Florida Man: Not a Recent Phenomenon

An academic’s “history” of “Florida Man” makes some startling — and completely wrong! — claims about how the “Florida Man meme” got started online. No, it wasn’t in 2012, or even the “mid-2000s”!

Florida Man: Not a Recent Phenomenon
Looks all literary and scholarly, but there are problems with this essay.

I Happened Upon an essay by Tyler Gillespie at Literary Hub, a website created by book publisher Grove Atlantic: “How the Internet Turned ‘Florida Man’ Into a Figure of Indulgence, Decadence, and Bad Decision Making”.

This is my response.

Gillespie has academic cred: he teaches at Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi — shouldn’t that be Ol’ Miss?), but he so muffed his “history” of “Florida Man” (he even has a “theory”: see the first four words of his essay!) that I really had to respond. I’ve already sent him what follows. The links are also included in my letter.


Tyler Gillespie
23 April 2021, by email

Hey Tyler

I spotted your April 19 piece, “How the Internet Turned ‘Florida Man’ Into a Figure of Indulgence, Decadence, and Bad Decision Making” on Literary Hub, but wanted you to know your history on the origins of “Florida Man” is way off.

“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.”

Um, no.

It’s terrific that in the mid-2000s Fark.com “began to track weird Florida news,” but that was long after another site “contributed to the genesis of Florida as an internet meme.”

That would be This is True, where I had been telling Florida Man stories online for five years before Fark went online in 1999. And I’m still at it.

Virality is how This is True grew — by design — starting in 1994 when I was on the engineering staff at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Talk about unreasonable,” wrote Paul Lemberg in Be Unreasonable (2007). “At the time, the Internet was considered to be a pristine, unexploited commons. There were all sorts of cultural rules and norms in place forbidding commerce: nobody was going to sell anything, and certainly no one would be making any money.

“But Cassingham, seeing the future, charged ahead and ignored those rules. (If you think this is common now, it is. But not in 1994!)”

Florida Man: Not a Recent Phenomenon
About Tyler Gillespie (from LitHub, click to see larger.)

So how is “virality” involved? Lemberg raised his eyebrow over another set-in-concrete rule I “broke”: while I have a clear copyright on True (as I call it for short), he points out that right from the start its wording encouraged readers to share the [free edition] issues with friends. It was an unheard-of idea in publishing at that point.

Thus, he concludes, “This is True may have been the first viral marketing success.”

The mention of the free edition above is telling as True was also pioneering in another way: it “might be the first example of an online ‘fre[e]mium’ business model,” said Jim Kukral at Huffington Post in 2012. He continues, “In the early years, he turned down two unsolicited syndication deals to bring the column to newspapers — turning them down because he didn’t want to give up control of his work, he says.”

That page is mostly about how I pulled my archives offline because Google decided it didn’t want to be so generous to sites running their ads, and started putting them up as Kindle books instead — and later removed Google’s ads from my site entirely (though for unrelated reasons).

And it’s not just that a few writers have talked about This is True here and there. My “media page” has many examples of nice words from mainstream publications, such as:

  • “All the News That’s Not Fit to Print.” —Newsweek
  • “The kind of news items that keep comedians and commentators in business.” —Washington Post
  • “Best in Net Entertainment, 1994.” —Internet World
  • How did he get so popular so fast? Well, for one thing, he writes funny stuff.” —New York Times
  • “And now for something completely different.” –CNN Morning News
  • “One of our favorite [online features]. If you like what you read, buy the book.” —Internet World
  • “Cassingham believes he has the best of both worlds. He gets to report on stories but can add his own twist.” —American Bookseller
  • “The truth sometimes hurts, but when it crosses the line to downright funny, that’s when Randy Cassingham swings into action.” —Boardwatch
  • “Cassingham is a humorist for the Information Age, an Internet-savvy satirist and social commentator. The Jay Leno of Cyberspace.” —Los Angeles Times
  • “In a reversal of the current trend, he broke into print — and profit using his on-line popularity as a springboard.” —Denver Post
  • “Inspired: ‘This is True’ author Randy Cassingham. Mired: Grizzled conspiracy fan Pierre Salinger.” —Wall Street Journal, “The Year on the Net”
  • “For years, Cassingham has been searching the papers for amazing but true news stories or headlines, to which he attaches a witty, funny or borderline-sarcastic tagline. It’s nearly impossible to read these and not laugh out loud.” —Philadelphia Daily News
  • Hot Site: “Randy Cassingham has a passion for the truth. And you’ll never believe the stuff he’s dug up…. Truly stranger than fiction.” —USA Today

— and those are just some of the examples …from the 1990s.

(You’ll note from that page that we share a publication in common: Playboy has both published my writing and talked about me/True numerous times over the years — going back to 1999.)

While you declared “A major increase in searches for the term ‘Florida Man’ later occurred in June 2012, around the time of the viral Miami Cannibal story,” one of my readers did some “statistical analysis” of This is True stories that I published back in 2011 that declared “Florida: Officially the Weirdest” — as had been obvious to anyone who had read my column for pretty much any length of time.

“But yes,” I concluded on that page, “while most expect California to be the weirdest state in the Union, it’s not; Florida is definitely weirder. Residents there whined when I once did an all-Florida issue, yet I could probably do one every month, if I was so inclined.”

I’ll close by saying that I do not claim authorship of the “Florida Man meme” — my take is, it’s been around for decades if not generations, though surely not using that term. Or let me say it explicitly: “‘Florida Man’ was a viral phenomenon online well before the 21st Century.”

But I do agree that “the Internet” is hugely responsible for turning “‘Florida Man’ Into a Figure of Indulgence, Decadence, and Bad Decision Making”!

