Sarcasm, which depends heavily on its bearer’s delivery, can be easily misconstrued online. Sarcasm in the real world is emphasized with facial gestures and inflection. On Gchat and Twitter, though, sarcastic quips are often taken seriously — and can cause real problems.
Melissa Bell wrote about one Twitter user, frustrated that the media automatically looked to the Muslim community for a culprit during a Norwegian shooting spree earlier this year, who started the sarcastic hashtag #blamethemuslims. But many people took it seriously, and when it spread, it had the opposite effect that the user intended — especially when translated to other languages.
Several people have tried in vain to invent a written indication of sarcasm. The irony mark, a backwards question mark, has been used for statements that aren’t supposed to be taken seriously — for example, “Yeah, Kim Kardashian really married Kris Humphries for love؟” But even an inverse question mark can make us read the sentence as a question, rather than a statement of irony.
Others have invented sarcasm fonts (which look like a slightly-dopier Comic Sans), and sarcasm marks (which look sort of like an upside-down @ with a dot in the middle). The latter was marketed by SarcMarc, a company that sold the punctuation as a $2 download — angering many Internet users who argued that all punctuation should be free. A group called Open Sarcasm, formed in opposition to SarcMarc, advocates for the Ethiopic sarcasm mark, which is free, and looks like an upside-down exclamatiom mark:¡ And the geeks who want to indicate sarcasm often use faux-html code, like this: <sarcasm> great idea </sarcasm>.
Dave Barry, likely sarcastically, pointed to one sarcasm communication method that he notes is just brilliant. But I think it could work. The sarcastic font style that would designate sarcasm with a backwards italic left-slant. It will not work on our CMS — <sarcasm>so yeah, it’s got a great chance at succeeding</sarcasm> — but if it were widely adopted, compatible with all systems, and easy to use with just a keyboard shortcut, we’d be able to prevent sarcasm-related fights online easily. It’s also not too similar to any other punctuation or font styles we already use that could muddle its meaning — italics already mean emphasis, so backwards italics could easily be interpreted as sarcasm.
Sarcasm marks and fonts would be useful, but they could also destroy the art of a good, witty sarcastic barb by making it too obvious. For some, half of the fun of sarcasm is watching in disbelief when people take your outlandish statements seriously. So, when you see someone online saying that Chelsea Clinton makes a really charismatic TV reporter, some will smile knowingly, and others will have to puzzle over their taste — until a proper sarcasm font or mark is designated, that is.