Category Archives: Interweb

The Onion, Skinned

The Onion/Daniel Day LewisI can’t say anything about the Onion Twitter/Quvenzhané Wallis kerfuffle that hasn’t already been thrashed over a million times by a million other people already. (Less than 24 hours after it started, I might add. Oh brave new world!) My own feelings on the matter itself are summed up thusly:

The Onion could have made substantially the same joke in substance by using a million other words–asshole, douche, even bitch is so overused it barely resonates anymore. Instead, they opted to push the envelope. Pushing the envelope is a test pilot’s term, by the way. It refers to the flight envelope, which is another phrase for the estimates of what a plane is capable of doing. Sometimes when you push the envelope, you discover the mechanics can perform even better than calculated. Sometimes you wind up crashing into the side of a mountain. What happened was clearly an instance of the latter.

The Onion’s tweet using that word in reference to a nine-year-old was about as high-risk/low reward as it gets. The best case scenario: they get a bunch of RTs from people who already read The Onion. The worst case scenario: What actually happened, basically. I don’t think it’s censorship to consider that something like this could blow up in your face, and that you might also hurt the feelings of someone who really doesn’t deserve it.

I’m not all that interested in defenses or condemnations of The Onion per se. I’ve enjoyed Onion Product (c) since college and have read material that was way more “offensive” than that on their pages, so this certainly won’t sway me from their side. I also find it somewhat crazy that The Onion, of all people(s), found itself forced to apologize while there are thousands of way more offensive “comedy” accounts on Twitter. (There are multiple accounts called The Funny Racist, guys.) What I find far more interesting is the means by which The Onion wound up in such hot water, and what that says about the ways in which we consume different online media.

I saw a few folks on Twitter (kinda) defend The Onion by pointing out that we’re talking about the same web site that made copious 9-11 jokes within days of 9-11. The argument behind this is, C’mon, it’s The Onion. Only morons wouldn’t understand this was a joke. For years, people who “get” The Onion have mocked people who don’t.

There’s an unsavory undercurrent of Comedy Snob Insider to this attitude; The Onion isn’t so ubiquitous that everyone in the world knows who they are or what they do. However, I do think that any average person who clicks on a link from The Onion and reads even a little of their content will understand it is satire.

The problem in this case is that The Onion didn’t write a post or even one of their quick headline thingies. They wrote a tweet, which is more troublesome, at least in terms of potential interpretation.

An article has context. As I said above, if you visit The Onion’s site, even if you’ve never been there before, you will receive clues about their perspective and intentions. Tweets, on the other hand, have zero context at all, except for what you bring to those 140 characters. In the case of The Onion, to understand the intent behind the tweet, you have to “get” them. If you don’t, you won’t.

If you’ve never heard of The Onion, chances are you don’t follow them on Twitter. And then, someone suddenly RTs this tweet into your timeline. How do you respond to it? If it was me, I would think the tweet was so over the top, I’d look into it before getting outraged. I do this a lot, since I follow a lot of accounts who shame-retweet the racist/ignorant tweets of others. Sometimes I contemplate responding. Then I look at the RT’ed dude’s page and discover it’s some 15 year old dumbass, and move on.

The thing is, Twitter doesn’t really operate like that. Twitter’s biggest selling point is that it gives people the ability to respond immediately to Big Events in real time, whether that’s an award show or a game or a relative’s wedding. Ideally, everyone should figure out what they’re reading before they fly off the handle. Ideally, they should also eat better, floss, and donate more money to charity, but people don’t do a lot of things they should do. Twitter functions the way it functions, and getting mad about that seems as pointless as getting mad at a river for not being a mountain.

Every joke has a stage on which it makes sense, with its own sets and costumes and lighting guys up in the rafters. Had The Onion written the same words, verbatim, on their web site, they would have provided the joke with that stage. By presenting these words via tweet, they not only removed that stage, but broadcast it to a much wider, far less clued-in audience where outrage could be spread and feed on itself in milliseconds. Saying “duh, everyone knows what The Onion is” betrays a POV far more nearsighted than a non-Onion reader; it means everyone you know knows what The Onion is. You are not the universe.

