Baratunde Thurston at MIMA: Interview with the social media personality

When Baratunde Thurston took the stage in the Hilton ballroom at the Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association summit yesterday, he led with a Jucy Lucy joke. "I'm in the place where they put cheese inside a hamburger," he said. "Doesn't that offend like 90% of the world's religions?" It was the last conventional joke of his unconventional stand-up set.

[jump] For the next hour, the New York social media personality and digital director of The Onion gave a bizarre PowerPoint presentation on his campaign for the Foursquare mayorship of Delicatessen, an upscale gastro-pub in Manhattan. It was ridiculous dot com era performance art, and if you were there, you were left with a couple good questions: Was he making fun of himself? Was he making fun of the geeks in the MIMA crowd? Actually, we had a few more.

You use an overhead projector to show screenshots from Twitter and Foursquare: so when did you wake up and realize you've become an iProp comic?

This interview is over! Never put me in the same family as Carrot Top. Even as a cool Carrot Top.

So how did you discover that this works?

I first started doing it for my college shows. My mother passed away in 2005, and I found all these photos that I'd never seen before. Of her as a kid. Of her mother. Of her grandmother. And I would tell my own backstory weaving these photos in. There are some ridiculous photos. Especially the 70s--that was a ridiculous time to be photographed. Your hair and your pants. Everything. I realized that people got much more connected when they could see the characters I was describing. And I did corporate consulting for 8 years, so I'm used to communicating with slides. So I was like, what if I merged the evil use of PowerPoint with actual good content?

There was a seminar at MIMA about Neuro Marketing where this guy was talking about "creating imagery that humans can't help but to respond to." When people use the word humans as if they're referring to another species...doesn't this marketing world creep you out?

One of my favorite Onion stories is, "'Hmm...I Think I'll Go Into Marketing' Says Horrible Person." It's not my goal to become a marketing expert. But there are so many things I'm marketing: myself and The Onion. The Onion is something that I believe in deeply.


What's so great about The Onion? That's totally rhetorical, by the way.

[It] is able to say things that traditional media outlets can't. We did a story about the oil spill. I'm going to jack up the headline a little bit but it was something like, "Massive Flow of Bullshit Continues From BP Headquarters." And it was written as if the bullshit was actual oil and bleeding into neighboring states, and then it turns out that the American people actually liked bullshit. You can't do that on air.

So you literally call people on their bullshit.

And I don't think that's unique to The Onion. It's unique to good satire: Mark Twain, Mort Sahl.

You got a Bill Hicks Award for one of your books.

I'm a big fan of Bill Hicks. There's a great new movie about him out--I saw it twice. First time it made me cry. It's one of those movies that simultaneously makes you want to try to be a better comedian and person and also to just stop trying. Like, "I'll never..."

You have a book coming out next year, How To Be Black. What do you think of the story written by that Asian human in Slate about how black humans use Twitter?

I was interviewed for that piece. There were a lot of problems with language in that piece--on a couple of levels. He inferred behavior from a very narrow set of a certain type of black person and applied that to all black people. It turns out that black people use twitter like people use twitter, generally speaking. Now there are some unique things that happen with black teens on twitter, especially with those hashtag, dozens type games--there's some validity to that. I participate in some of that. But the danger from that piece is that it said: This is what all black people do.

What about something more specific, like when The Awl's Choire Sicha admitted to "an obsession with Late Night Black People Twitter"?

Once again, good for him, but such a weird from-on-high, privileged, anthropological, I'm-at-the-zoo sort of perspective to have.

It's like that NeuroMarketing dude.

It distances you and at the same time it says, "this is other, this isn't mainstream behavior." So whenever you kind of point that out, you're in trouble.

So how are you going to work your way out of that trap in your book?

(Laughs.) The title is one thing; the point of the book is that there is no way to be black. This is a satirical book. Lots of people won't get the joke--I'm prepared for that.

You're going to piss a bunch of people off.

That's okay.

In one of your presentations I watched you announce, "I'm a racist." What did you mean by that?

I think it was in the context of me introducing my Web 2.0 hashtag talk. And that statement works great in a comedy club, but terribly at a web conference. Even if you introduce yourself as a comedian, people are uncomfortable with the very word "racist." I didn't mean that much by it. I use race as a filter to my world--we're all racists by that definition. It's also funny for a black person to come out and say, "I'm racist," because that's not where you expect that to come from...if I'm going to completely break it down and kill the joke. Thanks a lot, Steve.

Sorry. One more thing: Did you read the Gladwell piece on how social networking is ineffective at generating social justice?

No, but I'm sure he's wrong.

Follow Baratunde on Twitter.