittman's hurricane videos have become a hurricane-season YouTube ritual — a rain dance in defiance of the weather. In some ways, the original video is — like frozen Florida orange juice — the most concentrated and syrupy example of what it means to be a Florida Man: a wild man who stands firm against propriety, the forces that threaten to destroy this strange paradise, and common sense itself.
Pittman's career path as a professionalized Florida Man began in high school, when he was elected class clown. He honed his theatrics while working a $10-an-hour gig as a roadside sign spinner with Big Guy Moving, Velcroed into a muscle suit in the 90-degree heat. These days, Pittman, who fronts a metal band and does social media consulting, is the most clean-cut Florida Man you can imagine, despite being a metalhead icon embraced by Slayer. He doesn't curse or drink. He's a devout youth leader of his Baptist church, an assistant lacrosse coach and a substitute music teacher who asks to "bless it up real quick" before eating his egg biscuit at Starbucks. He embraces the mantle of Florida Man, though he doesn't sympathize with some of his more disreputable brethren.
"On Facebook somebody tagged me alongside a guy who ran through a convenience mart with a gator, like, 'Y'all should be friends!' " says Pittman. "I'm like: I don't want to be his friend!"
Listening to Pittman, I can't help but think of my own mixed feelings about the meme, which bundle up my fairly conventional anxieties about social media: I worry that this miraculous, unprecedented amount of information and connection is making us less empathetic toward people we see and meet online, and I suspect that it's only going to get worse. Given how quickly falsehoods spread online, I ask Pittman if it bothers him that people probably do confuse the real Florida with the meme.
In between selfies with fans, Pittman brushes back his sweaty hair and tells me that his take on Florida Man and the internet is simpler, and more optimistic: Every state has its idiots, criminals and problems; it's unfair that his home state takes so much flak. But people generally know what's right. And, besides, it's not going to stop him, or any other Florida Man, from acting crazy if they feel like it.
"People throw shade at Florida. Like, a lot." A brief cloud passes over his upbeat mood, then the Florida Man smiles. "But you can't put shade on us. We're the Sunshine State!"