I learned a lesson similar to this one last year, when I wrote one tweet on a parody account of mine that inexplicably blew up, exposing it to an audience that had zero idea what what I was trying to satirize. (Also similar to The Onion: the tweet in question wasn’t all that funny, either.) In my case, the trouble stemmed less from people who didn’t “get it” and more from a few lazy newspapers. However, the principle is largely the same: If you present something in a medium like Twitter, where people have to provide their own context, they’re liable to get that context wrong.

Twitter Snitches Get No Twitter Stitches

The Guy Adams/NBC/Twitter flap angered a lot of people, but if I’m allowed to have a moment of emotional narcissism, I’ve found it more infuriating than most. The incident not only echoes nonsense I went through not too long ago, but makes said nonsense seem even more weird and gross in retrospect.

In case you don’t know about this tale, here’s the short version: Guy Adams, Los Angeles bureau chief for the English newspaper the Independent, wrote a series of tweets ripping NBC a new Costas-hole for its terrible Olympics coverage. Shortly thereafter, his Twitter account was suspended. Twitter told him he’d been suspended because he’d tweeted a private email address of an NBC exec. In truth, the email address Adams posted was readily available to the public. Therefore, the email reason seemed a flimsy excuse to suspend a vocal critic of NBC, which is officially partnering with Twitter for these Olympics. Adams’ account was restored after he issued an “apology,” but not before it was revealed that it was Twitter who initially blew the whistle on him to NBC, not the other way around.

I went through something similar a month ago with my parody account @TimesPublicEdit, albeit for slightly different reasons and on a far smaller scale. Basically, a few news orgs mistook the account for the real New York Times public editor and reported one of my tweets as coming from him. Like Adams, I was never informed my account was suspended. Like Adams, I quickly found out that Twitter’s procedures for dealing with suspensions is to shoot and ask questions later; upon receipt of a complaint, they will both assume you are guilty and leave it up to you to figure out how to rectify the situation. Also like Adams, the burden was put on me to prove my contrition for an offense I didn’t commit. (In my case, that offense was “attempting to mislead” people, which was not even remotely my intent.)

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How to Wind Up in Twitter Jail, Starring @TimesPublicEdit

I am @TimesPublicEdit.

I didn’t work all that hard to keep this quiet, but I never formally announced it, mostly because I didn’t think anyone was waiting with baited breath trying to puzzle out the secret. The reason I’m “revealing” this now is because, well, it’s already revealed via a post by Kat Stoeffel at the New York Observer today. That post was written because of the odd events of the last week involving the account, which began with a tweet last Monday.

This tweet was RT’ed and faved to an extent far beyond my wildest imaginings. It was also assumed to be the work of the actual New York Times‘ public editor by some news outlets that failed to perform a few extra seconds of due diligence. A formal complaint against the account (from whom, I don’t know) led to a suspension for being an “imposter” account.

After a week on the shelf, the account is back in action. I’m pretty fortunate in this regard; suspended accounts tend to stay that way indefinitely, or so Google tells me. However, I thought recounting what happened to @TimesPublicEdit might serve as a cautionary tale to other Twitter parodists, or just anybody who wants to build any kind of body of work on Twitter. Because you have to remember that anything you do there can be wiped out without warning, and that this is the risk you take when you scribble on someone else’s real estate.

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The Secrets of My Success

“Sir, you do have decent credit, but if we’re going to offer you this loan, you’ll need to put some collateral against it. Do you have anything of value to offer?”

“Why yes, I do”

*lays a dozen fake Twitter accounts on loan officer’s desk*

“You’ve been approved, my good man!”

* * *

“Your résumé is certainly extensive, but we have many candidates vying for this job. I’d like to know if you possess any unique skills that uniquely qualify you for this position.”

“Yes, I believe I do.”

*shares 1400-word essay about “Steampipe Alley,” followed by detailed recounting of several mid-80s McDonalds commercials*

“When can you start?”

