Yesterday, the US Education Department’s Twitter account for financial aid sent out a tweet saying “If this is you, you better fill out your FAFSA” followed by a link to their site and a screenshot from this scene from the movie Bridesmaids, complete with the caption “Help me, I’m poor.”


The Department issued an apology before anyone could even react to it. Dorie Nolt, Department spokesperson, said:

“It was an ill-conceived attempt at reaching students through social media. We are reviewing our process for approving social media content to ensure it reflects the high standards we expect at the U.S. Department of Education.”

You might recognize this style of apology from its almost weekly recurrence every time some company or government body steps even a little over a line.

  1. A social media person says something intended as a joke.
  2. Either blogs report the faux pas first, or the company issues apology preemptively.
  3. Apology includes promise to change how social content is generated.
  4. Everybody forgets about it.

This one has to be one of the quickest turnarounds I’ve ever seen. @FAFSA‘s tweet was barely offensive, I can honestly say I wouldn’t have looked twice at it, but the Department went ahead and apologized for the joke before most people even got a chance to hear the punchline.

In fact, the reaction was so swift, I have to question whether there was any need to issue an apology at all. Did anyone tell @FAFSA they were offended, or was this just management telling the social media writer post hoc that they maybe shouldn’t have said that?

What exactly is insensitive about the tweet? Is it the word “poor”? Has anyone ever met a college student who hasn’t referred to themselves as “poor,” at some point? Is the tweet insensitive because it presents financial troubles in a comedic light? Is there any way to make this joke without being “insensitive,” even by an extremely loose definition of the word? I hate asking these sorts of questions about humor, trying to deconstruct jokes for potential offense. It makes me feel like I’m an alien struggling to understand what makes Earth-people laugh.

Social media requires a more casual voice. People will not follow, interact with, or acknowledge posts from companies or organizations that don’t sound like they’re coming from a real person. And if social posts are supposed to sound natural, sooner or later they’re going to have to take a few swings at making jokes. Which means sooner or later one of those jokes might be taken the wrong way.

The outrage cycle follows such a predictable pattern that you can now see organizations, like FAFSA, so scared of offending that they apologize before there’s even a problem. I hope this is unnecessary. I hope we’re not that overly sensitive as a culture. Are we?