Those who watch Twitter from a certain, occasionally perplexed vantage point took note recently as a long-running mystery was solved. John LeFevre, a former bond trader living in Texas, “was exposed” as the creator of @GSElevator (Goldman Sachs Elevator Gossip). The account passed along supposedly overheard sour nothings (more braggadocio and bon mots than actual gossip) straight from the black heart of America’s favorite financial institution to 647,000 followers. According to Dealbook’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, the identity of the gossip monger became the subject of a Wall Street “parlor game”: just who was GSElevator, and why would he risk his no-doubt lucrative career by sharing co-workers’s private (if insensitive) musings?
Sorkin included burdensome explanations of Internet shorthand and seemed inordinately concerned with the question of legal ramifications. But did @GSElevator’s followers truly believe a fly on the wall was providing these juicy dispatches? Some Occupy double-agent or self-hating analyst? In parts, Sorkin’s article felt like an attempt to shift the focus from the tweets themselves (Sample: “Poor people eat so much fast food you’d think their time was valuable”) to the question of how aggressively Goldman might respond. Other sections induced the same wiggly self-consciousness that might strike a Tweeter if they were asked to explain “Twitter Fiction” or “parody accounts” to their grandfather. Are we all just wasting our time?
While savvier or more jaded corners of the Internet greeted the Lefevre outing with a shrug, John Munson, a Manhattan gadabout and one-time Jeopardy contestant, felt it was as good a time as any to remind his own followers and Facebook friends that @GSElevator had routinely stolen content from his Twitter account (@jwmunson). He provided compelling evidence in the form of screengrabs, placing the @GSElevator tweets in question beside his own. “Hey @GSElevator want me to write your book for you too?” he tweeted, including a link to Gawker’s coverage of his allegations.
So if LeFevre didn’t work at Goldman and didn’t write the Tweets, what did he do to deserve a (since revoked) book deal? What sort of protection is afforded to content creators? What sort of protection is afforded to corporate brands? Do parody accounts have an obligation to label themselves as such? I reached out to John Munson for his thoughts on these matters. He was kind enough to answer a few questions over email while on a ski holiday in Italy.
MM: Who are you “in real life” and what do you do?
JM: My name is John Munson, and I am the chief elevator mechanic for the Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. and a fellow struggling humorist.
MM: How would you describe your Twitter account? Your Internet presence?
JM: My Twitter account is the place where I throw out my own original jokes, so I’d describe it as “incredibly genius” and “underrated.”
Seriously though, I think Twitter has done more for amateur comedy than any other medium. It used to be that if you thought you were funny, the only way to try out material was getting in front of a crowd and doing stand-up, which is pretty terrifying. But with Twitter, you can write a joke, send it out to the masses, and get an immediate response as to what works and what doesn’t.
In fact I really don’t understand why Twitter should be used for anything other than comedy. Who gives a shit about what you’re doing that day, or what you had for lunch? The only people I follow on Twitter are those who use it for jokes, along with a few friends I follow out of pure obligation, and a couple of porn stars, because there’s nothing I find more tragically amusing about the human condition than the Twitter feeds of men who comment at adult film actresses in pure earnest. Oh, and @arbys, because I’d really love free roast beef sandwiches for life.
MM: How long have you been aware of the similarities between your tweets and those on GSElevator?
JM: Two or three years at least. I actually didn’t know of the GSElevator account until my own Twitter followers messaged me telling me some of their posts were pretty much identical to mine. So I started following, and I’ll be the first to admit that I found a lot of it quite funny. But after seeing a number of my own jokes appear more or less word for word, I called him out on it via Twitter. His response was to block me from being able to follow GSElevator from my own account, which was pretty pointless considering I could just view it directly and see it kept using my jokes.
MM: How do you think he found you? There has been some speculation that you are somehow involved in the @GSElevator account. What do you say to these conspiracy types?
