A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 54: Facebook doesn’t get satire. Let’s help it out.

Or rather: Facebook gets irony perfectly well, but its users don’t trust themselves to catch it.

Sam Machkovech of tech news site Ars Technica has discovered that certain news stories posted Facebook now come prefixed with the word “[Satire]”, square brackets and all. Machkovech determined that this happens to links in the set of “related articles” box presented to you, the Facebook user, when you click through to the original news article and then return to Facebook. Of course, it goes without saying that the tag is only applied to satirical articles — for now, it appears that only The Onion is being targeted — but this may yet prove to be the thin end of the wedge.

To illustrate how this works in real life, here’s one of The Onion’s headlines that Machkovech found had been tarred with the “[Satire]” brush:

[Satire] Police Officer Doesn’t See A Difference Between Black, Light-Skinned Black Suspects

The Onion article itself is here, in case you haven’t been already been turned off by that “[Satire]” carbuncle. Facebook explained to Ars Technica what was going on:

We are running a small test which shows the text ‘[Satire]’ in front of links to satirical articles in the related articles unit in News Feed. This is because we received feedback that people wanted a clearer way to distinguish satirical articles from others in these units.

In other words, readers simply do not trust themselves to catch written irony, even in a context — next to a link to The Onion, for instance — that clearly signals its ironic content. All this time I’ve laboured under the assumption that the parade of irony marks discussed here over the years have failed to gain traction because punctuating irony is fundamentally unnecessary; and all this time, it seems, I’ve been wrong.

What we have here is an opportunity. An opportunity to help Facebook’s irony-challenged users and to fundamentally change punctuation as we do it. Let us not suffer in silence as our news feeds are blighted by inelegant “[Satire]” tags: if ever there was a time and a place for an irony mark to succeed — any irony mark — this is it. The tilde (~) of the noughties; the evergreen inverted exclamation mark (¡); the newly-coined asterisk (*); Underware’s elegant zig-zag; the percontation mark (⸮) or the ψ-shaped point d’ironie: any one of these marks would be a better, more humane way to communicate a satirical headline to the irony-deficient.

To this end, I have started a petition on change.org asking Facebook to reconsider this blunt-force approach to irony. Join me, and let’s help Facebook and its users benefit from a better approach to ironic news posts!

5 comments on “Miscellany № 54: Facebook doesn’t get satire. Let’s help it out.

  1. Comment posted by Jason Black on

    I think that verbose marks such as [satire] are like hitting a fly with a sledgehammer. Some kind of punctuation mark seems called for.

    What jumps to mind would be an emoticon: can we get an ascii glyph or diglyph, or a Unicode character, to represent a smiley with tongue firmly in cheek? That would seem to perfectly capture the sentiment of satire. This would also be appropriate in view of the developing linguistic view of emoticons as punctuation, in that they represent inflectional content rather than denotative content.

    Also, we should not overlook the utility of a tongue-in-cheek emoticon doing double-duty for indicating blow-jobs as well.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Helpfully, the tongue-in-cheek emoticon already exists. It was created by Ralph Reppert, a writer for the Baltimore Sun, back in 1967. It’s constructed like this, ‘—)’, using a dash and a closing parenthesis; the Internet version would probably have to make do with hyphen-minuses instead, like this: ‘-‌-)’.

      I first found out about this mark while writing the Shady Characters book back in 2012, and I still can’t decide if it works. Too abstract? (Although given your suggested alternate usage, perhaps that’s a good thing…!)

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Comment posted by Jamsheed on


    However, I suspect a potential problem (not unrelated to your original thought that an irony mark is “fundamentally unnecessary”). Because, as you note and all too sadly, there is a set of people who don’t get, or don’t trust themselves to get, irony. However, there is also a set of people who, extremely unfortunately, don’t get punctuation! And my wildly speculative guess is that the overlap between these two sets would make all lovers of irony and punctuation deeply uncomfortable. (I hope this doesn’t sound too mean.)

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Great! Thanks.

      Granted, some readers aren’t comfortable with punctuation, not to mention that retrofitting an irony mark onto a headline that already contains a terminal punctuation mark runs the risk of confusing them further. I still think that the “[Satire]” tag is overkill, though — I’d be happy to see Facebook experiment with “[~]”, “[¡]” or “[*]” instead. We can make it less in-your-face without losing the clarity that some readers apparently want.

      Thanks for the comment, and for the signature!

  3. Comment posted by thnidu on

    It’s a really, REALLY bad idea to assume that everybody in any large diverse group knows all the relevant things that you do… or that you (blah blah) they do. You may not like [satire], but if they can read English they should know that word, and if they don’t know it they should know how to look it up.

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