Irony on the Bar Room Floor

My dear readers, please excuse me, I need to argue with a puppet. While I usually save this space for high-minded thinking, like my review of the film "Piranha 3D," or my rant against the evils of Paul Carr, I've been in a back-and-forth argument with a puppet on Twitter, and I'm afraid I just can't win in 140 character bursts. But I will win. I will beat this puppet into submission.

I'm speaking literally about the Walt Mosspuppet. If you haven't seen Walt Mosspuppet, he's a character created by a relatively anonymous puppeteer (I'm guessing a Canadian by his haughty attitude) who delivers satirical rants on topics about which the real Walt Mossberg might hold forth. He's crass, terse, and a total Steve Jobs worshipper. He's also hilarious, and I watch every episode. But that doesn't mean he's right, and I had to take issue with one of his statements on Twitter.

You see, Briam Lam, the Editorial Director of Gizmodo, recently left his phone behind in a restaurant. Someone found it and turned it over to the manager. Lam got his phone back, no problem.

Do you see the irony? Most tech enthusiasts who don't have a hand stuffed up their butt saw the irony in this right away. Mosspuppet, though, decided to take my fellow tech bloggers to task on Twitter for claiming that this situation is ironic. He got pissy. Concerning the use of the term irony, he writes:

"Dear Tech Journalists: use the awesome power of the internet, which you're on ALL THE TIME, to look up the definition of words you use."

See, irony is supposedly a word that is difficult to define. Actually, it isn't, really. It's a very simple concept, but at it's most simple, it isn't very interesting.

Irony is when something unexpected replaces something expected, to interesting effect.

That's it. See the problem? Under this very lax definition, there are too many things that could be called ironic.

When you planned your wedding, did you expect rain, or did you plan an outdoor wedding because you expected sunshine? If you expected the latter, then rain on your wedding day is ironic. Did you wait your whole damned life to take that flight, only to choose a plane that crashed after you finally did decide to get over your fear? You didn't expect the plane to crash, so that's ironic. I'm not saying it's great irony, and the more interesting the substitution of the unexpected for the expected result, the more powerful the feeling we get from the ironic moment. But even when it's dull, like when you didn't expect to find a black fly in your glass of Chardonnay, it's still irony. It's just not interesting.

Sure, there are numerous types of irony, but it's a very broad concept. At its best, it elicits quite an emotional response. My wife sells her hair to buy me a chain for my pocket watch, but I've just sold my pocket watch to buy her an expensive comb. That's some intense irony right there. Briam Lam leaving his phone in a restaurant, only to have it returned by the kindness of a stranger? Personally, I find that ironic.

Someone left an iPhone 4 prototype in a bar. The person who found it should have given it to the bar manager. That's what the law expects. Instead, that person sold it to Gizmodo. Apparently, they shopped it around first, then they sold it.

From a journalist's perspective, this is a scuzzy move. I have never paid for an inside scoop, and I've never worked for a news organization that has paid for a scoop. It smacks of a lack of integrity. When journalists start paying for scoops, two things will happen. First, more and more people will come forward demanding to be paid for their information. The standard will be for journalists to pay. This will lead to fraud. Journalists will be forced to pass along the cost to readers and sponsors. Real investigative work will quickly die out in favor of a quick handout.

Second, journalism will be dominated by writers who are rich, instead of writers who are intelligent and honest. I'm not saying the two are mutually exclusive, but if more people with fat wallets knew they could run a successful journalistic enterprise without having to work very hard or maintain their integrity, we'd quickly be flooded with wealthy editors, instead of responsible, intelligent writers.

Undoubtedly, the iPhone 4 scoop was the biggest thing to happen to Gizmodo ever. I'm sure their traffic surged, and I'm sure they have no regrets about their decision to buy the iPhone 4 story. Without even questioning the legality of the situation, I think it was unethical. Further, Briam Lam, as Editorial Director, benefited from the unethical and potentially illegal conduct of his source.

Someone found a phone in a bar. They sold it to the highest bidder instead of doing what was right. Brian Lam, and the rest of Gizmodo, benefits.

Fast forward to Briam Lam losing his phone in a restaurant. John Gruber on Daring Fireball posts this brief clip about the incident, with a screenshot of Lam's explanatory Twitter message. The title of Gruber's post? "Irony."

Someone found a phone in a restaurant. They did the right thing and turned it in to the manager. Brian Lam benefits.

Because of the Gizmodo history with lost phones, you might expect that when Lam loses his phone in a restaurant, the person who finds it would sell it to a competing Web site. I would have paid $5 for it, just for the satisfaction of making Brian Lam write me a letter verifying that, yes, that is in fact his phone that was lost. In this case, what actually happened to Lam's phone ran contrary to my expectations. It's ironic.

As icing on the cake, Lam, in his Twitter post, describes the situation as the result of karma. He thinks that because he gave up a chair, certainly a magnanimous gesture that wasn't beyond the notice of the cosmic stream, the universe kindly returned his lost phone.

Of course, a thoughtful observer knows that if karma were acting on Brian Lam, something horrible and potentially illegal would happen to his phone, and its fate would end up in the hands of Steve Jobs, or even better yet, the poor shmoe who lost his iPhone 4 in a bar for a greedy, unscrupulous Gizmodo fan to find. Karma is cosmic. It's much bigger than switching chairs.

So, there you go, puppet. You could read through the rest of what Mosspuppet has to say on his Twitter feed, but don't bother, because he's simply wrong and he doesn't understand irony. Apparently, for Mosspuppet, someone has to speak a line or two of silly dialogue before a situation can become ironic. Lam has to react differently before the situation can be ironic. Mosspuppet sure knows how to clap his thumb and forefingers together in front of a camera, but he doesn't know irony. Whether you find the situation karmic, interesting, or just plain dull, that's a subjective judgment. But there is no doubt that what happened is ironic.