Why Twitter Doesn't Work with Sarcasm, Chap. 823

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s an illustration of something I understood in principle but have been reminded of in specific.

In the wee hours of last Friday night, I finally finally finally said adieu to a long story that will be in the March issue of the magazine. On Saturday, groggily, after guzzling coffee and doing the crosswords and generally moaning, I decided to turn on the TV. There, on a “mainstream” network (NBC), I saw something I hadn’t expected. It was a soccer — sorry, “football” — match from the English Premier League, Leicester City v. Aston Villa. On the good side, Leicester is the land of some of my forebears. On the bad side, for me, I am just not a soccer/ football fan.

People who have watched Saturday-daytime TV in recent years apparently know that EPL matches are a standard feature. I haven’t, and didn’t. And I made a mistake I won’t make again, putting out a sarcastic tweet:

And, in the same spirit, I followed up with:

After someone wrote back pointing out that most of the world’s population loved “the beautiful game,” I replied thus, with a link to the most wonderful video of this campaign cycle. [Note: “most wonderful” is not entirely sincere. Actually the video is riveting in its grotesquerie.]

My mistake was assuming a context in which people would understand (a) that I was not actually supporting Trump & Cruz, (b) that I am not actually relieved to find a professional bull-riding contest to watch, (c) that I am using air quotes when doing a stadium chant of USA! USA!, and (d) that I am not on the reflexively anti-foreign side of the U.S. cultural spectrum.

For better or worse, I personally don’t find soccer/football that engaging, in contrast to a number of other sports (I love Aussie Rules football, plus international rugby) and also in contrast to the outlook of half the population of the world. But in general I’m in favor of more Americans spending more time in more countries and with more cultures in the rest of the world.

I’d forgotten a reality of the world of Twitter. It’s a different audience, an unknown-by-the-author audience, especially as a message gets passed around. Over the next few hours, outraged responses poured in by the metric ton. All of them were self-righteously outraged about my closed-mindedness, and old-style thinking, and “major fail,” and so on. I have never before received anything close to this volume of response on Twitter, and it has never been more vitriolic. And all of it from people taking obvious (to me) sarcasm right at face value.


Live and learn. I have learned that on Twitter, you cannot assume that you know the audience. In particular, you cannot assume that an audience beyond the one you intend will recognize the difference between sarcasm and sincerity.

If people see something from @TheOnion, they can guess (unless it’s the Chinese state media) that it’s not 100% sincere. People are learning the same thing about @RelevantOrgans (a mock-Chinese state media account) or the Twitter feed for “The Brilliant Leader” of North Korea (@KimKoreo). Also, the fictitious right-wing Congressman, @RepStevenSmith, from the nonexistent 15th District of Georgia. But obviously I can’t assume that anyone whom I don’t know personally would be aware that, for instance, I’m not a exclusionist Trump fan, don’t reject everything foreign, and am not grumbling about the changes in Saturday daytime TV.

I’ve learned the lesson and will not try anything non-obvious on Twitter.

Still I prefer American football to the international variant. That Packers v. Cardinals game!