* * *

“I have to admit, you make a solid pitch, but I’ve seen a ton of sales presentations today and I’m having a hard time deciding which is the best. Are there any other reasons we should want to do business with you?”

“Yes, there are.”

*reels off several jokes about jarts and Boku drink boxes*

“Stop drillin’, you hit oil!”

* * *

“I gotta be honest, I get a lotta people coming in here saying they’re gonna be the next Hemingway. Is there some extra special reason why should I take you on as a client?”

“I believe there is.”

*displays massive tome about Edgardo Alfonzo*

“Lookin’ forward to workin’ with ya!”

Knee Deep in the Hoopla

So: Yesterday on Twitter, I saw ESPN’s Keith Law RT a post from McSweeney’s. Keith Law is not usually my go-to source for humor writing, but I clicked nonetheless, and found a story called “You Built This City on What?” The basic premise is, an economic development team manager explains to an angry audience how/why he has decided to build their city on rock and roll, a la the terrible Starship song from the 1980s.

It was amusing enough, but I had the immediate feeling of deja vu. Because back in April of 2010, I posted something on this site with an almost identical premise, “In Retrospect, It Was a Mistake to Build This City on Rock and Roll.”

Do I think I was ripped off? Not really. I admit it’s not the most original premise in the world. In fact, when I wrote it, I furiously googled to make sure that someone hadn’t written something similar already, because I had this nagging notion in the back of my head that I’d read something like it and forgotten about it. I often do this when I start on a new piece (for here or elsewhere) as a quick sanity check before expending effort that may be accidentally plagiaristic.

For whatever reason, in the case of my “We Built This City…” notion, I was really sure that someone had beaten me to the punch until I did the research to convince myself otherwise. So I guess I just wish this author had done something similar. I don’t know how deep he’d have to dig to find my post in Google, but I’d like to think 2-3 pages deep would’ve done it. A search for “built this city mistake” puts me on page one, in fact. No digging necessary.

Not saying my post was a great work of art, but I’d like to think having the idea first counts for something. Plus, last I checked, googlin’s free.

Support Your Local Sporting Scene

If you read this site and/or follow me on Twitter and the like, I’m guessing there’s a very good chance you’ve heard this news already. On the off chance you haven’t, have you heard the news?

It seems that a veritable supergroup of great writerly types is teaming up to make a brand new daily sporting web site called The Classical. Like who? The first name that caught yours truly’s eye was Tom Scharpling, whose Best Show on WFMU I’ve waxed about rhapsodically on this show many times. Aside from being one of the funniest people around, he is also an NBA fan ne plus ultra (see this interview for evidence) and can speak/write on the subject with the utmost authority, and thus is an ideal catch for such an endeavor.

But when it comes to the roster of champs involved with this endeavor, that is far from all. There’s Bethlehem Shoals of Free Darko fame (read their hoops books if you haven’t, because you should). Tim Marchman, one of the best and most criminally underused baseball writers in America. Eric Nusbaum from Pitchers and Poets. David Roth, whose weekly sporting chats at The Awl (w/David Raposa) never fail to crack me up. And that is but a sampling.

Okay, great, they’re gonna do a website. Why am I writing about it? Because in order to make The Classical “a sustainable business, rather than yet another blog or Tumblr” (their words), they need dough. So they’ve set up a Kickstarter page with the goal of raising $50,000 to make this a reality. If you’re on the fence about whether you’d like to contribute to the cause, I’d suggest reading the Project Description and the full list of contributors, and above all else, watching the accompanying video, which has some hilarious visual cues.

And of course, if you do contribute, you’re in line for some valuable schwag, including (but not limited to) a chip clip. But if you can’t swing a contribution (times are tough, I know), you can always like The Classical on Facebook, or tweet about it, or mention it on the social media platform of your choice. It’s free, and it helps.

From what I can tell, the response has been pretty great thus far; as I post this, The Classical has already raised over $11K. But that’s obviously not quite their goal, so if you’ve ever complained about call-in radio shows or lamented the general meatheadedness of sports commentary, please consider doing your part to elevating said commentary on the interwebs. Future generations will thank you.