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.

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