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This article was published on July 28, 2016

What happens when you make a joke, but everyone thinks it’s real?

What happens when you make a joke, but everyone thinks it’s real?
Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten
Story by

Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten

Founder & board member, TNW

Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and pr.co. Boris is very active on Twitter as @Boris and Instagram: @Boris.

Usually when you are among friends and make a joke there’s an opportunity to say ‘just kidding’ if they don’t get that you are joking. Online that’s harder.

Last week, after watching the Pokémon Go phenomena explode we read reports of employers prohibiting their employees from playing Pokémon. We were amazed at how fast this was all happening, and I figured it would be funny to say the opposite and send a fake message on Slack about making it mandatory for TNW employees to play Pokémon Go every day for 30 minutes after lunch. I thought it would be a funny internal joke, but then we figured we might as well publish it as well, to see if it would fool more people.

We published ‘Our boss is forcing us to play Pokémon GO during work hours‘ a few hours later.

It was a joke, and an obvious one, or so I thought. I even talked to the team and expressed my doubts as I though it might be a bit too obvious that we were joking. I asked someone to send the story to a few other sites as well, to see if they would fall for it, or just think it was funny. All fun and games.

But then an interesting thing happened. I joke around a lot at the office, and didn’t feel the need to send an advance warning that a joke was coming up, or send a follow up either.

Soon after I published my message on Slack, I received a few DMs from my own people. One person told me it interfered with her work-out schedule, but that she was willing to change her schedule if I was serious. Then she asked ‘Wait, were you serious, or am I taking things too literally now?’.

The next DM was from someone who told me he was a freelancer and felt left out because I had announced the rule only applied to full-time employees.

I was impressed. The joke was good enough to fool my own co-workers. And then the Internet woke up.

This Is Insider, Business Insider, Dutch sites Communicatie Online and Adformatie, Human Resources Online, The Guardian (without giving us credit) and lots and lots of other sites from New Zealand to Tokyo and from Belgium to Sao Paulo started writing about our announcement, with most of them never even raising any doubt whether it was all true or made up.

We loved it.

But then we were faced with a dilemma. I realized that we also spread misinformation and have now caused some people to believe this actually happened. And except from writing this post, which most likely won’t get picked up by all those sources, we have no way of informing all those people that we’re in fact joking. Since then I’ve added a disclaimer to the original post, and described the joke in our newsletter, so a lot of people are now aware it was all a joke. But certainly not everyone.

It is one of the downsides of how media works nowadays where if you have a hit article you’ll reach thousands of readers in a small period of time who will read about your single story, often via another service, but won’t ever visit your site (again).

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed making that joke, and we will joke around more often but I’m just wondering how we should deal with joking around when you know some people will never realize you weren’t too serious and what that will do to their view of the world.

A joke isn’t finished until you can produce the punchline. But what if people don’t stick around for that?