Twittertales: the Parody and the Irony

The Straits Times today (Thursday, November 4th, 2010) carried an article (‘SingTel tweets? They are fake’) about Twitter accounts that are parodies of real people and organizations. The focus in the article was on the parody of Singtel, but did mention other cases as well. I have for some time been following three ‘fake’ Twitter people, and never for one moment did I think that they were the real deal. There are a couple of reasons for this.

For one thing, one of them actually uses the word ‘Fake’ in his Twitter handle (I use the masculine pronoun only for convenience here. It could very well be a woman or a group of people). He parodies our Prime Minister, but calls himself ‘Fake_PMLee’, so that there is no confusion, and no danger of crossing legal swords with the authorities. After all, if you admit you are fake, how can anyone accuse you of deceptive intent? This person has come up with some real gems in political humour over the last few months, and actually takes on the persona of the PM. For example, he makes references to his father, to personal connections with other ministers, and to high level knowledge of national affairs. In his latest tweets, he has been poking fun at the redrawing of election boundaries. In a previous post I have made reference to the use of humour as political engagement by Singaporeans, and this is one very clever example.

Information about the user also provides clues, if it does not state outright that the account is fake. ‘ceoSteveJobs’ clearly announces himself as ‘More than meets the i. As you should expect from the most popular parody account on Twitter’. ‘SingtelPR’ information declares itself as ‘Asia’s leading blah blah blah blah blah. 100% tele-PHONY. 100% unverified’. This should tell us that most of these users actually want to be recognised as parodies, not dupe people into thinking that they are representing the actual people or organizations they are poking fun at.

Another giveaway is the tone of the tweets, which is clearly satirical. ‘Fake STcom’, for example, posted the following tweet: ‘Americans have apparently taken part in a mysterious ritual called “democracy”, which involves an intriguing process of “voting”.’ Even without the word ‘Fake’ in the handle, the irony shines through. ‘SingtelPR’, the parody version of Singtel, posted this tweet: ‘Once again, ST failed to use “telco giant” when they mention us. And I thought they were supposed to be objective. Pfft.’ The clever humour is in the content, and most Twitter users are very good at identifying this sort of humour, since it is the most common form used on Twitter.

This leads on to the next reason most people can spot the parodies from the real deals. Using social media involves learning a new language, a new way of processing information, and a new way of interacting with people and media. Just because you have mastered e-mail does not immediately qualify you as an easy immigrant into the land of social media. And even within the large social media club, there are specific social skills and knowledge sets you have to learn as you move between platforms. For example, mastering Facebook is no guarantee that you will take to Twitter. The ‘newbie’ stamp is very much upon you until you start to internalise and operationalise some of the practices and philosophies of Twitter. One such practice is irony, which is not only a delightful quality of the medium, but is also a necessity if you are to attract attention in 140 characters. Twitter users appreciate cleverly worded tweets, and if you want your tweets to be retweeted (or repeated by your followers to their followers), then you either choose your words well, or make sure you are posting some very useful links. Ironic humour is always a crowd pleaser.

The parodying of important people and organizations is by no means a uniquely Singaporean phenomenon. ‘Queen_UK’ is a fake version of one of the world’s best-known reigning monarchs, and if you want to know who ‘ceoSteveJobs’ is parodying, well, look it up on your iPhone.

The Straits Times has asked for reader opinions about what should be done about these fake accounts. My answer is this: if you have to ask this question, you are not ready for Twitter. I see the site’s ironic humour as a type of intellectual property, which needs to be protected as much as the freedom to engage in it.

6 thoughts on “Twittertales: the Parody and the Irony

  1. I am with you that most tweeters will know that the account is a fake and the person is just having a go at the brand. Takes some time and effort. From a consumer point of view, so of the tweets got me laughing.

    From a brand’s point of view, it is like taking over the brand’s voice. So this is a no-no to the brand.

    It could even be a marketing activity by a competitor. With fake bears and arranged graffiti art, it is very difficult to differentiate.

    One of my clients said if what if somebody will to fake your personal account. Say a shobhav says $#@#@$ account.. how would you react?

  2. Good question, and thanks for commenting.

    I think that the key to the difference lies in the entities being parodied. When it comes to important people and organizations, these have a larger presence and influence, so it’s not so much about making fun of one person, as it is a comment on what the entity stands for. Random people don’t get parodied. If someone did set up a ‘shobhavsays$#@#@$’ account, I would wonder what that person had against me personally, since I don’t influence any sort of policy (yet!). In the case of Fake_PMLee, ceoSteveJobs, Queen_UK etc, the parodies are a reaction to the hold they have over society, either explicitly or implicitly, as well as a recognition of their iconic status. In a way, it’s flattering, especially if you believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

  3. A lot of the best literature we have ever read were written as parodies, from the Greek to Romans to French Neo-Classical. Music and film also has their fair share of parodies. Some theorists have even argued that a parody is essential in any life cycle of any film genre’s development.

    Even wikipedia is parodied:

    When I read the article today and read all the parody tweets, I laughed. And like you said in your post, some of them are pretty darn funny. I don’t know what the big corporations are going to do to the perpetrators (shall we henceforth address them as artists?), but I believe it’ll be a sad day if we see the headlines read “SingTel sues parody account”.

    The nature of the medium allows for parodies. In fact, if Twitter didn’t exist, I’m certain these performers would find another stage.

    @Aaron Koh: No-no to brands? But in this day and age, if a brand don’t take its own space, then who is to blame? The fake bear is another thing altogether, you shouldn’t confuse a marketing activity with a parody in the same way Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs is never nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. If every brand wants to hunt and shut down their parody sites, I would suggest that they spend their resources actively in the same space, getting their voice back.

    Big corporations and reputation aside, but if we want really want people to be more creative, we need to protect the freedom to think and the freedom to laugh.

    For me, I’m watching this online stage because I’m sure after today’s article, more people will start parody accounts. And we should all be thankful for that.

    1. WK, you have a good point about finding the voice in social media space.

      Like I told the journo, the Phony Tweeters or Phtweets, are the result of the brands not taking the pro-active voice.

      I also shared that brands shouldn’t be quick to rush to take down these Phtweets for they would be positioned as being anti-parody.

      Parodies have taken the new medium and targeted at the brands. Its an evolution of the medium.

  4. Aaron,

    With all things digital, I believe the space is for everyone – from big corporations to nameless consumer.

    I’m not a media expert so my stand is simply that we should all tolerate unless they cross the line between malice and mischief.

  5. You know, sometimes such parody accounts actually may indirectly benefit the “brand”. One way is to be able to help the company identify which area is being criticised and should be improved, while the other is to increase publicity.

    Parody accounts ain’t that bad afterall. 🙂

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