The Internet: Let’s jump straight to the very heart of the matter: why do you hate Jeff Jarvis?
The Critic: I certainly don’t hate him! But I do have rather complex feelings about Jeff. Shouldn’t we all? I’ve really tried not to pay any attention to him for a couple of years — he couldn’t last much longer, I naively said to myself — but soon I’ve realized that Jarvis has become too dangerous to be left unchallenged. I had no dog in the future of media fight but privacy is something that is very dear to my heart, as I am interested in the future of surveillance. Jarvis’s foray into this field did not promise anything particularly auspicious; hearing Mark Zuckerberg bloviate about the virtues of “frictionless sharing” is already more than enough.
Think of the annoying crying toddler who sits next to you on the airplane and is screaming at the top of his lungs. Do you hate him? Probably not. First you try not to notice - you reach for the ear plugs or put on those fancy noise-cancelling Bose headphones or some such - but then the battery runs out, you wake up and discover that the crying toddler is still at it - but now he is actually dispatching weather advice to the crew and they are taking him seriously. This sorta describes my feelings towards Jeff Jarvis. And, please, I have nothing against toddlers!
I: Still, something is fishy about your review. Did you really have Jeff Jarvis in your crosshairs since June? What a jerk!
C: Mamma mia! What’s with Jeff’s persecution complex? This must be the stuff of his wildest dreams. Back in March (which is actually June in Jeff’s universe) I did tweet - in response to a message from the fake (and much funnier) @JiffJarvis that I had been assigned to review the Internet maestro’s book — but that was all! I didn’t know Jarvis’s book wasn’t finished - otherwise I wouldn’t have offered him such an opportunity to try to preempt my criticisms by praising me in it. (Never mind he completely misunderstands my arguments even when praising me; still, I’ll accept any praise Jeff has to offer - I’m in good company here, right next to Habermas!)
Please note that I did not name the book nor mentioned Jarvis by name or by his Twitter handle. Perhaps, he pays close attention to all the tweets from @JiffJarvis but to say that I’ve been boasting that I had him in the crosshairs - when I didn’t even name him or his book! - is a bit disingenuous. But I grant him coherence: the whole response is disingenuous.
And I was genuinely looking forward to reading the book! Unfortunately, it has met all my expectations…
I: But Jarvis is a sick man. Don’t you care about his two cancers and his heart condition? We know that they do things differently in savage Eastern Europe but here, in the real America, you’ve got to show respect to one’s elders!
C: Not sure what Jeff’s cancer or his heart condition have to do with the quality of his book or my review of it. If this line of defense persists, I’ll start claiming the “born in Chernobyl / raised under a dictatorship” privilege. I hope Jarvis is not going to bring up Hitler or the Holocaust, because this is where it’s headed. (I’ll pretend I didn’t notice him invoking 9/11 in his response.)
I: Let’s keep Hitler out of this. Still, did you write this review just to gain attention and pimp your own book?
C: You’d better check with my shrink but I don’t think so. On days like this I like to remind myself of that beautiful line I found in a book that I read recently - I think it was actually in Public Parts - ”I like the attention. I am human”. But I guess this, too, falls under the kinds of privileges that Jeff grants only to himself. When Jeff seeks attention, this is all kosher and alright - that’s the very crux of publicness - but when others do so, he just hates it! No worries, Jeff: you won’t have many rivals in the run-up to this year’s Diva of the Interwebs Award; I withdraw…Now it’s just you, Jay Rosen, and Andrew Keen!
I: But aren’t you trolling? Why are you attacking Jeff Jarvis’s personality? Isn’t it a rather vulgar approach that is at odds with serious intellectual critique? Shouldn’t you lead by example?
C: This trolling business is very funny. Apparently, Jeff thought I was trolling right until too many people told him that I had delivered a devastating (lethal, perhaps?) blow to his book, at which point he thought that, well, my review was not trolling and he stooped to writing a long-winded (and predictably incoherent) response. Or, perhaps, his publisher has given him no choice. In any event, don’t you think that calling me a troll, proposing that I wrote this review only to attract attention to myself or implying that I had written it even before he finished writing the book is a much more serious personality attack than anything I have actually said in the review?
I: It sure does sound like it. But, still, why bring Jarvis into it?
C: Well, there is another way to think about it: a good half of the book is about Jeff Jarvis, his attempts to attract publicity to himself, his quirky fights with zi Germanz, his taste in saunas. Had I not gone after Jarvis’s personality, I fear I would have been accused of leaving out important parts of the book…(But wait, I was!) A nonfiction book that has its author as the main character probably deserves a thorough treatment of the author’s character, don’t you think? And I think (hope?) I only plumbed the shallows.
