How to be a media critic, in 140 characters or less

How to be a media critic, in 140 characters or less
Much like a friend who can't let you get to the punch line of a joke without getting there first, the Twitter feed @HuffPoSpoilers takes away the fun of the teasing headlines The Huffington Post sends out about its articles.

On Thursday, for example, when The Huffington Post posted on Twitter, "City council may consider making rifle ownership mandatory," the HuffPoSpoilers Twitter feed included that original tease and appended the following: "City=Craig, CO (pop. 9,000)." Or on April 4, when it posted, "'Mad Men' star hints at season six surprises," HuffPoSpoilers wanted it known that the star was not Jon Hamm or Elisabeth Moss but Ben Feldman, who plays the copywriter Mike Ginsberg. And then there is that deflating feeling produced when a post promising "3 foods that will give you amazingly smooth skin," is explained simply with "Avocado, honey and sugar."

Twitter, with its strict 140-character limit, may not be great for capturing the nuances of complicated social changes but it seems ideally suited to a particular form of snarky journalistic criticism that grows brick by brick, post by post.

HuffPoSpoilers uses example after example to expose the habit of sending out overpromising headlines. Similarly, the Twitter feed @NYTOnIt has sent out more than 400 posts, prompted when a trend article from The New York Times seems too obvious or too generic - for example, distilling an article about a study of Internet use among older people as, "GUYS, older folks don't use the Internet as regularly as younger folks, and The Times is ON IT."

Other targets include articles about the arrival of fall, the use of staplers, and how night stands are becoming more crowded. (In November, The Times enlisted Twitter to have the account more clearly identified as a parody of The Times, not part of The Times, which led to its briefly being taken down.)

Another style of journalistic criticism is more of a group effort - like the now nearly 4-year-old hashtag #slatepitches. This acts as a clearinghouse for over-the-top "story ideas" that would seemingly fit the counter-intuitive spin that Slate magazine favors, along the lines of, say, why Kobe Bryant's injury would be good for the Lakers in the NBA playoffs. (These days, however, Slate and its contributors appear to be using the hashtag to promote themselves, showing that perhaps the worst thing is to be ignored on Twitter.)

A more esoteric example of such Twitter mockery was the flurry of posts with the hashtag #BBCobituaries, which allowed fans of the cult movie "Withnail and I" to object to how one of its stars, Richard Griffiths, was identified by the BBC in an obituary. Griffiths was identified in the headline only for his work in the Harry Potter movie franchise, rather than for his turn as Uncle Monty in "Withnail."

On Twitter, this was compared to writing, say, "Marilyn, ex wife of Arthur Miller, dies," or, "Bicycle shop owners Orville and Wilbur Wright have passed away." The message got through to the BBC, and the headline now begins, "Potter and Withnail Actor..."

The creator of HuffPoSpoilers, Alex Mizrahi, says his Twitter feed came as a spur of the moment reaction to reading the post "Guess who is the highest-paid celebrity" in August. Rather than guess, Mizrahi, 30, from New York, looked up the answer - Oprah Winfrey, $165 million in 2011 - and added it to the Huffington Post message. He quickly got 10 followers and remembers being excited.

"It kills me that there is a 40- or 50-character tweet where they could easily put in more information but choose not to, such as the person involved or the country," he said in a telephone interview Friday. "I understand they want people to read," he added, but he said it was hard not to feel toyed with when a headline is sent out like this one Thursday: "1 dead 20 injured as chef mistakes pesticide for sauce."

You think, he said, "oh my God, that might be New York," when, as HuffPoSpoilers revealed, this happened in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China.

On Wednesday, for a reason he can't really explain, the Twitter feed suddenly got enough attention to cascade, with more than 11,000 followers as of Sunday - Mizrahi says he knew it was a big deal when he stumbled on HuffPoSpoilers in the feeds of people he follows. (He does not identify himself as the creator of the Twitter handle, but it was not hard to discover who it was.)

Mizrahi works freelance trying to link social media to entertainment - and, in that way, his experience creating an online phenomenon could actually fit on his resume. But he acts, he says, "out of love," simply to register his dislike of a practice that is not limited to The Huffington Post.

"The Huffington Post wouldn't have 3 million followers if people didn't like the content and like the articles and like what they are producing," he said, "but people like me get annoyed by their cryptic tweets that don't tell you anything, or just obvious click bait."

Thus far, Huffington Post has not changed its tactics on Twitter, but it did give some publicity to those who would mock it. The very brief article about HuffPoSpoilers on Thursday says, "We don't know who's behind this account but it made us laugh, so we're sharing it with you too."

Of course, Huffington Post also promoted that article on Twitter: "@HuffPoSpoilers ruins every tease-filled tweet from @HuffingtonPost for you."

That message left Mizrahi at a bit of a loss. All he could append was, "can't ruin this one."

© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: April 29, 2013 08:59 IST

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