6 May 2012
Whether you realize it or not, Twitter has secretly become the dominant delivery system in humor today. For political humor especially, the jokes come in fast, fierce, unfiltered, and filled to the brim with persuasive hilarity. Because of its simplicity and ease of use, Twitter gives its some-140 million active users the ability to instantly give their reactions to the breakfast they just had, or critique Obama’s State of the Union Address. In short, Twitter is revolutionizing the world of humor and shaping our reactions to the world around us.
Prior to Twitter, political humor could be partaken by anybody, but its ease of use and the ability to spread the humor was always limited by the constraints of the time. Political humor has always been something present throughout history, but its effects were almost always localized. Technologically, political humor obviously started in the printed word, before finding dominance in drawn pictures that only a few were able to express themselves in, which then evolved to moving pictures, which even fewer could express themselves in.
Now, arguably, it’s circled back around so that the digital printed word is the main expression of humanity, but once again, we’re creating it ourselves. Jason Wilson of University of Canberra, Australia, this is part of what he calls the world of the “Post-Broadcast Democracy,” where social media has elevated forms of engagement in politics due to its fodder in creative expression, able to challenge concepts of Democracy and political expression.
I first joined Twitter in March of 2009, hopping on the growing bandwagon of less than 18 million active users. Sixteen days later, I made my first politically-minded Tweet, saying that Al Gore was going to send, “3 ghosts of Environmental Friendliness” to me to change my non-Environmentally friendly ways in parody of his staunch advocation for Environmentalism.
During the healthcare debates of that summer, I came up with a list of things “Obamacare” would cover to parody the misinformation of the bill and what the President was trying to accomplish. Among the ones I wrote was, “Under ObamaCare, finger cramps for too much Facebooking would not be covered.”
For the President’s September address on the manner of healthcare, I took to Twitter to parody the President’s lack of enthusiasm from his audience, while also attacking a tactic he used during his speech, with me saying, “How boring is Obama addressing Congress? Obama himself is bringing in the ‘Ted Kennedy Card’ to get sympathy/keep people awake.”
Today, while I’ve mostly moved my funny observations and jokes to Facebook, I follow some 460 people on Twitter, many of whom are funny. Thus, whenever major news happens, I’m one of the first to know because of how quickly news flows over Twitter. But it’s not only the news that flows fast on Twitter, since the opinions flow just as fast, if not faster.
The national and cultural zeitgeist on a running commentary that forms out of Twitter is called “live-tweeting,” or posting on Twitter commentary of an event as it’s happening. And of course, for a lot of people, it’s an opportunity to come up with jokes on the spot. It’s really the prominent users of the site that make this the phenomenon that it is. A State of the Union address is a perfect example to illustrate this.
Since Twitter is an easy way to reach potential voters on the fly, several Senators and Representatives will add their comments on the President’s speech while he’s giving it. While there’s no official statistics to back it up, it’s an utter anomaly to find at least a semi-major politician not on Twitter in some form. Practically every major person associated with the U.S. Government is on Twitter.
Even during the debate, President Obama’s social media team will send out short explanations of the points the President is making on his personal account. It’s also noteworthy to note that President Obama has the 7th most-followed Twitter user, which is a staggering number considering he’s by far the most popular non-celebrity on the website.
For commentators, it’s a quick way to bring their opinion to a point, as it’s being made. For everybody else, it’s a chance to engage in a race of the best joke. Your favorite late-night comedian’s monologue used to be appointment viewing, now Jimmy Fallon and Jay Leno Tweet out some of their jokes before their shows air and integrate Twitter into their shows. Their writers can instantly Tweet jokes that didn’t make it into the show, which you might find more appealing than the more broadly-appealing jokes they use in the show.
Better yet, you could be reading the jokes of any number of comedians, both professional and nonprofessional, that call Twitter their home. As a result, Twitter is almost always in a race to come with the funniest joke on a topic, the fastest.
For professional comedians, Twitter is a chance to instantly engage with their followers while taking a pulse of the nation and reacting to it by coming up with a joke, that will instantly be spread to their followers, and whomever their followers share it with. However, unlike with politicians and commentators, a comedian’s Twitter account comes with the expectation that it has to be constantly funny, which can be a challenge to some.