I: But Jeff claims he believes in the power of ideas! This is why he writes books; he is an idea man. You, on the other hand, depict him as a charlatan who is influential only because he knows how to make senior media executives regret they have never learnt the art of PowerPoint back in the day. This can’t be the case, can it?
C: I’ll let this quote from Jeff-the-idea-man answer this question for me (it can be found in the book under review):
“[Seth] Godin is to blame for my writing books. He sat me down one day and said I was a fool if I didn’t write one – and I would further be a fool if I thought that the book was the goal. No, he said, the book would build my public reputation, which would lead to other business. It has.”
For the record: my only regret is that Seth Godin did not stress the word “one” when advising Jarvis. Two autobiographies of Jeff Jarvis in two years is a little bit too much.
I: That is a bit offensive for my taste. But if you are right, how can such a smart man teach at a prestigious university?
C: No idea. Still, make no mistake: Jarvis doesn’t give a hoot about ideas, which becomes painfully obvious if you read both my review and his response. What I really loved about that response is how he tries to capture the essence of my every paragraph - and fails in half of his attempts. For example, when I say that in his universe good things are technologically determined and bad things are socially determined, he proceeds to summarize it as me claiming that he believes that “technology is good and people bad” and summarily dismisses this as a figment of my imagination. But, of course, that’s not what I wrote! (And guess how he explains the Rutgers suicide just three paragraphs down in his response? “I blame society”.)
In that particular paragraph, I was pointing out that Jarvis doesn’t have any coherent philosophy to explain the interaction between technology and society or the casual mechanisms that stem from that interaction. Alas, Jarvis doesn’t care much about such intellectual subtleties; he believes that if he doesn’t say something directly in plain language, it is not to be found in the book. And then he has the guts to accuse me of anti-intellectualism!
I: But surely you are only bashing Jarvis because you are a privileged scholar and he’s a public intellectual, that rare glib creature who is close to the common man and who does not want to complicate ideas for fear of being misunderstood? How much Habermas - skimmed, at best, between a dinner of yummy German bratwurst and the much-awaited football game - can the common man have in one sitting?
C: I am afraid that in making this point Jeff only further reveals his complete ignorance of who I am and what I do. First of all, he writes that I am with Georgetown University — which has not been the case since June 2010. Nor am I an “editor” at Foreign Policy; “contributing editor” means something very different, which Jarvis, having spent decades in journalism, seems not to know. So much for his stellar reporting.
Alas, he can’t pull a Sarah Palin “let’s bash these learned men” trick on me: all I’ve got is a BA from a mediocre school somewhere in the Balkans. Predictably, I have absolutely zero interest in taking Jarvis to task for not adhering to strict academic standards (which I myself flout at every given opportunity).
Yes, technically, I am a “visiting scholar” at Stanford, which I always understood to mean that I am visiting a bunch of scholars. (“Visiting scholars” would be a far more apt description of what I do!) None of this, of course, means that Jeff should get a free pass on intellectual standards, which for me transcend the borders of the university.
I: But you do seem to speak quite authoritatively about Habermas and expect similar treatment from Jarvis…
C: More breaking news for Jeff: I am not a Habermas scholar either and Jarvis’s assertion that I try to hold him to some unreachable academic standards is bunk. It was he who has chosen to venture into discussions of the public sphere and Habermas and it was he who fumbled the effort. I was just stating the facts for the benefit of those who may not have read Habermas at all. Academic nitpicking it isn’t.
In fact, if you read my review closely, everything that I say about modern academia is either bad or pejorative. How on earth could one interpret what I wrote - starting with the first paragraphs about Bradbury’s novel! - as part of an effort to defend rigid and exlusionary academic standards is beyond me. In the review, I accuse academics of being narrow-minded and trading in “pompous, ahistorical, and vacuous” terms - but Jarvis interprets this jab to mean that I am “putting a fence around [my] world of academics” and am defending a “closed world…excluding others from entering their fields.” Boy, what a load of nonsense! I was making the exact opposite point, blaming academics for being inaccessible - but Jeff’s sloppy populism knows no borders.
I: Okay but the question still remains: Why didn’t you do justice to Jarvis’s ideas in your review?
C: A reviewer’s ability to do justice to ideas in a book under review is a function of the author’s ability to articulate and connect those ideas in the first place. Why have I not engaged in a more substantial discussion of Jarvis’s ideas? Because there aren’t many! I picked a few ideas that I thought were most important and consequential: his treatment of privacy and his treatment of the public sphere. I probably spent close to 2,000 words on those two ideas alone. But Jeff somehow thinks that I am talking about him when I am actually talking about his ideas…I know his persona is fascinating - but come on, it’s not so fascinating.
