Have you ever made a joke on social media and no one got it?
Worse, have you ever made a joke on social media that people took seriously?
If you have, you’ll appreciate the value of the corny, winking emoji.
The need to visually say at the end of a tweet, “This is a joke”.
You shouldn’t have to, but you do.
Because once we strip away everything except the words: the voice, the smile, the comic timing, there are no clues to tell the reader that the words are meant ironically.
That’s what Ryon Edwards found in September 2017.
Hurricane Irma was heading towards Florida.
Five million people were told they would have to be evacuated, and they didn’t like it.
Out of “a mixture of stress and boredom” Ryon Edwards put up a post on facebook: SHOOT AT HURRICANE IRMA.
He wrote “O So this goofy looking windy headass named Irma said they pulling up on U, let’s show Irma that we shoot first”.
The ‘joke’ was to get everyone together on the Florida coast where Irma would make landfall, and all shoot their weapons into it at once, in the belief that this would kill or deter the hurricane.
Some people signed up straight away “I’m not going to sit around and wait, I’m going straight into the eye”.
Others were not so sure “Isn’t this just going to make the weather madder?”
Some didn’t think guns were enough and wanted to bring flame-throwers “It’s time we took a stand against this bully. This is our home, nobody drives us out of our own territory. Join me in this fight as we shoot flames at Hurricane Irma and dissipate her on the spot – she will burn.”
Eventually, 54,000 people signed up, with 27,000 saying they would definitely be there with their weapons.
The Sheriff of Pasco County had to issue his own message on social media: “To clarify DO NOT shoot weapons at Hurricane Irma. You won’t make it turn around and it will have very dangerous side effects.”
He included a diagram showing the way bullets would be sucked into the hurricane and centrifugal force would spit them back at the people who fired them.
Meanwhile Ryon Edwards was shocked that his ‘joke’ had got out of control.
He said “I’ve learned that about 50% of the world could not understand sarcasm to save their lives.”
Someone wrote back “When you attempt sarcasm in print, and do so badly, you need to understand that at least half of the gun-owning population is as stupid as you are, and will follow through, endangering others needlessly.”
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration was not surprised.
They said that every time there’s a hurricane, people want to know why they can’t just drop a nuclear bomb on it.
It doesn’t occur to them that the nuclear fallout will spread massively far and wide by the hurricane, and do untold damage to the ecosystem.
In a 2013 study, the journal MIS Quarterly explained “Unlike the mainstream media where professional reporters check information sources before publication, the shortage of reliable information in the social media space may be more likely to lead to doubts expressing suspicions, subjective interpretations, or rumours.”
In other words, don’t assume everyone is smart enough to get the joke.
People will believe what they read online as fact.
Or, as Will Rogers said many years ago, “The problem with political jokes is they sometimes get elected”.