In the world of shareable, clickable content, there are two modes: You can be irreverent, young, and hip (and get less shares), or you can appeal to the middle-aged audience that shares the most but is the most easily offended. To get a slice of that sweet pie of conservative readership, you have to avoid any sarcasm, any line pushing, any jokes that could be misconstrued as offensive.
The crowd that shares the most content does not like jokes because jokes are confusing.
When I was working for a site called Distractify in 2014, my assignment was to make entertaining listicles that were as shareable as possible. Oftentimes that meant avoiding anything remotely controversial.
One day I embarked on what I believed to be a simple, innocuous project: provide a list of cute little pigs being cute little pigs. Around the internet, these creatures have a few interpretations. Some call them micropigs (also known as mini pigs), believing them to be a special breed of animal that stay the size of a tiny piglet.
Some believe the whole micropig idea to be a hoax. From my research, I found the reality of the micropig to be somewhere in the middle. Sure, there were specially bred pigs that were smaller than their massive farm-dwelling counterparts, but they certainly didn’t stay baby-sized. They were, however, gosh darn cute in their younger years, so I decided to make a list of them being adorable while making sure to include a caveat that what you see is not, in fact, what you always get if you purchase a micropig.
I then added a few pictures of micropigs at an adult size for good measure. At the end of the day, though, I had the comfort of knowing that no sane person would look at a listicle of cute pigs and decide to purchase one the same day without, you know, doing a slight bit of research before throwing a few thousand dollars at a breeder.
I trusted in people’s ability to make smart decisions for themselves. When it comes to writing things on the internet, that is not a good decision.
In December 2015, after weeks of questions and demands for apologies about her new sitcom The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Tina Fey made an announcement that she would once and for all “opt out” of explaining her jokes.
If you were offended, she decided, you could sit with that discomfort and realize that someone had a different perspective on life than someone who isn’t exactly like yourself.
“There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that,” she told Net-a-Porter.
A joke in a sitcom is not always there to represent a replica of the world around them; it’s an irreverent nod to people’s assumptions about the world around them. Having to explain that over and over again is the product of a public that refuses to consider broader context.
I’m not Tina Fey, but I did write a listicle on the internet. And the reaction wasn’t much different.
Almost immediately, my list of cute pigs was seen by some very vocal people as a damaging portrayal of the micropig myth that leads to the abandonment and death of pigs around the globe every day. I was a monster, I had created a monster, and I should be shamed publicly for my creation.
The comments began, as they always do, on Facebook. The traffic for the piece was, at the time, record shattering for the site. But as the post started spreading, the comments started accumulating. Some genuinely appreciated the article for the cuteness it provided. Some tagged their friends to enjoy the cute pictures.
But some were enraged. Some worked in animal shelters that had pigs abandoned by people who thought their pet would stay a baby forever, but some were simply fighting the good fight for all people everywhere. I was wrong and, fueled by the ever-intoxicating assumption that they were right and needed to teach the world why I was wrong, they went on a tear.
They needed to save the public from themselves and, most importantly, from me, a caption writer on a listicle website.
Was I taking this too personally? Here’s the thing: When people are angry on the internet, they get personal. And they get mean. And boy, do they get creative.
Soon, people weren’t just commenting on the article. They found me on Facebook, on my photography website, and on Twitter. I tried replying to a couple of the messages, telling people that I had provided a disclaimer about the reality of micropigs, but they weren’t appeased. When it comes to public shaming on the internet, no one wants the object of ridicule to have a voice. That just takes the fun away. Besides, when it comes to writing for the internet, you learn quickly that the general rule is to never engage the commenters.
One person publicly posted on my photography company’s Facebook page an article that National Geographic had done on micropigs. “Here’s some real journalism…” she wrote. Without replying, I agreed. National Geographic, indeed, does in-depth articles about nature and animals and provides compelling research. They do a great job.
I wrote captions for a listicle about pigs that were smaller than usual. She was offended anyway.
One woman found my boss’s personal phone number and left a voicemail. She told him that she did a little research and found out that Distractify’s office was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and what do you know! She is in Williamsburg, too! And she would really like to meet with this Megan McCormick in person and let her know about the inaccuracies of the truly damaging article she did on micropigs.
But this voicemail wasn’t about the animals. She wanted me fired a lot more than she wanted to save some pigs.
Needless to say, that meeting never occurred. Neither of us were eager to see what would come of our meeting with a person who repeatedly harassed a stranger at work over the myth of micropigs.
Commenters going into a frenzy over nothing is not a foreign concept on the supersonic witch hunt machine that has become the Internet. One of my colleagues at Distractify realized with horror that a listicle he had created showing cute puppies in a group had been somehow reinterpreted by an angry mob as de facto advocacy for puppy mills.
As with all moments on the internet, everyone moved on and forgot that the Great Micropig Incident of 2014 ever happened—or the Great Puppy List Disaster before it. I’m willing to bet that even the woman who went out of her way to try to get me fired has long since forgotten about all of it.
Still, in the back of my mind, when I make a list of cute animals, I wonder who’s going to misconstrue the pictures as animal abuse or track me down with the intent to ruin my career.
Even while writing this piece, I considered a thousand different ways someone in the anti-micropig, anti-puppy mill, anti-Tina Fey diaspora could reinterpret my words to use them against me. I know it seems irrational, but when you’re writing for the internet, that’s what happens: You will be treated like swine for calling a pig cute.
Ironically, the people whose words have been the most damaging to me are the people who decided to write online for the sole purpose of illuminating how damaging my writing was. Something tells me they’re not too worried about that, though. They’re probably offended by something right now, typing out a comment in all caps, ready to save the world yet again from itself.