Tweets by journalists about their less-than-luxury hotel accommodations in Sochi, Russia went viral during the Winter Olympics.
While stirring up the Internet’s humor-making machinery, they drew criticism from some who considered them unprofessional, or even offensive.
“Being unready for an international sports event is bad,” tweeted Sports Illustrated’s Robert Klemko. “Flying to a foreign country on an expense account and complaining about it is ugly.”
Were the journalists tweeting about #Sochiproblems simply trying to be funny? Because by many accounts, they failed.
The line between being funny and crude is becoming increasingly blurred, and this poses a particular challenge for journalists who are expected to build an audience on Twitter, which lends itself to short and shareable punch lines.
In some cases, such as with #SochiProblems, those punch lines spread ideas like wildfire.
AJR contributor Kevin Blackistone wrote that the tweets that some journalists fired off from Sochi criticizing the accommodations were symptomatic of a “cloistered press.”
“Welcome to the rest of the world,” he wrote. “People put up with a little less than we do.”
The problem with Twitter for journalists (and anyone, really): It’s hard to be funny and not offensive in 140 characters. The same could be said for efforts at irony.
“People are more sensitive to the put downs, and some of the ironies that some people think are funny, other people may find offensive,” said Bojinka Bishop, professor at Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and editor and publisher of FlyingHighSolo.com.
Experts on social media are studying how the medium encourages journalist to send out humorous tweets.
A recent study in The Electronic Journal for Communication suggests a positive correlation between social media presence and humor, meaning, perhaps journalists who spend more time online begin to conform to its humor-friendly interface.
Humor was positively correlated with the total number of tweets the journalists had as well as the frequency of the journalists’ tweets. In essence: those who tweet more use more humor.
As a young journalist who grew up joking with my friends online, it’s especially tempting to make sarcastic remarks on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve gotten so used to social media, where sarcasm and irony are the vernacular, that being edgy online is a core part of who I am, as it is for most of my friends.
Case in point: the tweet I recently fired off about Forrest Gump. I called him stupid and said anybody with a brain could reasonably predict the contents of a box of chocolates through logic and trial and error.
Was it funny? Am I stupid? I’m still not sure. But I still think I need to experiment with Twitter humor as I develop as a writer. The question is how.
As I watched the Sochi tweets, I can see that Internet-brand humor is slowly being introduced into mainstream journalists’ tweets.
The expert on social media I spoke to had this advice regarding trying to be funny while everyone is watching: One can’t be too thoughtful in their online writing.
“It can’t be too subtle because the whole idea of it is to have immediate impact,” Bishop said. “The quickness of it has encouraged a lack of thought.”
This lack of thought can easily ruin careers for both journalists and communicators.
Recently, Justine Sacco, a PR representative at InterActiveCorp, which is an Internet company that owns many websites including OkCupid and Dictionary.com, tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Though Sacco apologized, she was fired shortly afterwards.
This is an extreme example, but it illustrates for me how quickly a small tweet can ruin one’s professional life.
In another example, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tweeted, “$1M GA Lottery winner Willie Lynch can get 40 acres and a whole lotta mules.”
The tweet was widely criticized for being racist, for its reference to slave reparations.
“@ajc WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU EVEN DOING,” tweeted one user in response. (AJC has since apologized.)
Perhaps in my own attempts to be edgy, I should take a moment or two before I fire off a tweet and think about how different groups might interpret my writing.
Perhaps saying Forrest Gump was stupid was stupid.
“[Don’t] get carried away by technology,” said Bishop. “You have to be more careful rather than less careful…It requires thinking of all the different ways it could be taken.”