“Everyone has AIDS!” – When Did AIDS Become a Punchline?

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I watch an undue amount of television and films and have begun to wonder: when did it become okay to joke about AIDS? And when is a joke a joke too far?

When did AIDS stop being a histrionic soapbox issue in one isolated, “very special” TV episode (à la Designing Women) or a story arc for a regular character (à la Life Goes On and its Chad Lowe character “Jesse” – which actually handled it pretty well – but didn’t that show have enough going on with an economically strapped middle-class family rearing a Down Syndrome kid, an overachieving nerd kid and a late-in-life, unplanned pregnancy, among other things?).

Back in the early days of the crisis, which rightfully terrified every person conscious and alive at that time, we did not see a lot of gay stories on TV (we know of course that all AIDS stories were not gay stories, but the dearth and lateness of mainstream stories can be placed squarely on the fact that network television was not the semi-gay-friendly place it has now become), but there were some exceptions – Designing Women had a particularly poignant episode guest starring a very young Tony Goldwyn (yes, yes – President “Fitz” Grant from Scandal).

AIDS showed up in pop culture now and then… but when did it become okay to joke about it?

When you think about treatment for HIV and AIDS – and the awareness of it – it has advanced further and faster than advances in almost any other disease or illness. I’d attribute it to the persistent, loud demands of won’t-take-no-for-an-answer activism from an hitherto marginalized community of gay men who were disproportionately affected by this epidemic. We can all thank them – even if, as one characterization of the crisis puts it, we have ended up in a “complacent” or “indifferent” place in society with regard to what is now a treatable illness.

But does this advancement mean that all of societal perception has shifted? Does the tempering or perceived neutralization of the threat and the almost-distant memory of the devastation AIDS once caused in the western world mean that we have reached a stage where we can laugh at it? Young people today (I know I sound elderly starting a sentence that way) did not live through the fear and terror of those early years and thus don’t feel the same limitation or deference to the topic’s seriousness. It’s seen as a “developing-world issue” if it is thought of at all. Taking that into account, is it possible for some of the humor to be intelligent analysis or satire of the place we are with the disease – or with other things in society when held up to it? And where is that line? What happens when someone crosses it?

A woman named Justine Sacco found out the hard way, as she completely failed to walk the tightrope when she tweeted something that went viral and was widely seen as completely inappropriate and in horrible taste. (Her Tweet read: “she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”)

“Despite Ms Sacco only having around 200 followers, the message quickly spread to online news organisations, with social media users around the world expressing their disgust.

The irony of a supposed public relations expert tweeting such an insensitive comment, and the fact it could not be corrected during a 12-hour flight without an internet connection, meant the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was soon trending on the social media site.”

Apart from being a perfect example of displaying very bad judgment, it is also a perfect illustration of the viral nature of social media and why we have to be careful.

But pop culture is… well, popping with all kinds of increasingly frequent joking references to AIDS. From the parody of the popular musical Rent in Team America: World Police with its “Everyone Has AIDS!” song

to the South Park play on the different meanings of the homophones “AIDS” and “aides” (which reminds me of my days observing TESOL/ESL courses; one afternoon one of the teachers discussed acronyms and had used AIDS as an example – later in the lesson, although on a different topic, she introduced the word “aides” and asked the perplexed class, “Do you think Bill Clinton has aides?”).

What prompted this entire train of thought on the subject, apart from watching the heartwrenching HBO treatment of The Normal Heart last week, was my marathon-viewing of Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, and an episode in which Amy’s boyfriend announces he has AIDS (humorously summarized here). Seeing it almost shocked me because I was not sure whether to find it funny or not. I think Schumer stayed on the right side of the humor because she was not actually laughing at AIDS but was shining a light on a lot of different issues, ranging from hypocrisy to the awkwardness of conversations in which you feel a certain pressure to accept or agree to things that you need time to process, regardless of what they are (but when put on the spot, it is not like you know what to say, so when the boyfriend asks if his having AIDS is a dealbreaker, she nervously, awkwardly chimes, “No, it’s great!”).

The question, though, cannot really be answered universally – where is the line?

Stat Explosion and Data Overload

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May 18 skewed my blog statistics in a big way. As someone who manages a very niche, limited-reach blog for a corporation in my professional life (obviously not THIS blog), this sudden and brief explosion was an interesting look at what immediately drives traffic (a retweet from a famous person). Or rather what won’t. The corporate blog gets readers, and the number of readers and subscribers grows slowly but steadily. It is such a specialized area that it is not as though it would ever get the kind of readership that even my personal blog gets – and my personal blog is all over the place – personal, lacking in a theme or point and not actively trying to drive anything. It started as a baking/recipe blog when my colleagues (whom I had stuffed to near-death with cookies and cupcakes) demanded recipes. It evolved into a dumping ground for my thoughts and commentary on television, news/current events and all manner of other nonsense. Even if my personal blog had a steadier stream of traffic than my work blog (makes sense because the randomness of my personal blog means that all kinds of Google searches, from Mobutu Sese Seko to white chocolate macadamia cookies, from the benefits of telecommuting, to pictures of brown sugar cupcakes piled high with mounds of maple Swiss meringue buttercream and candied bacon. might lead someone to my blog), I never achieved any great reach.

on the bacon bandwagon

on the bacon bandwagon

Until today, my personal blog’s best stats never reached more than 250 visitors – and that was when I was baking a lot and posting recipes and pictures of cakes. In the absence of that, I maybe get 30 or 40 visitors. I am not that concerned with the statistics on my personal blog – I write it for my own sake and if someone else gets there and likes it, or even doesn’t like it, that’s fine with me.

