The Borowitz Problem

There’s a new New Yorker website on the internet today, but one problem still hasn’t been fixed:

A good deal of that traffic can be credited to Andy Borowitz—the satirist and “Shouts & Murmurs” contributor whom The New Yorker hired in 2012 to anchor its newly introduced humor blog, and whose Boomer-liberal brand of humor regularly produces groans from younger, more web-native corners. According to Thompson, “The Borowitz Report” was responsible for six percent of all of NewYorker.com’s traffic last year.

My goodness is it difficult for people to talk about the Borowitz situation! Which maybe explains how it has been allowed to persist for so long. The Borowitz Problem isn’t that he isn’t funny, or that he panders as a rule, or that “Boomer-liberal” humor (which is I guess is meant here as a euphemism for “unchallenging and smug?”) is out of date. It’s this:

“The news, reshuffled” is both the Borowitz Report’s tagline and a literal description of its product (here is a bot that does the job better). In the narrow context of his section of the website, he can write in his trademark style—slightly zany aggregations of the news, in which conservatives say what they REALLY mean, or whatever—and get away with it. Or in the context of an email newsletter! But when you publish a fake headline that sounds almost real, place it on top of satire that’s soft enough to skim without really reading, give it a newyorker.com URL, and promote it on Facebook, where basically every headline sounds like satire now, you know what you’re really doing.

Not always, but frequently, these posts are going to go viral as the result of people who don’t know they’re jokes; as a bonus, every few months, a foreign outlet will aggregate them as if they’re genuine. That Travolta story had, at one point, over ten thousand Facebook shares, not because a sophisticated joke flew over thousands of heads, but because its form is intentionally misleading. (On months with huge Borowitz hits, I’m guessing that quoted six percent figure climbs quite a bit higher.)

This has been going on for two years and it’s only gotten worse. You hear these “groans” from “younger, more web-native corners” of the internet because cultivating stupid-sharing is the second lowest way to juice traffic, below shredding your reputation to publish generic sharebait and just above buying traffic outright. There’s a fat and clearly visible line between satire and just tricking people.

Leave this game to the people with nothing to lose!

Image by John Dalton