By now, techie folks will have heard of Google’s Gmail. It’s the “is it a joke, or isn’t it?” e-mail service announced by Google the other day.
There was a lot of confusion on the ‘Net about whether the announcement was a joke — news stories about it appeared on April Fool’s day, a press release on Google’s site was dated April 1 (though a BusinessWire version went out on March 31), and the tone of the release was anything but businesslike.
I was one of the reporters who wrote up the story — got to it after business hours so didn’t talk to Google until after the story had originally been published. Talking to Google reassured me it was for real, but it still didn’t please me.
“We meant to have fun and celebrate the day, not to confuse our friends in the world of journalism,” a Google exec told me. “I can assure you that the announcement of Gmail is no joke.”
Why, then, the jokey headline and press release? Why the reference to an “April 1, 2004 UTC” dateline, when the release on the wire said the 31st? I’m anything but humorless, but this just isn’t funny. Past jokes, such as those about PigeonRank and MentalPlex have been immediately recognized for what they are — jokes. Either it’s a joke, or it isn’t. Communicate.
As a journalist, I take my responsibility to impart truthful information very seriously. When someone tells me something as if it’s factual, and then winks and nods as if it’s not, their credibility — and therefore my credibility as a journalist — is at stake. And does it do any good for the institution of journalism for people to walk around all day and wonder whether venerable institutions like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have been duped? (I guess the Times has been duped, but that’s another story… ) Journalism has enough real problems as it is.
I was pretty hot about this yesterday, because it really got me thinking about truth and deception and journalism and corporate responsibility. I’m a little calmer now… and I’m no longer receiving e-mails from readers asking me “you know it’s a joke, don’t you?”