Poe’s Law casts a long dark shadow
Wow – I am REALLY excited about this project!”
. . . said the final line of the client’s email. The website was for a dermatologist’s practice who had opted for cheesy stock photos of smiling automatons.
I was young and doing it for the cash. She was a medical secretary with what I perceived as the unenviable job of getting together a desperately unexciting website. Was she serious? Or having a giggle with me at our shared predicament?
Clear communication over the web is tough. How often do you read an email or blog comment and wonder if the author’s sentiments are genuine? In my early days of freelancing I once added what I perceived to be an amusingly sarcastic comment to a client email which received a hurt and bewildered reply. My British sense of humour is not always appreciated and something I try to keep in check.
I came by an internet adage called Poe’s Law. Coined in 2005 by Nathan Poe, Poe’s Law states that without a “winking smiley or other blatant display of humour”, it is impossible to determine that someone won’t mistake the parody for the genuine article. The axiom was originally applied to fundamentalism and activism but over time has been associated with comments made online in jest but perceived as the real deal.
The sentiment stems from a comment made by Jerry Schwarz on Usenet, way back in 1983:
“If you submit a satiric item without this (smiley) symbol, no matter how obvious the satire is to you, do not be surprised if people take it seriously.”
There have been some fairly infamous incidents over the years, the most memorable for me being the satirical piece by The Onion claiming ‘Harry Potter Sparks Rise In Satanism Among Children’. The article was cited across the media and caused letters of outrage to the Readers Digest. I found a long list of similar scenarios in this post.
The emergence of the long shadow design ‘trend’ of the past few weeks is what has prompted my thoughts. Originating from a tongue-in-cheek blog post, the trend was picked up across the web and purported to be the next big thing. Its merits caused heated discussions on design forums and a series of long shadow iOS7 redesigns and icon sets. For me it came full circle when Designmodo illustrated their piece with this example:
For the record the medical secretary really was genuinely excited about the website. It’s always wise to err on the side of caution, you never know who’s listening : )