"I'm constantly surprised at what gets a reaction and what doesn't," Time funnyman Joel Stein once told me. Stein said he'd written pieces he was sure were viral classics, like his impassioned account of chopping off his mullet. Then... nothing. Not even a blip on the blogosphere. "Then I'd toss off some piece about peanut allergies, and suddenly my mailbox erupts."
This week I found out exactly what Stein was talking about. In recent months I've published exclusive interviews with Adam Carolla, Dr. Drew and Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black. Each piece appeared and disappeared virtually unnoticed. Then Monday I ran a brief comic riff about returning my iMac to the Apple store, perturbed that the computer didn't come with a Windows installation CD. Suddenly my inbox exploded.
"People like you make me sick," wrote one reader. "I will send a couple of emails off to your editor to let them know just how unqualified you are." "Dear Josh," wrote another reader in 48-point balloon type, "you are an idiot." And: "Your iMac is not the problem. You are the problem. There are so many moronic flaws in your article that I am surprised that you learned to tie your shoes or feed yourself." And: "The entire Internet is laughing at you."
On the post board, readers were equally viciousand more creative. "You don't know anything about computers, yet you write a review about one," wrote one poster. "That's like me, as a gay man, writing an article about the best birth control." Another scoffed at my title, investigative reporter: "This article's title should be changed to 'I Don't Investigate Very Well; Allow Me to Demonstrate.'" Another reader empathized with my PC-to-Mac transition. "This is JUST like my experience," he wrote. "I rode a bike for nearly 10 years. I switched to a car and it didn't work the same, so I returned it two weeks later." And my favorite: "Mr. Kors: I am ashamed that your descendants learned to walk upright and harness the power of fire." (I left it to another reader to explain that it was my ancestors, not my descendants, that harnessed fire's power.)
The vitriolic posts reminded me just how flat the print medium is, how readers so angered by my piece weren't there to see me wink at the screen, chuckle at my pseudo-serious twists of phrase. It's a phenomenon Roger Ebert, now mute, wrote about beautifully last week: "[Stressing] certain words, adding inflection, adjusting pace... these areas are almost as important as the words themselves in getting a message across." With typed words alone, wrote Ebert, people will never truly understand him.
There were a few, of course, who did pick up on my comic intentions. "I have not stopped laughing from reading this article," wrote one reader, comparing my piece to one of The Onion's deadpan classics. Another said I reminded him of one of the great comic icons, Andy Rooney. Both of us, he wrote, sounded "old, tired, cranky, out of touch, and too fundamentally lazy to use even simple tools."
"He continued on that if someone were so embarrassingly inexperienced with basic computer function... they wouldn't dare write an article under their own name, listing point-by-point how little they knew because it would obviously be career suicide. I, having worked in retail and having experienced a customer who tried to return a phone because it 'didn't have good sound,' only to realize they had been holding it upside down, have considerably less faith in humanity and think you were actually serious."
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