I 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.