Josh Friedland on @ruthbourdain and Twitter’s anniversary

July 15, 2013

One of the great mysteries of Twitter — the author of the parody handle @ruthbourdain — was revealed Friday as Josh Friedland confessed to the New York Times that he is the elusive satirist. Friedland helped conclude the three-year-long story arch on the social media site on the eve of the anniversary of Twitter opening to the public.

Monday marks the seven-year date when the masses were invited to make handles, and in a way Friedland’s use of the tool marks the evolution of the platform and its varied opportunities. What started as a playful mocking of the haiku-like tweets published by former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl through the imagined voice of culinary and TV star Anthony Bourdain turned from simple jest into a full persona that simultaneously irked and intrigued the food world. The account was at the forefront of the Twitter-as-commentary trend that has led to other popular streams like @feministtswift.

The idea came to fruition when Friedland heard that Bourdain was reading Reichl’s tweets on his short-lived Sirius radio show.

 “He was reading them out loud in a beat poetry type of thing,” Frieldand says. “And for some reason it just hit me to take this and combine them together in a funny way.” He sent out the first tweet under @ruthbourdain in March 2010 and has been pushing them out ever since. But unlike the waves of parody accounts that have been made for everything from Angelina Jolie’s leg to Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women,” @ruthbourdain has had a shockingly long shelf-life.  

Friendland has sent more than 2,700 tweets from the account and has amassed 70,000 followers. Though the success is a bit of a mystery to him (he says the secrecy of his real identity has also thwarted opportunities to receive direct feedback), he thinks part of the reason was his ability to build the handle into a full-fledged character. “The platform is just an avatar and 140 [characters] but it becomes as real as any other thing.” Keeping his own identity under wraps was another important factor, Friedland says.


“If you weren’t thinking about another person, it made the character feel more real, you conjured this vision of this character with this striking appearance and interest and everything. I let people’s imagination run wild in terms of who it could be.”

The mystery kept many in the food industry baited. One food journalist mistakenly outed famed critic Robert Sietsema as the culprit after seeing him on his phone during a conference in Charleston, S.C., in 2011. Earlier that year, Alice Waters claimed to be behind the handle in an April Fools prank that Friendland said he found a good show of her sense of humor.

 

 

While Friendland was developing the character, even conducting interviews and writing pieces for Chow Hound under the name, he was also using Twitter in a more conventional way for his site, the Food Section. Under that handle, he was sharing recipes and food and travel stories.

On both accounts he jumped into conversation around news and current events. Under @ruthbourdain he’s published comments about Paula Deen’s controversial statements and Marco Rubio’s awkward sip of water during the State of the Union Republican response.

 

“Because of the platform you can be so instantaneous and I would insert myself into things that were topical,” Friedland says. “You can jump on it and insert your voice along with everyone else’s voice. It makes it sort of real even though it is just a ridiculous thing.”

As seen in the response to the George Zimmerman verdict over the weekend, Friedland thinks the use of hashtags really deepens the conversation.

“You have the established voice whether it is a journalist or a celebrity,” Friedland says. “On the other hand people do have these hashtags. When people use hashtags, more interesting or richer content can kind of rise up through.”

Friedland has seen many people who started food blogs switch entirely to Twitter to join conversations around food and dining.

“I don’t know if it is necessarily replacing blogging it just an easier way of conversing,” he says.

Though he is unsure of the future for @ruthbourdain, Friedland thinks there is plenty of room for parodies and Twitter characters despite the high rate at which they are created. And he is open to keeping one of the original mock-handles going.

“It just never ends with these ridiculous things happening in the food world. Maybe a lack of inspiration then this Paula Deen thing will appear,” he says. “If Ruth Reichl stops and the food world suddenly changed I guess it would have been different.”

 

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