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From AJR,   October/November 2011

84 Percent of Our Followers Like Our Tweets!   

The people who brought you Fake AP Stylebook take on the world of research. Fri., September 30, 2011

By Caitlin Johnston
Editorial assistant Caitlin Johnston (@cljohnst, cljohnst@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.      


A Pew Research Center study on religion in America spawned a Twitter feed that pokes fun at everything from Wolf Blitzer and Jay-Z to geography and ex-girlfriends.

Fake Pew Research launched September 19 and already has nearly 10,000 followers. Like everything he and his fellow Fake AP Stylebook contributors produce, creator Ken Lowery says their goal is to make themselves laugh. And if they entertain other people in the process, even better.

"People act like we sat in our bunker for nine months coming up with the idea," Lowery says. "It's not like there're a lot of startup costs on Twitter. You can test it, and if people respond to it, great. If not, you can keep doing it for yourself or you can walk away"

Lowery got the idea when looking at data the Pew Research Center published regarding religions. Lowery, a former religion reporter, had followed the organization for years. But this time, something clicked. This could be funny, he thought.

So, as he does with every other idea that crosses his mind, he tossed this one out to his Fake AP Stylebook teammates. The group of about 15 share ideas through a group mailing list. When inspiration strikes, they seek feedback from their fellow contributors.

The general consensus? This is good stuff.

Within a couple days, the Twitter feed was up and running. That's the plus of Twitter, Lowery says. There are no fees, it takes minimal effort to start and you don't have to worry about whether people will pay for it.

Fake Pew Research hasn't picked up quite as fast as Fake AP Stylebook, which launched in October 2009, but the group is satisfied with the reaction thus far. "We're making waves," Lowery says. "It's not an explosion that Fake AP Stylebook was. But that was sort of a freak accident. I don't think we could ever mimic that."

One plus for lampooning research is the broad reach. Percentages and statistics cover virtually anything people could think of, Lowery says. And the things that they don't cover, it's funny to poke jokes at.

For instance, one of the most popular Tweets so far: "12% of Gods do not believe in Americans."

The writers pull their inspiration from anything and everything. Contributor Matt D. Wilson guesses that 50 percent of the jokes come from random musings in his head and the other half are drawn from politics, current events and pop culture.

Wilson, a former local government reporter and onetime AJR intern, likes to poke fun at politics, but says he certainly isn't the only one in the group to do so. However, he adds, "If you see a Fake AP Style tweet about city council meetings, there's a very good chance that I wrote it."

Though Wilson and Lowery have journalistic experience, they're the minority in the group. Wilson said out of the 15 main contributors, probably only five of them have worked in journalism or related fields. They all still maintain their day jobs, while writing and editing jokes when inspiration finds them.

Though the other contributors come from a variety of other professions, they all share two key characteristics: a love of comic books (which surfaces with tweets such as "85% of supervillains 'will get you for this,' 15% are 'biding their time.') and a tendency to question the world around them.

"Every journalist I've ever known has never taken anything at face value, and everybody in this group kind of shares that mentality whether they work in journalism or not," Wilson says. "These people, even though they don't work in the media necessarily, definitely have an eye for all the sort of inner workings behind what they read or what they see."

While the snappy one-liners are entertaining, there are plenty of fake Twitter feeds that don't take off. Wilson estimates that, between all contributing members, they've created at least 20 fake feeds.

"We occasionally throw out ideas for other stuff we can do," Wilson says. "It's almost like a blessing and a curse that we're constantly coming up with ideas."

Yet the success of Fake AP Stylebook and Fake Pew Research doesn't extend to others such as those on online etiquette, songs that get stuck in your head and terms of service agreements.

"There's always been this sort of weird gallows humor to journalism that you don't find in any other profession," Wilson says. "Journalists are so willing to make fun of themselves and laugh through the tears that these things really caught on."

In addition to monitoring what jokes are retweeted, the group also keeps tabs on what type of people are following the feeds. Wilson says they've heard from researchers at Pew, former researchers or people who know someone who works there.

"The interesting thing is how much the people who are part of the organizations that we're satirizing really get it and don't see it as damaging," Wilson says. "They see that it really comes out of a place of respect and understanding what they do."

Once the feed moves past the initial rush of jokes, Lowery says the contributors start laying down a framework to give them direction. One of the contributors–a writer, father and "super nice guy"–is notorious for darker tweets.

"We read that and say, 'OK, let's do a week of downer stats and hashtag them as #downer stats," Lowery says.

Josh Krach, the soft-spoken master of super dark tweets, admits his tweets often go down some ugly roads, but not always. Most important, it's about finding a good punch line and making people laugh.

"It's just like cracking jokes with your buddies," Krach says. "You get a premise and you just riff off it until you don't have any more ideas. The only thing that makes Fake Pew Research different is I actually try to check my math."

Keep your eyes out for some dark humor in the Twitterverse next week. Feeling too cheery today? Here's a preview: "In 8 percent of peekaboo games, mommy never comes back."

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