Social Media and the Laugh

When I was back in high school, one of my English Lit teachers used to say “A wise man laughs with trepidation”. He said it a lot. He also joked a lot. Perhaps he was warning us that Sex And Violence Fridays weren’t likely to be as funny to parents.

But anyway, he was right that with most humour, someone is the butt of the joke. Someone is being ridiculed, if only the joke-teller. But very often someone is being offended.

And this week, some people were so offended by Catherine Deveny‘s postings on Twitter, that her employer at The Age newspaper decided to give her the sack. Now, I’m not so interested in whether her comments were offensive or not (since, almost by the very definition of humour, someone would find them offensive), but in what this example can tell us about communications in the age of social media.

Last year, Julian Morrow of The Chaser fame gave the Andrew Olle Media Lecture on a related matter. It was (and still is) a very interesting speech, and outlined the concepts of a primary audience, who are the people that a comedian is targeting their humourous content at, and a secondary audience, who are the people that discover the content after the fact. For example, the primary audience may watch your TV show, but the secondary audience may watch the highlights/lowlights of your TV show when they are rebroadcast on the nightly current affairs program.

Since in a world where anything can be discovered later on the Internet, e.g. via clips on YouTube, a specific Google search or even through the Internet Archive, the secondary audience potentially consists of everyone living and who may live in the future. It’s a given that for anything humourous you’ve publicly released, there will eventually be someone who will find it and be offended by it.

I’ve previously tried to characterise communications technologies into those that are public and those that are private. Twitter was classified as a publishing business where primarily it attempts to allow communications to be publicly disseminated.

I don’t know if Deveny’s Twitter followers at the time (her primary audience) were particularly offended, or whether it was in the wider group of social media users who discovered her tweets (the secondary audience) that the most offended people came from. Given that her humour is at the more offensive end of the spectrum, I’d expect her primary audience to be pretty thick-skinned. So, if it was the secondary audience’s reaction that resulted in her sacking, then this is likely to be a template for future problems for comedians.

Is is reasonable for a comedian to take into account the reactions of their secondary audience?

In an ideal world, perhaps not. But pragmatically, if it’s going to affect important things like their ability to pay a mortgage, then probably they will. However, the secondary audience in the world of social media and the Internet can be anyone who will ever live.

Is it even possible for them to foresee the reactions of this group?

Even in an ideal world, probably not.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see comedians move away from publishing platforms like Twitter and towards messaging platforms like Facebook (to use the classification scheme from my previous post). This would seem to be an approach for limiting the risk from the secondary audience.

I’m aware that there is plenty of publicly available, offensive material on Facebook, but here I’m talking about the ability to set up a private channel of communication to a select group of people, i.e. Facebook Groups. Of course, it’s up to Facebook as a business to determine if they want to host groups that non-group-members find offensive, but from the perspective of my argument here, this “messaging” functionality will exist somewhere (e.g. email lists) even if not within Facebook. I’m just using them as a contrasting example to Twitter.

Unfortunately, the clear downside of humour moving away from the public domain into private groups is that we can’t easily or accidentally discover a new comedian. In this brand new, Internet-connected world, we may find ourselves in the old, historical situation of comedians telling their jokes to audiences in (virtual) rooms. And people laughing, even if with trepidation.

Treasured Languages

I’ve just finished listening to a podcast of a seminar put on by the Long Now Foundation, on endangered languages. It was fascinating for many reasons, but just one was the concept put forward that a language is a codified form of the culture that produces it.

For example, the many different words for various trees known to a people indicate a need within their culture to be able to distinguish them, or a culture that uses plant poisons would probably have words for plants that reflect their importance in producing poisons. If you knew what those words were and what they meant, it would give you knowledge. The latest evolution of a culture’s knowledge of the world and philosophy is captured in their language.

Which is why it is a shame when languages die. We don’t just lose a particular way of expression, but potentially also useful learnings about the world.