What else is in the book? Well, there are some mediocre attempts to write history and discuss some relevant academic articles; there are business maxims; there is plenty of preaching - but serious ideas are hard to come by in this book. Not much else. I’ve looked.
I: But, wait, there are chapter names, page numbers, words, sentences in this book! Doesn’t this count for something? Why do you mention none of this?
C: Technically, you are right, the Internet. There is even a bibliography of sorts at the end. But it’s one of those cases where the whole is much, much less than the sum of the parts. Perhaps, this is why Jarvis has preferred to respond to my review on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis rather than to deal with my critique as a whole. After all, if you manage to say something in response to every paragraph, it seems to deflect the whole point of the review, right? Wait, did someone say “trolling”? But I digress.
Essentially - as I do point out in the review - Jarvis’s argument boils down to “privacy is important but so is publicness”. It’s an argument that is trite, boring, and uninteresting, which I point out in the review. In its originality, it’s akin to “sun is important but so is water” or “cars are important but so are roads.” Now, try selling me a book about it! Perhaps, I’ll just wait for the TED talk…I am sure it will have great slides!
I: Wow, this does sound immensely boring and banal! How did his publisher find this argument refreshing?
C: That’s a mystery to me as well but let me guess. The only reason why anyone pays attention to Public Parts is because Jarvis, in claiming to write a book about publicness, has found a way to build that conversation on top of the growing public anxiety about privacy. Of course, you won’t hear this from him directly: he’ll always deny that he juxtaposes privacy and publicness - and he hedges his bets in the book quite well. But this is just a clever ruse: implicitly, he still treats publicness as if it were the opposite of privacy.
And how couldn’t he - who would pay attention otherwise? (As I ask in the review, how many copies could a book advising lawyers and doctors to get a web-site sell in 2011?) Whether he likes it or not, Jarvis badly needs this dichotomy to exist; as you can see from the Amazon video in which he promotes the book, he actually jumps to this argument directly, just 30 sec into his talk: he knows that it sells.
His whole argument has an amazing strawman-like quality to it: show me at least one privacy advocate who does not recognize that, on average, it’s beneficial for lawyers and doctors to have web-sites! Who are those people Jarvis is hoping to convince that privacy is not the only value that we need to treasure? Do they exist? As I pointed out in the review, these people are hard to come by - and he doesn’t name any in the book.
I: But why didn’t you simply recount Jarvis’s tricks in making his chapters connect to each other? You had written more than 6,000 words - surely you could say more about how chapter 3 builds on chapter 2?
C: To fault me for not explicating every step he takes in making sure that these loose “ideas” hang together would be unfair to prospective readers of the book. Public Parts is one of those books, where it’s not the ideas but rather how they are studied, probed, and presented that says more about the author, his thinking, his motivation, and the broader culture that finds such “ideas” appealing. In other words, the reason why this book is culturally significant is not because of the (un)originality of its argument but because, in our day and age, this passes for a serious attempt to think about an important Internet-related issue.
I thought I made this point quite clear by ending the essay with a long section on Internet intellectuals in general. Alas, Jarvis is not unique in his mediocrity and, for all his attempts to claim that this a personal attack on him, I don’t think he alone is worth such a huge effort. He is a good case-study but he represents a much bigger problem. And, by the way, I do think this mediocrity has high costs - not just when it comes to thinking about the future of publishing or culture but also in the context of foreign policy, a field that I myself have been researching for quite some time now. Do you really want Jeff Jarvis to influence the thinking of someone - anyone? - at, say, the State Department’s Iran or, for that matter, Belarus desks? I certainly do not.
With this, I’d like to reiterate my main criticism of Public Parts: this book refuses to make an even cursory attemp to examine the changing relationship between the public and the private, as it claims to. Rather, it reads like a long marketing prospectus for Jeff Jarvis, where ideas, mediocre and poorly articulated as they are, have at best only a supporting role. I’ve simply done my best not to lose the forest for the trees, which, by the way, seems to be Jarvis’s preferred way of reasoning (see his response to my review, where he attacks every paragraph but refuses to confront its essence as a quintessential example).
I: But surely your review is not perfect?
C: I’m more than happy to acknowledge that in a 4,000-word response that Jarvis has produced, he did manage to score one gotcha. I am, indeed, inconsistent in using terms “salary” and “income” when refering to his earnings. Jarvis’s salary is made public by default as he works at a public university; his income isn’t. He does disclose (all of? some of?) his sources of income but he never says how much he makes in total.
I: Who’s next?
C: To quote Sarah Palin: “Um, all of them.”