For comedian Chris Elliott, he dreads the thought of using Twitter, since there’s the expectation to write jokes on the fly, or take extra time out of your day to come up with jokes that you will make no direct money off of. For other comedians, it comes naturally since they’re willing to make the effort, like Andy Borowitz, of The Borowitz Report, who creates several original jokes about current events for his Twitter account every single day. For Conan O’Brian, who turned to Twitter when he was without a late-night outlet, he creates his jokes in collaboration with his writing staff, so he can turn out a one good joke a day.
Then there are the anonymous comedians and writers that create so-called “parody accounts.” For example, parody accounts of College presidents have recently popped up around Twitter, poking fun as the Presidents, usually in jest, and their respective Universities.
Other popular parody accounts include a fake version of the AP Stylebook, which pokes fun at society and the English language, as well as grammar. “Your Friend from High School” is a parody of ignorant, irresponsible, and generally dimwitted people that you might or might not have had a version of in your own High School, which makes the account relatable, as well as funny.
These parody accounts are often written anomalously by writers or people that wouldn’t be able to amass a large following as a general comedic Twitter account. Writer and comedian, Travis Helwig is the one who writes “Your Friend From High School,” and he has some 68,000 followers less than his now-popular Twitter account, which has gained followers and admiration from more famous comedians, such as Patton Oswalt.
These parodies have also spawned some of the most famous accounts on Twitter, in terms of making headlines and news at least. Believe it or not, these Parody Accounts seem to be making the most impact among society and the “real world,” instigating social and other tangible forms of change, in some cases.
“Mayor Emanuel” for example has been hailed by publications such as “Wired Magazine” as being revolutionary for not only its fowl-mouthed, accurate parody of former White House Chief of Staff, and current Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, but for creating actual storylines and characters for the fake version of Emmanuel to interact with. This storyline forming way of Tweeting creates levels of engagement not found in Twitter accounts that solely deal in stand-alone jokes.
Rahm Emanuel himself was a stated fan of the account and was “amused” by its content. When its creator ended Mayor Emmanuel’s story by sending him through a time portal after being elected mayor, the writer made a media tour that was highlighted by the master parody pundit himself, Stephen Colbert. The person behind the account was not a member of the Emanuel campaign staff, as some had suspected, but simply an intrepid and creative Chicago writer by the name of Dan Sinker, who released a book chronicling and archiving the Twitter account, several months later.
But while “Mayor Emanuel” and accounts like it are created in fun, they didn’t exactly have a real world impact, or at least not the impact that “BP Global PR” did. The product of comedian Josh Simpson, he originally created the account, like so many others had with their parody account, the intention of mocking its target.
You see, BP’s Gulf oil disaster left many people outraged at not only the accident itself, but BP’s negligence that created it, and their “response” to it. Simpson, too disgusted by the response, created the Twitter account as a fake public relations voice for the company, illustrating the incompetence of the company with Tweets like, “‘We feel terrible about spilling oil in American waters, we’ll make sure the next spill happens where the terrorists live. #bpcares’”
The account quickly gained more followers than BP’s actual Twitter account, and became the voice of a disgruntled people, spread by everybody from Roger Ebert, to Michael Moore. Critics quickly put it as the cherry on top of one of the greatest public relations disasters of all time. BP apparently agreed since they went out of their way in trying to get the parody account to make it clear that it was a parody. But Simpson didn’t stop there. He decided to use the account’s popularity to sell T-Shirts to raise money to save the Gulf.
Twitter started its verification service in 2008, but as the site, and uses for the site have grown, Twitter has been forced to update its rules and guidelines on how somebody is able to conduct them as a parody account, forcing them to be explicitly clear that they are a parody account. After all, if somebody confuses the parody for the real thing, then the brand can ultimately be damaged, which is something Twitter is trying to minimize by making clear that impersonations are not something that occurs on the site.
So why, you may ask, is Twitter the hub for political humor that it has become, even though it has only a fraction of Facebook’s audience? Well, its small size is kind of helping the service. Because of its sheer number of users, Facebook is a great tool for infinitely marketing yourself to your audience. You can also post jokes there, but in the case of somebody like comedian Jonathan Katz, it’s easier simply to write the jokes on Twitter, and have it post to all your social media accounts, including Facebook.
