Former Onion digital head Baratunde Thurston's Fast Company story of how he almost destroyed The Onion's Twitter credibility in 2008 by accidentally turning it into a spam bot is entertaining and instructive, but it also omits another questionable chapter in The Onion's Twitter history. Thurston's anecdote, which he uses as the centerpiece for an essay on how difficult it is to keep up with social media marketing trends, is one of a digital manager accidentally getting his settings wrong and spamming all his Twitter followers by mistake. The Onion's other big Twitter screw-up last September was a mistake, but it was no accident. That's when the comedy paper tweeted a not-very-funny, actually pretty alarming missive about gunfire in the Capitol building, before following up with the less-than-hilarious punchline: "BREAKING: Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen. #CongressHostage." That earned it an investigation by the Capitol Police. Thurston's mistake, on the other hand, provides a cautionary tale not in editorial choices but in reading the directions closely:
I flipped the switch on Tweetlater, then left the office to attend a political fundraiser, patting myself on the back for another digital strategy job well done. But something wasn't right. My iPhone began buzzing incessantly from inbound Twitter alerts. Hundreds of people were complaining that @TheOnion was spamming their timelines. Then I realized my mistake: I had set the gratitude bot to thank individual followers publicly, rather than in private. We were flooding our thousands of followers with scores of duplicated tweets. As I realized the scale of my mistake, my phone stopped working altogether. The iPhone sadly lacks the ability to process a constant stream of hate-filled text messages. I raced home, a 45-minute journey, to unplug the brand-destroying doomsday device, but I was too late. For a day at least, I turned The Onion into a social media joke akin to its own headline "New Social Networking Site Changing the Way Oh, Christ, Forget It."
Thurston's whole essay is worth a read over at Fast Company.