Appending Larry

Google's "premature release" spins off another viral meme — and an ethical question

A recent Reuters article on Google’s prematurely released earnings report noted that a Twitter parody account was created to mock the “PENDING LARRY QUOTE” in the company’s unfinished document: “[W]ithin minutes, though, an unknown prankster set up a “PendingLarry” Twitter feed to hypothesize what the missing quote might be. Among the highlights: ‘Man, our privacy was WAY violated today.’”

After just one day of existence, @PendingLarry accumulated an impressive number of followers and press coverage — no doubt due, in part, to retweets from prominent journalists with thousands of followers of their own. The first person to retweet the account was Reuters deputy social media editor Matthew Keys (@TheMatthewKeys, formerly @producermatthew), who managed to find @PendingLarry seconds after the parody account published its first tweet.

The next day, Keys revealed how he found @PendingLarry so quickly: He created it.

I tweeted at him to ask if creating a newsmaking parody account was appropriate for a Reuters deputy social media editor. Keys (who declined to discuss @PendingLarry for this article) responded: “Maybe. What’s it to you?” Though I sense Keys was being a bit flip in his response, his question is a valid one.

I’ve reported on parody Twitter accounts before, and I appreciate the humor the best ones provide. Increasingly, though, parody memes have become the one predictable outcome of politicians’ unpredictable gaffes during this election season. Any statement made by a presidential candidate is grounds for eight parody Twitter accounts, three Tumblrs, a Facebook page, and about 100 Amazon reviews. These memes and parodies aren’t just satirizing the news - they’re becoming the news.

“This is the first presidential election where the endless riffing of the true Internet meme — a repeating, morphing, crowdsourced play off some minute detail — has taken hold of the campaign conversation, and directed it into some weird territory,” writes Amanda Hess. It has become a race to see who will create the first hilarious meme — and then which outlet will write about it.

When Obama let loose with his “horses and bayonets” line during the third presidential debate, ABC, The Washington Post, and NYT covered the many subsequent social media parodies. Though I’d argue that this coverage overshadowed more important policy issues raised (or not raised) during the debate, Jeff Jarvis — journalist, journalism professor, and occasional Twitter meme creator — disagrees.

“I have more trust and faith in the public than that,” Jarvis says. As he points out, it’s not like journalists didn’t report on trivial election matters in pre-Twitter and pre-Internet days. “There’s much, much worse things that media have been doing with the election,” he says. That’s very true.

In the case of @PendingLarry, beyond the iffy newsworthiness of meme coverage, there are added ethical layers. We’re told that we’re supposed to report the news, not actively influence it. But ever-shifting social media standards make it difficult for journalists to know what they should and shouldn’t do. Stay too objective and you’re boring and no one follows you. Take your personal thoughts and feelings too far and you get suspended from your freelance gig at The New York Times Magazine for a month.

For Reuters, at least, creating parody Twitter accounts on company time goes in the “no” column. Though Keys’s supervisor, social media editor Anthony De Rosa, encouraged his nearly 40,000 followers to “check out @PendingLarry,” a Reuters spokesperson issued this statement to CJR: “A member of our social media team erred in creating a parody account. We are reviewing the matter.” @PendingLarry is now a locked account.

Jarvis thinks Keys had every right to create @PendingLarry but should have been transparent that he was behind it from the start. “Hell, take credit for it. Be transparent about it, it’s okay,” Jarvis says. If Keys had been clear that he was the creator of the @PendingLarry from the start, his Reuters coworkers wouldn’t be in the position of unwittingly reporting on the actions of one of their own.

“The only real rule in social media is, ‘Don’t be an idiot,’” Jarvis says. But he also warns against “overreacting” to cases where that rule is broken. Andrew Goldman, who was suspended by New York Times Magazine last week, shuttered his Twitter account after an outcry about a couple of ill-advised tweets. “Should he have apologized? Yeah. And he did,” Jarvis says; “I would not want [Keys] to be too timid to make those kinds of experiments.” Keys may have compromised the Reuters name in a few tweets, but he’s used thousands more 140-character missives to provide useful links and information in a way that reflects positively on his employer.

Though De Rosa has a sense of fun about parody accounts and memes, he also wrote in a recent blog post that he’s become concerned during this election cycle that people are “latch[ing] on to the latest minutiae of the campaign.” He instituted a few changes in his social communication designed to counteract the effect; most of them boil down to providing context and detail — nearly impossible within Twitter’s 140 character limit. De Rosa wrote in an email to CJR: “Social media tends to grab onto these memes and if you’re not following the right people who do discuss real issues … you’re left with very little intelligent information.”

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: , ,