In this way, Twitter has opened itself up to sharing its content more than sites like Facebook. It’s much harder for a website to embed a feed of their Facebook content, but it’s incredibly easy to do it for Twitter. With Facebook, you also have a lot more to manage, with aspects of designing your page and controlling the content posted to your “wall,” as opposed to Twitter, which is again, simplistic, in a good way.
After all, Jokes are most conducive to Twitter’s “limited” format. You can advertise yourself on Twitter, but you tend to think that you deserve more than 140 characters of advertisement. Jokes are better the shorter they are, because simplicity often makes a punch line. People tend to get lost in long jokes, and Twitter naturally curbs that. Is it a symptom of our ever-moving culture? Possibly, but I think it also improves the quality of jokes. You’re in and you’re out with hilarity only a couple of seconds away.
Or not. The 2011 Japan Tsunami illustrated both a bright and dark side of Twitter. On the brighter side, when a disaster occurs, such as that devastating Tsunami, Twitter’s users tend to rally around spreading ways to donate to help those affected. With a devastating travesty such as this, one would think that the rules of decorum would dictate that one should not joke about these circumstances, but then-current voice of the Aflec Duck, Gilbert Gottfried held no regards for these rules.
Tweeting a series of jokes making light of the Japan Tsunami, Gottfried joked, among other things, “I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, there’ll be another one floating by any minute now.’”. Clearly making the jokes in very poor taste, Aflec promptly fired Gottfried from voicing their mascot Duck. Nevertheless, Gottfried is just one example of Twitter being used in poor taste, and being faced with consequences in the real world.
But at the same time, I think the unfiltered aspect of Twitter is another big aspect of why its successful. The headlines over the last couple of years are littered with people who got in trouble, even fired in some cases, for something they said over Twitter. Since it is so easily accessible, it’s entirely too easy to put whatever thought in our head, which sounds good, on Twitter, broadcasting it to the Free world.
On the one hand, sometimes our thoughts shouldn’t be heard by anybody but ourselves, especially if we’re in a position of importance. When we do this, we can violate decorum, offending people in a way that affects us in a negative manner. But at the same time, people gravitate to those who speak their mind and tell it like it is.
Since Twitter is fully protected by the virtues of free speech, it really gives anybody the chance to say anything they like, with bad language, critical statements, hate speech and all. Twitter doesn’t exactly lend itself to holding ideas and thoughts back, and for some, it can be all too easy to go too far.
Even if it can sometimes seem like a bad reality show, where sites like TMZ report on every single celebrity “Twitter Fight.” But for every Twitter fight, there seems to be two intellectual discussions that can be started by any prominent writer talking about everything from gender equality on TV, to the quality of intellectual discussion on Twitter.
In the end, Twitter by itself is just a tool in which we can give or receive our humor. One day, another website or medium will replace Twitter as the primary way we exchange our funny ideas. But they’re just that; ideas, and our ideas reflect who we are as a society. Therefore, our humor reflects how we feel towards politicians, Democracy, America, and life in general.
History has shown that the society that doesn’t laugh at itself never lasts, as it ultimately drowns in the resulting despair. Do you think Hitler would have allowed German Tweeters to make fun of his mustache? Of course not. It would “weaken” the image he had to build as a brutal dictator, and bring him down to a more manageable size. They did it anyways, but if found out, there were severely persecuted for it. Same goes with Iran and President Ahmadinejad, which currently bans Twitter for fear of undermining the regime, which is was shown to do in the 2009 Iranian Revolutions.
Americans may not like their leaders, or the decisions they make, but they can take to something like Twitter to express their displeasure in a serious form, or a humorous form. So, if America is a reflection of its humor, I would say that the State of the Union is strong, and getting stronger off of the common unity of all its weirdness. And let’s face it; if Twitter has taught me anything, America is a really funny place.
Tags: al gore, america, Bill Clinton, bp, bp oil spill, bpcares, comedians, comedy, controversy, democracy, gulf oil spill, history, humor, iran revolutions, iranian revolution, jokes, laughing animals, live-tweeting, mayor emanuel, news, obamacare, parody, political humor, post-broadcast democracy, rahm emanuel, tweeting, twitter, twitter bird