In any case, Fark is definitely a Johnny-come-lately in the online annals of what is Florida Man — or “weird news,” for that matter. Been there, did that, still doing it.

Sincerely,

Randy Cassingham
Founder, This is True

Attached: 25 pages of example This is True “Florida Man” stories …all from before the year 2000 (let alone 2012!)

Fair Notice: after sending this to you I’ll be posting it on my site: “Florida Man: Not a Recent Phenomenon” at https://thisistrue.com/florida-man-not-recent


What I Also Sent Tyler

The 25-page PDF of pre-2000 Florida Man stories from True is an excerpt of my in-progress book compiling Florida Man (and Florida Woman!) stories. I had not intended to issue a “preview” of that book, but since I made it for Tyler I am making it available in my shopping cart for $5 if you want to see it. I would obviously appreciate your not circulating it elsewhere.

– – –

Bad link? Broken image? Other problem on this page? Let Me Know, and thanks.

This page is an example of Randy Cassingham’s style of “Thought-Provoking Entertainment”. His This is True is an email newsletter that uses “weird news” as a vehicle to explore the human condition in an entertaining way. If that sounds good, click here to open a subscribe form.

To really support This is True, you’re invited to sign up for a subscription to the much-expanded “Premium” edition:

One Year Upgrade

Florida Man: Not a Recent Phenomenon
(More upgrade options here.)

Q: Why would I want to pay more than the regular rate?

A: To support the publication to help it thrive and stay online: this kind of support means less future need for price increases (and smaller increases when they do happen), which enables more people to upgrade. This option was requested by existing Premium subscribers.

11 Comments on “Florida Man: Not a Recent Phenomenon

  1. And once again we see why a single source does not research make. If he wanted to be lazy, he should have acknowledged the lack of effort, perhaps playing to humor as if he were a Floridian. Alas, he comes close to the definition of Florida Man without being tongue-in-cheek. Missed opportunity.

    Reply
  2. Here’s my theory: Florida was one of the first and remains one of the few states to publish their arrest records freely online.

    So whenever a journalist is having a slow day, they hop on over to find “some crazy thing that happened in Florida today,” because if you trawl arrest records there will ALWAYS be something crazy happening.

    I do agree that’s part of the equation. Another is, as a “retiree state,” newspapers are still relatively profitable there since an older-skewed population is much more likely to subscribe to, and read, newspapers, and they compete with each other to find an unusual story. There are, of course, other factors …which I’ll be talking about in the book mentioned. -rc

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    • Right. Anywhere else, a man attacks his wife. Florida has more details, so Florida man attacks his wife with garden gnome.

      Reply
    • As someone who lived in Florida for many years, quite some time ago, I heard many funny stories, even weird ones. Florida is an unusual mix of people: retirees, circus people, drug dealers, beach bunnies, celebrities, swamp people and Amish. Add in a few generations of people coming down to develop and sell property or products to the other Floridians, especially new ones. Some of the stories I heard, often from a person in the story, would be great for “This Is True”.

      One of the first I heard was from someone who was giving a co-worker a ride to work because he’d lost his license, and the guy insisted on showing off his latest gun purchase. Standing in his kitchen, looking around, he grabbed a bottle of dish detergent and tossed it in the air. As soon as it hit the ground, he shot it, and continued to fire at it as it bounced around the kitchen. I was skeptical about the story until my friend rolled up his pant leg and showed me where the final shot went.

      Wild and exotic animals are also common, with tales of gators, wallabies and monkeys running loose. One job I enjoyed listening to the lions roar, since I often loaded my truck at their feeding time. Some early Tarzan movies were filmed in Florida and some people and animals stayed afterward.

      Reply
  3. I think this Medium article by Paul Barach is the best explanation for Florida Man that I have seen. It covers everything from the long standing press access to the police reports to prehistoric monsters eating escaped felons — and everything in between.

    Definitely much more complete than the average. I don’t have a publication date in mind yet for my book (it’s one of those “side projects”), but it’ll have my explanation in detail …even though it’s an ever-moving target. -rc

    Reply
  4. Florida Man, though not named as such, is the character re-invented in each of the books of Carl Hiaasen since the mid 1980s. Hiaasen, a native Floridian, began writing for the Miami Herald in 1976. Through his reporting, he was constantly exposed to the inane antics of fellow Floridians who, in composite, populated his novels. Hiaasen recognized the archetype long before the moniker Florida Man was coined, and before the word “meme” became ubiquitous in the popular lexicon.

    Reply
    • Meme is actually in a similar timeframe. I remember the concept and the term “meme” being written about in Dr. Dobbs Journal back in the very early 80s.

      According to Random House, Richard Dawkins coined it in 1976. -rc

      Reply
      • Richard Dawkins definitely coined the term ‘meme’. I recall reading a chapter about the concept in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’.

        Reply
  5. Being from Florida, I have seen firsthand some of the origins of Florida Man. In addition to those mentioned, Florida is a warm state and has a lot of migration, semi-permanent as well as seasonal. In other words, a lot of what purports to be from Florida is actually from elsewhere.

    Reply
    • Actually, seasonal resident would have their permanent address listed in any accusation, not their seasonal Florida address, so they wouldn’t be counted. As for the semi-permanent residents, they would only be counted if they spent more than half the year in Florida, in which case they would be Florida residents from a legal standpoint. So Randy’s statistics are accurate: Florida really the weirdest american state.

      While I agree Florida really is the weirdest American state, when a weird news report comes out of Florida, the reporter didn’t necessarily check the responsible party’s permanent address. We’ve seen many examples of people going to Florida to be weird. Conclusion: their brand of weirdness is clearly contagious! -rc

      Reply

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