No, Ethics Have Been Around For A While Now

Of all the various issues raised by the dueling documentaries – one on Hulu, one on Netflix – recounting the events of Fyre Festival, one of the most pervasive has been the actions of Jerry Media, a creative agency hired by the founders of Fyre to promote the event online. The agency, which produced the film available on Netflix, has come under significant criticism since it debuted, primarily because it has a history of stealing other people’s photos and comments and republishing them under their own @fuckjerry Instagram account.

The comments have become so widespread that Elliot Tebele, Jerry Media founder, has felt it necessary to respond with a post on Medium that seems intended to defend (or at least deflect) some of the charges leveled against himself and those who work for him.

Here’s the key graf from his post:

I know I’ve made enemies over the years for using content and not giving proper credit and attribution to its creators. In the early days of FuckJerry, there were not well-established norms for reposting and crediting other users’ content, especially in meme culture. Instagram was still a new medium at the time, and I simply didn’t give any thought to the idea that reposting content could be damaging in any way.

Alright, let’s take that apart a bit.

The “early days” of FuckJerry are 2011, which Tebele positions as the Wild West of the internet, free from rules and structure, where anything went and people were ruled only by their hedonistic impulses.

Right from the outset he has shown himself to be either A) a liar, or B) ignorant. For the sake of argument let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and go with “ignorant.”

The Federal Communications Commission enacted guidelines for disclosure of paid social media and online postings in 2009. What Tebele is talking about isn’t exactly that, but it’s important to note that the Federal government deciding to weigh in on what should or shouldn’t happen online is at least 10 years in the past, occurring prior to the free for all described by Tebele.

Conversations around what did or didn’t constitute “fair use” of consumer-generated media predates even that. Those conversations were happening as far back as 2004 (if not earlier), as soon as the first brands began using photos people were posting online in their ads and other marketing. It quickly became evident that the same sort of permissions collected from professional photographers were necessary when dealing with the owner of flickr.com/FloridaPhotoGuy.

So Tebele’s statement there was a lack of “well-established norms for reposting and crediting other users’ content” betrays a startling lack of awareness of basic principles that had been around for at least a half-dozen years. If he was unaware of them it’s because he had a vested interest in not knowing what they were. It’s true he may not have been around while those foundational discussions were being hashed out in blog posts and comments, but if he wanted to build a business around online marketing he had a responsibility to educate himself, something he obviously didn’t do. That makes him at best negligent.

If he’s running a stupid little Instagram account with a “shocking” handle that’s one thing. It’s another if he’s using that philosophy as the foundation for a creative agency that purports to do actual client work, because ultimately those clients are going to be responsible for the actions taken on their behalf.

In many ways the Jerry Media situation offers a perfect example of the modern state of online marketing, one where getting people’s attention is the end that justifies any and all means. So it’s fine that, as of 2017, only 11 percent of marketers were aware of FTC guidelines around sponsored content disclosure. Why should they, when it will only get in the way of posting the kind of material that resulted from that epic microbrew-fueled brainstorming sesh.

It’s a generation that has come up *after* the ones that had the kind of original conversations mentioned earlier. Unfortunately as they gained influence they discarded much of what had come before, perhaps because they didn’t make their bones in the age of links and attribution, instead being raised on social media sharing where nothing came from an individual, it was all just there on the platform. And brands were all too happy to sign up with these buzz-driven agencies founded by one or two dudes who were “good at Instagram” and who would help them seem cool with the kids.

While they were doing that – often on the cheap – those who took a more ethical and sustainable approach to the business kept doing their thing. Flashy agencies came and went but more ethical shops stuck around, often picking up the pieces left behind when some other agency exploded the brand’s reputation or caused other problems that now need to be fixed.

Outside of all that, Tebele’s comment that he didn’t give thought to the idea reposting content without attribution could cause problems simply doesn’t hold water from a rhetorical point of view. He obviously did, otherwise he wouldn’t have removed the name of the person who originally posted it. It’s like filing off the serial number on a gun and then claiming you had no idea doing so would make it harder for police to trace.

In the documentary, Tebele rationalizes his involvement with Fyre Festival by saying something like “Well you can’t expect vendors to vet the people and companies they do business with.” But that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. Is this a legitimate company or venture? Do the people I’m working with have a history of ethical behavior? Can I trust them?

The Jerry Media team didn’t worry about that – and apparently have never worried about it – because it simply doesn’t matter to them. If it seems fun and like an opportunity to party, they’re in. Rules can be ignored, if they’re aware they exist at all.

Advertisements