It reminds me of the story of how ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics were decoded after being undecypherable for centuries. Sure, the Rosetta Stone helped, but if it wasn’t for the realisation that the Coptic Language preserved the ancient Egyptian linguistic forms, I suspect we’d only be able to decode a few words and that would be it. In a real way, the culture of the ancient Egyptians is open to us now only because it was carried forward to us in the form of Coptic. If Coptic had died out (and it is nearly extinct), so would’ve our opportunity to understand the ways of an ancient people.

Female of the Species

All too often the achievements in Australia have a qualifier attached. It isn’t the biggest wind farm in the world, but it is the biggest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere. It isn’t the tallest ferris wheel in the world, but it is the tallest ferris wheel in the Southern Hemisphere. It isn’t the longest jetty, but it is the longest wooden jetty in the Southern Hemisphere.

When all the achievements in a list are qualified in that way, it diminishes the sense of achievement. In this case, suggesting that all the best stuff is in the Northern Hemisphere, but if you’re stuck in the Southern Hemisphere, then perhaps Australia is not too bad a place to be.

This Sunday (8th March) is International Women’s Day. In honour of that, I thought I’d put together a list of a few brilliant people whose achievements aren’t qualified by being the “first woman to”, but who are simply outstanding. And who happen to be women. So, it’s worth shining a bit of extra light on their achievements at this time of the year.

Angela Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was a musician and dancer. She considered ballet “ugly and against nature”, so pretty much went off and created modern dance. She founded several schools that spread her approach to barefoot, improvised dancing, and so we have it today.

Amalie Emmy Noether (1882-1935) was an accomplished mathematician who also made significant contributions to physics. Although her mathematical discoveries were foundational in the area of abstract algebra, what’s known as Noether’s Theorem is considered one of the most important mathematical theorems ever proved in the field of physics and some physicists have claimed it as on par with the Pythagorean Theorem.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a philosopher and popular writer. Her most famous work is probably the novel Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, which concerns her philosophy of Objectivism. Her ideas have been extremely influential in the arena of capitalism and former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was one of her keen students earlier in his life. Greenspan’s approach to regulating capitalist markets can be said to be a prime cause for the extent of the last couple of decade’s economic growth in the US and the subsequent global financial crisis.

Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler (1913-2000), better known as Hedy Lamarr, was a popular Hollywood actor in her day. More significantly (from my point of view), she invented a communications technology that is now used in every new mobile phone and laptop. Together with a friend, she was granted a patent in 1942 for a “Secret Communications System” that the genesis for spread-spectrum communications that has evolved into 3G, WiFi and Bluetooth.

Vera Rubin (1928-) is an astronomer who was responsible for proving the existence of dark matter in the universe. This is pretty important as it turns out that the vast majority of the universe is made up of dark matter, and a lot of astrophysics now relies on dark matter to explain it. Actually, it turns out that most of dark matter is actually dark energy, but this doesn’t diminish the discovery.

I don’t suggest any of these people are perfect, nor that I agree with all their views, but their contributions to science and culture are profound, and I suspect most people didn’t know about them. As for myself, I was inspired by the list of scientists mentioned in the book Pythagoras’ Trousers.

Let’s end the lies

10 week ultrasoundWe’re now telling people something we were denying before – that we’re expecting a baby. Kate’s 17 weeks pregnant, in fact. And the baby’s due around 10th September.

It’s a relief to no longer have to cover it up, and it’s exciting to be able to announce it to people. However, it’s a bit odd that something so positive is typically hidden from friends for several months before being suddenly sprung on them.

Ironically, the friends often already know, or at least are pretty suspicious. The signs are everywhere, and good friends tend to notice. Even if there is no morning sickness or change in body shape, the dietary hints are pretty clear. They wonder why a glass of wine, normally happily accepted, is now sadly refused. They ponder why the brie and proscuitto goes uneaten, and perhaps even why the seafood option isn’t chosen from the menu (although that’s never an option for us anyway). And particularly, “women of a certain age” are well attuned to these signs in their friends, but in the end are too polite to ask.

So, those people who we find it so painful to hide the news from are the very people that know anyway. Both parties (us and them) engage in a comedic farce where we all pretend nothing is going on at all, while desperately wanting to speak about it to the other.

But now, released from that cultural prison, I can tell you that I am very pleased (although a bit terrified) about the idea of becoming a dad.