Speaking to Jarvis and Bradbury, you get the impression that they disagree fundamentally on a profound variety of issues: the meaning of humor, the role of technology in our lives, the basic standard of human decency. Their fundamental disagreement, however, lies in the relatively simple debate over whether a reasonable person might think @ProfJeffJarvis is, in fact, Jarvis, and whether it’s Bradbury’s fault if they do.
That, in turn, invokes some larger questions about modern satire. For example: How is it distinct from deception? And is it bound by the same sorts of ethical concerns?
“What kind of net do we want?” Jarvis asks. “If you want to disagree with me, mock me, go ahead — lots of people do it. But don’t use my name to mislead people. That’s wrong. And rude. And exploitative.”
There are, to be clear, plenty of signs that @ProfJeffJarvis is a joke. Bradbury — who IRL is the chief marketing officer of the e-fraud company Trustev — follows Twitter’s parody policy to the letter. The account’s bio includes the line “not @JeffJarvis,” and its long-time avatar is a man wearing a beer helmet. Bradbury hasn’t been shy about identifying himself as the account’s author. He also makes no effort to imitate the actual Jarvis anymore, though the account did begin that way, and it still tweets on tech and media — Jarvis’s core subjects.
“Is reflop the new flop?” one recent tweet reads.
“Tinder should add endorsements like LinkedIn,” another says.
“The entirety of the @ProfJeffJarvis brand is absurd,” Bradbury said, “and this should be obvious to any intelligent person within seconds. … If anybody asked, I would always clarify that I was not Jeff Jarvis, and my bio and avatar were so ludicrous that the only reason to confuse me with a real professor would be extreme haste or stupidity.”
Unfortunately, as anyone who has spent 15 minutes on the Internet knows well, there’s a gaping chasm between what people should know about the material they read online and what they actually do. That might be because precious few of us actually read things — we’re far more apt to skim a page or click around it than we are to follow the text all the way through. The average social media user regularly shares things without reading them, according to Chartbeat; on news sites, the average page visit lasts a matter of seconds.
For more evidence, one need look no further than the burgeoning field of fake news: Even stories that are obviously fictional rack up thousands of shares, a problem so rampant that Facebook itself felt obliged to try and fix it.
Predictably, @ProfJeffJarvis has also suffered a number of mistaken-identity incidents in its day — there is apparently a plurality of “average readers” who don’t look much further than its name. In August 2014, Bradbury picked a Twitter fight with “The Black Swan” author Nassim Taleb — who then tweeted that Jarvis, an acquaintance, was “a disgrace” to academics. (Taleb later apologized and deleted the tweets, Jarvis says.) At a recent industry conference, Jarvis fielded awkward inquiries from a colleague who wondered why his tweets were frequently so rude. And on Tuesday, an editorial about the fictional “Innovation Party” appeared on Esquire under the byline @ProfJeffJarvis — a development so stressful to the real Jarvis that he suffered literal heart palpitations.
Jarvis was convinced that the average reader would scroll through the page and simply assume that the somewhat nutty piece was written by an actual CUNY professor. After all, as he complained in a much-discussed blog post, the story was never explicitly marked as satire.
“They’re expecting people to do some kind of forensic analysis in an age when the average reader spends 15 seconds on a page,” Jarvis said. “We are in the truth business. No story should be an IQ test.”
Even outside the “truth business” of journalism, Jarvis argues, Bradbury has some responsibility not to mislead. Not a legal or First Amendment responsibility, mind you, which many pundits mysteriously seem to have mixed up with this; nor a professional responsibility, since Bradbury isn’t a journalist. But given the Internet’s low level of media literacy, and the consequences that illiteracy can have, Jarvis believes Bradbury has a personal, ethical responsibility to make sure @ProfJeffJarvis is understood as fictive.
Matters of ethics are, of course, always open to debate. In fact, in a post on the blog Popehat, the lawyer and free speech advocate Ken White convincingly makes the opposite ethical argument: that Bradbury, as a satirist, has a responsibility to direct his barbs where he sees fit, and not to dumb down his criticisms, or even denote them, for the “ABC-at-8:00-PM” audience.
Neither he nor Bradbury seem particularly inclined to admit that the “ABC-at-8:00-PM” audience is almost certainly the “average” or “reasonable” reader to whom these debates often defer.
Esquire appears to have come to that eventual conclusion: Not long after the site published @ProfJeffJarvis’ piece, they deleted it.
“The authorship of the original post was not clear enough,” a spokesman told The Washington Post by email, “and it was an editorial decision to take it down.”
The piece has since moved to Gawker, where the authorship is abundantly clear: It’s running under the byline “@ProfJeffJarvis, a parody account,” and a lengthy, italicized explanation of how it ended up there. Gawker editor John Cook told The Post that while the site has no formal policy on satire, its editorial code emphasizes transparency.
“I don’t think there was any way any reasonable reader could come away from even the first graf with the impression that Jeff Jarvis wrote it,” Cook said, of Gawker’s version of the piece, “which I think is the appropriate way to handle satirical posts involving impersonation.”
Whether that standard catches on more widely remains to be seen; many of Bradbury’s sympathizers seem to feel that rules — rigid and humorless by necessity — risk ruining @ProfJeffJarvis’ joke. Bradbury agrees — “the essence of good parody is that it doesn’t have the label ‘parody,’” he told The Post — but has agreed to change the name on the account to spare Jarvis further palpitations.
“I understand there is some confusion after my @Esquire piece,” he tweeted Tuesday. “Please note, I am not Texan doctor Jeff Jarvis, who tweets at @DrJeffJarvis.”
Reached at his office in Georgetown, Tex., Jarvis — an average, reasonable reader on the Internet! — amicably concluded that the satire was “funny,” but that Bradbury should be more “transparent.” We hereby nominate him to take over the role of reigning Twitter-pundit-named-Jarvis. Maybe he can resolve some of the drama that his forebears started.
Liked that? Try these: