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After the U.K.'s Twitter Joke Trial verdict, we need a sarcasm mark

By Alexandra Petri

Q: Did you hear the one about the guy who made a joke on twitter about blowing up an airport and then was taken to trial, found guilty, and had his appeal overturned?
A: I guess I can't tell this one then.


Snow closed Robin Hood airport in Doncaster, United Kingdom this February, and Paul Chambers tweeted in frustration: "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your [excrement] together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

A member of airport staff noticed, reported him, and he was convicted of "menace." Today he attempted to appeal. But the judge in Doncaster crown court overturned the appeal, ruling his tweet "obviously menacing." She noted that "anyone living in this country in the present climate of terrorist threats especially at airports, could not be unaware of the possible consequences."

Now twitter's going wild!

Stephen Fry has offered to pay the fine. And those who aren't donating have been vigorously joking about it -- "Twitter used to feel like having a chat in a bar," threedaymonk noted. "Now it's like having a chat in a bar in the old East Germany."

Bigmouthedwoman suggested: "let's follow the #twitterjoketrial judge round til he says "ooh I'd kill for a nice cup of tea" and then all shout "AHA!" in his face."

This is patently absurd on a number of levels.

I understand that it's difficult for the law to tell when people are joking, because the law has led a sheltered life and doesn't get out much, but this is ridiculous!

It's time for a sarcasm marker.

I propose the "`", because it seems as though this key sits on your keyboard all day long with nothing else to do, and also because it's like a less enthusiastic air quote, which is sarcasm all over. If Paul Chambers had been able to put a ` at the end of his sentence, none of this would have happened.

Sure, a sarcasm marker might be dangerous in the wrong hands. Accidentally stick it on the end of "I love you`" and it's lethal! Accidentally put it on a job application next to the phrase "lots of experience in a wide range of fields`" and people will start to worry that this is a euphemism for something. But imagine the impact it would have. The inability to tell when someone is joking is one of those things that people (most of whom have difficulty doing this in real life as well) blame on the advent of online communication. Apparently, by not using our elaborate library of nonverbal cues, we are missing out. This mark would fix that.

In some ways, it's more necessary than an exclamation point. Sure, it's great that you're excited by things! But that information is less important than being able to tell whether you're joking or not. "What a great day," and "What a great day!" convey essentially the same sentiment. But "What a great day`" would mean something entirely different.

The mark would also be handy for telling real terrorists from joke terrorists. True, they might catch on eventually. But their use of the mark in other phrases like "I place a high value on human life`" and "I am not going to pose a threat to national security`" would be a clear giveaway.The same goes for this putative airport explosion. "I'm going to blow Robin Hood sky high!" would merit justifiable alarm. But "I'm going to blow Robin Hood sky high!`" would be fine.

"Oh, that was sarcasm," the Robin Hood airport officials would have murmured, and they would have continued with their day.

Except that they probably wouldn't have. The other problem in this trial seems to have been the fundamental disconnect between the forces of Officialdom and Law and the benevolent misrule that characterizes Internet culture. Of course he was joking! If he'd been an actual terrorist, he would have been the worst terrorist imaginable, publishing his name, photograph, and location! Anyone remotely versed in online tone could have told you that. Even a person with common sense might have been able to.

And common sense is so common these days.`

By Alexandra Petri  | November 11, 2010; 1:07 PM ET
Categories:  Epic Failures, Only on the Internet, Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  airplanes, twitter  
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Why not just use the snark mark/bracketed exclamation mark like people have been using for years?

Posted by: nerdbopper | November 11, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

I have absolutely NO sympathy for Paul Chambers. Everyone knows that you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater, even though it might save a lot of lives. In fact, I think they should sentence him under Sharia law, and cut off his .... fingernails. See, I was able to make a joke without risking arrest and/or being sentenced to a mulligan, or worse - an entire Milbank column.

I think your sarcasm marker is a great idea!'

But in addition to the typo problem, what happens if I want to send my son to a "boys' school?" Would that mean it is really a school for girls, or that the boys are all gay? Also, if you put two "'" together, it looks like """, so I could not say "Boys'' School." What then... "Boys'(not) school?" The snotty boys would just giggle!

And what if I said something like this: "Petri is full of poo poo!:-)'?" Does the "'" refer to the smiley face, or the poo? It looks like it would negate the smile, and I'd be saying that you need a colonos..., I mean an Ex-Lax. (See, Mr. Chambers.. it's(not) easy)

So, please stop writing this unfunny, driveling, juvenile, grassy nine, waste of time, garbagey, crappy column!'

But I still think you'(not)re the cat's meow, which means the dog's meow, which means.. ad infinitum, whatever that means.'

Posted by: divtune | November 11, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

OH! You meant the `, not the '. Never mind.`

Posted by: divtune | November 11, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

I would hardly call a tweet sent to a handful of followers, and not picked up until a few days later by an OFF DUTY airport employee a "crowded theatre"

I have plenty of sympathy for Paul Chambers. A flippant jokey comment, patently made without malice, that he correctly assumed would be seen by a few and forgotten about within days has now cost him two jobs, thousands of pounds, his privacy, and God knows how much stress, all because of a vindictive, po-faced, unaccountable public prosecutor and a Kafkaesque badly worded (to put it mildly) law, (rushed through by a pliant credulous parliament cowed by talk of terrorist threats).

There is a reason why rich people and corporations come to the UK from the world over to sue people, regardless of where the supposedly offensive comments were made

Be grateful for the first amendment

Posted by: MrSimonPowell | November 11, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse


I think you misjudged me. If you understood what I really meant, I'd be your American Idol.

When I wrote that I have absolutely NO sympathy for Paul Chambers, I forgot to include the `. Wait.. does that mean that I really meant to forget to include the `? Wait..

As Bill once said, let me make this perfectly clear. I did NOT have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky.`

Also, I completely support Mr. Chambers, 100 percent. Only a tone-deaf, idiot British judge with knotted wig and panties would say Mr. Chamber's joke was "off key."

And I mean that without a `! Wait.......

Posted by: divtune | November 11, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

One more thing...
Simon says:
I would hardly call a tweet sent to a handful of followers, and not picked up until a few days later by an OFF DUTY airport employee a "crowded theatre"
First of all, I said "theater" not "theatre." What's a bloody theatre anyway? Or doesn't that little, squiggly, pig-tailed red underline appear for you when you type a wrong word?

Assuming you meant "theater", I agree with you. Also, I guess it's OK to yell "fire" any time you want in a theatre that's only half full.[!]:=)`

Did I get the snark mark right, nerdbopper, or do you have to bop me?

Posted by: divtune | November 11, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

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