Shocker: The Internet runs on sarcasm. And product developers should be thankful

By Richard Nieva , written on January 16, 2013

From The News Desk

This next sentence is not a newsflash: People on the Internet are sarcastic. That’s just the tone that online culture has taken, for several possible psychobabble reasons – the relative anonymity of an online handle, the openness of social media as a platform, the success of sassy Gawker.

Regardless of what you think about how snarky is too snarky, from developer’s standpoint, the relentless sarcasm is a very good thing. The no holds barred honesty of the online audience can only make a product better for a brand, quite often a baptism by fire.

Sometimes it takes the form of class clownery, like it did late last night, when the White House raised the threshold for its We The People online petition vehicle. A petition must now receive 100,000 online signatures, four times the previous amount of 25,000, to mandate a response from the White House. The change comes on the heels of a very clever petition to secure defense funding to construct a death star by 2016, which produced a wonderful, "Star Wars" reference-riddled memo from Paul Shawcross, chief of the science and space branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget. The White House also received a petition to have CNN pundit Piers Morgan deported after some folks took offense to his comments on gun control.

So the White House raised the bar for all new petitions. Translation: That was fun, but let’s be serious and stop wasting our time. This is the second time the signature minimum had been raised: from the ridiculously low original amount of 5,000 to 25,000. The White House may have overshot the new minimum – 50,000 seems more reasonable, given only one petition ever, about the recognizing the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group, has gotten over 100,000. But letting the Internet audience test the limits and reacting accordingly has helped the service.

Then there are times when all out sarcasm can do a world of good. See: Any social media snafu by a brand with a hashtag campaign, but particularly Newsweek’s #muslimrage train wreck. To build on its cover story, the print magazine promoted the hashtag only to be met with responses like “When there’s no prayer room in a mall #MuslimRage.” It was the Internet collectively saying “WTF? Really?” This has been widely reported, but really, it can’t be mentioned enough.

Of course, while Newsweek hasn’t had any major Twitter debacles since, the story of that product ultimately has a sadder ending. The print edition folded in December, but for a whole slew of other reasons.

That brings us to yesterday. Facebook announced its new Graph Search feature, and Mark Zuckerberg was quick to point out that the product was still in very early beta. And the company is purposefully keeping the sample set very small at this point, rolling out to only hundreds or thousands of people for now (though we think the early version and rollout still should have included mobile access).

But that didn’t stop Twitter from having a little fun with #facebooksearchideas. Exhibit A: “Girls in ‘it's complicated’ relationships who have duckface profile pictures,” Tweeted one. Hilarious but creepy? Yes. Helpful to the company? Absolutely. Zuckerberg said Facebook would take the data from the small sample set and see how people outside of the company’s labs were using it. While the Tweet was (probably) a joke, it could provide the company a sense of what some people might actually search for, and give Facebook some things to think about in the way of privacy checks.

Of course, there are always preemptive measures a company can take. Apple, ever the pro, built in Easter egg responses when they released Siri in beta – partly to possibly ease people into the sometimes unsettling territory of artificial intelligence, but I can also see it as the company’s big F-you to all the smart alecks. Nevertheless, Shit That Siri Says was all the rage for two weeks in 2011.

For brands -- and the occasional government entity -- it’s good old fashioned focus grouping, albeit on a much vaster scale with a sample set that doesn’t have to look you in the eye.

Is the Internet disgustingly mean and idiotic sometimes? God yes. But is it most of the time harmless? I think so. Sure, there will always be trolls. But oddly enough, for a place where you can get lost in a social game or pretend to be a celebrity on Twitter, the online audience can provide a healthy reality check. And that is invaluable to brands and product developers.