JM: I really have no idea how anyone finds my Twitter account, though the guy behind it clearly knows at least one person with exceptionally good taste. I definitely have nothing to do with the account, other than much of my own material being directly plagiarized by it. Considering my jokes account for such a small percent of what’s been published on GS Elevator, who knows how many people have had their jokes ripped off for this guy’s benefit. To those that think I was involved with the account, and there have been many over the years, I say I’d have been happy to admit it if I were one of the people who created it. It would have been great to behind something that was an unabashed success, instead of just being some schmuck trying to show the world how he was stripped of his rightful credit.
MM: How does it feel to have your tweets speak, however indirectly, for the employees of a massive financial concern, and by extension the banking industry in general?
JM: It’s humbling to think I could possibly be the spokesperson for a group that’s been otherwise so disenfranchised.
MM: In your opinion, what was the source of @GSElevator’s popularity? Did people really think these tweets came directly from a Goldman employee? Or were they simply a reflection of the public’s low opinion of “banksters”?
JM: I think there’s an understandable fascination with the sub-genre that’s come to be known as the “banker douche.” I know a lot of people who work in finance, and while many of them don’t fit into that stereotype, a startling number of them sadly do. These are guys–and girls–who make significantly more money than most people, and the lives of the rich have always been of interest to the masses. The difference is that more than probably any other occupation which produces high net worth individuals there are an awful lot of “banksters” who tend to be, particularly early in their careers–what’s the phrase I’m looking for here–total fucking assholes. But that bravado, whether you love it or hate it, certainly has an audience as proved by the number of followers GSElevator gained.
MM: What are your thoughts on “parody accounts”? Have they changed since this came to light?
JM: I’m a huge fan of parody accounts. There was a parody account “YesImWaspy” that to this day I still think is one of the best things the internets ever produced. I have no beef with the fact that the GSElevator account exists, I just think it’s fucked up that the guy allegedly behind it gave zero credit to the people whose original material he stole.
MM: It seems to me that Internet plagiarism is widespread but usually brushed aside, the original creators labelled jealous or petty or nerds or whatever by traditional media types. Is this due to laziness, self-interest, or a genuine lack of understanding of web publishing? Do you see any meaningful distinction between the GSElevator and, say, Jonah Lerner?
JM: The Internet has created a huge gray area in regards to original content. Look at things like Pinterest and to some extent Tumblr, where the whole basis is to take other things you’ve found online and curate it to appeal to a specific segment, or to help exemplify your own personal aesthetic and interests. Lord knows I’ve put things on Tumblr and Instagram that I didn’t know the original source of, but whenever I do know where it came from I make it a point to give them credit. So what upsets me most is not that this guy used my jokes, to some extent that’s actually quite flattering, what pisses me off is that when I called him out on it he was such an asshat about the whole thing.
MM: How would you like to see this played out? Best case scenario for you. He apologizes, he pays you, the account is deleted?
JM: I don’t expect any compensation out of this, nor do I expect it to stop any of the deals he’s gotten from it*. End of the day, he built a widely followed Internet presence, and that can be monetized. But I would love for myself, and what I can only assume are the many others who had their jokes published without credit on GSE, to get the recognition that we deserve for being the actual source of these things that make you laugh. Best case scenario, I guess I’d just like to challenge John LeFevre to a duel.
MM: You’re widely traveled, sophisticated, seemingly always in the right place at the right time. If you could tweet unnoticed from any rarefied sanctum (Skull and Bones bathroom, Jamie Dimon’s basement), what would it be?
JM: I’m an escalator guy myself. To quote the late, great Mitch Hedberg, whose material John LeFevre probably would have stolen “I like a escalator because an escalator can never break. It can only become stairs.”
*(Munson’s reaction to the news that Simon & Schuster cancelled LeFevre’s book deal: “Awwww.”)
Michael McGrath (@marcomcgrath) divides his time between Maine and Bogota. Visit him there, or at mikeymcgrath.com. His work will be included in the 2014 Twitter Fiction Festival.