But this morning, which has felt like a neverending night now that Swedish near-endless light nights are here, I posted an article about how I finally watched the witty and insightful Inside Amy Schumer, despite the misleading, one-dimensional Comedy Central ads for it that had so long turned me off. I posted about the blog via Twitter, which was retweeted from Schumer’s own account, which then led to what is for me an unprecedented avalanche of activity. Suddenly my phone was chiming: ding ding ding ding ding ding because, thanks to Schumer’s devotees (a more pleasant word than “followers”), people were retweeting and favoriting my original tweet. (Yes, I am perfectly aware of how asinine this sounds. A non-Millennial person describing the tweet and retweet process like it’s really serious business just sounds funny – even if it does have its own importance. It’s just not the be-all, end-all.)

But more than that, the link to the blog in which I wrote about changing my mind about Amy Schumer’s show made the blog statistics skyrocket. In a couple of hours, there were well over 1,000 visitors. The downside is that this opens the door to a lot of unprovoked criticism from complete strangers. But then yeah, the world’s full of haters, and that is completely fine. I hate a lot of stuff too. It is also easy to have a knee-jerk reaction (no emphasis on “jerk” or anything) – as I did to the ads, and as the commenter had to my post. But I am sure we are both cool enough people in our real lives.

The only comment on the Amy Schumer blog entry, in fact, was a negative one, basically laying into me for my “judgmental, accusatorial” observations about an ad. But, as I commented back (and I think we’re cool now), most of our judgments and decisions are kind of “split second” in nature – especially to ads. They are meant to appeal to us on some level, get our attention and in 30 seconds to make us want to do something, consume something, watch something or buy something (I won’t even use as strong a word as “persuade” since it’s more like advertisers tease and tempt with an elevator speech – so shouldn’t it be a bit more tempting, somehow?). Of course, I don’t know who the target audience was with the Schumer ads, but it’s not me – and that’s fine. But I still had to see them, and I made a judgment that watching the show might not be the best use of my time. Or that it would be as crass and shallow as the ads made it seem. That is no judgment of the show itself or Amy Schumer. And my writing about it was more like, “Hey, I was completely wrong about this – and the two people who read this blog and generally trust my opinions on these matters should know it. Watch Inside Amy Schumer!”

With a fleeting moment of greater reach, you simultaneously become a lightning strike (gone in a flash) and a lightning rod.

I suppose a celeb retweet or starting/being part of a trending topic is the sort of thing that one has to get to gain some traction. Even if, for example, in this case, it is a bunch of clicks – not “traction”. We all know it but there’s no way to predict whether any social media activity will lead to anything. Visitors to my personal blog are nice – but much like in the corporate blog environment, it’s not like they stuck around and read other things. And for personal writing, it doesn’t matter. I write what I write, I post it online and to a limited extent in social channels, but I am not writing for an audience or to achieve something.

But for the corporate writing, you sort of want to extend the reach – establish yourself as a thought leader – but you cannot do anything to damage your credibility or try to somehow get that reach artificially. It doesn’t work and won’t hold anyone’s interest. For instance I could try to steer the corporate blog in a direction where “celebrity surgeons” (is there such a thing other than the odd Dr Oz and some plastic surgeons who show up on makeover shows??) somehow feel compelled to retweet the content, but while that might extend reach for a day, it is not delivering quality or longevity or even the target audience we’d want to reach.

In a kind of related area…

“Data data data – you cannot make bricks without clay…” –Sherlock Holmes in TV show Elementary

All this discussion of statistics should lead to an action plan on how to take advantage of statistics and visitor data to guide future blog content – “give the readers what they want”. At least this is true for the corporate blog – consumer/user/customer responsiveness and centricity is really the only way to ensure continued growth for something like this.

I have been participating in a Coursera/Wharton School online class about marketing, and this week was all about customer-centricity. Since I work a lot with the ideas underpinning “taming Big Data” to gain customer insights in my freelance work, the whole idea of customer focus as one of the only real ways to differentiate makes a lot of sense – and customer data (overload) is the key to giving users what they want.

Never mind that I am totally distracted listening to the professor, Peter Fader, deliver his lectures, because he sounds too much like Bob Odenkirk – so I am supposed to be looking at a PowerPoint slide describing a couple of case studies of companies that have put customer data to good use, but it’s like I am hearing Saul Goodman explaining customer centricity to me. (And Saul Goodman arguably did put his customers first, sometimes to his own detriment and at his own peril.)

This customer-centric, data-driven approach is finally taking root in all kinds of business segments and industries. As Fader pointed out, direct marketing has always used data to target customers – but now, in the digital age, this data is readily available to almost everyone (I won’t get into the ethics of data collection, privacy, etc. except to say that while it’s great for businesses, it’s creepy for customers – see a recent article about a pregnant woman and Princeton professor who had to go to insane lengths to hide her pregnancy from advertisers, retailers and the Big Data machine.) At first companies like Google and Amazon tapped into user data because it’s in their DNA – I have spent a lot of time looking at how old-style, traditional publishers who lost both revenue and subscribers in the big digital shift are now taking back control their data (they had ceded a lot of it to third parties who started taking an ever-larger share of the pie from them) to target their website visitors, readers, subscribers with content and advertising that is highly personalized. And just today I saw a news report about a museum in London that has begun to use all kinds of data collection (traditional and digital) to continue to attract visitors. As the report stated, “Research is a key part of the museum’s arsenal.”

The application of data and personalization is the next logical step, but I wonder about the quality and longevity of this too. Collecting, analyzing and applying user data can only go so far before people feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulder. I cannot help but wonder if that sense of Big Data infiltrating one’s life will start to feel too much like Big Brother and begin to change and influence consumer behavior?

(As advertised – I rambled aimlessly!)