This is the first of a weekly series of posts on various aspects of social software design I find interesting, here is the full list. Each of these posts are written over the course of a few hours in a straight shot. Contents may be mildly idiosyncratic. To vote on what I should write about next, go to this Quora question.
The original impetus for this came from an impromptu Caltrain ride with Ben Newman, an engineer at Quora. During that ride, we had an interesting conversation about Quora’s particular attitudes towards humor (they’re pretty dour) and why that was the case. As it turns out, the Quora staff had thought pretty carefully about the nature of humor and its effects on communities and their operational procedures reflect a certain set of beliefs they hold. I’m not going to attempt to speak for Quora based on a 20 minute conversation a few weeks ago but some of their thinking did remind me of some of the stuff I had also been thinking about with regard to humor on the web.
The Internet has a citizenry. Like how some people self identify has African-American or Asian-American, there is a subset of the population for which it would be most accurate to label them Internet-American. Not everyone who has ever been on the Internet is part of this group. Most people are merely tourists or commuters, they come in, they visit a while but, at the end of the day, they go home to their real lives. For the Internet-Americans, the Internet is, at least in part, their real lives and meatspace existence is the culturally foreign experience.
Like the founding of any new migrant nation, the citizenry of the Internet is a motley crew. Some were lured by the promise of virgin lands, yet to be explored, others by the promise of a new identity. But like any new settlement, by far the most dominant were the people who arrived to escape the oppression of their homeland. They were the ones who felt under appreciated, misunderstood, ignored or abused by their real world peers and found refuge among their kin online. Together, they built an alternate culture, one that was a deliberate snub against those who had rejected them. It is from these foundations that a particular strain of Internet culture was born and the effects of this evolution are still felt online today.
To fully explore the extent of this would be it’s own, separate, mammoth task. For this post, I’m solely going to look at the ramifications of such an evolution in the context of humor and how it has become operationalized in a way that may seem unfamiliar to those who are not citizens of the Internet.
In real life, almost all of our opportunities to deploy humor are with people who we already know or would like to know better. While we use humor for many purposes, we crucially care about the reaction from the other person. For the most part, humor is deployed to give other people pleasure.
On the web, the affordances of the interaction are different. Most of our online interactions are with people we do not know and cannot fully empathize with. Humor shifts from less of a bonding activity and into more of a performative one. This is not entirely without precedent in our offline worlds. If you listen to interviews by prominent comics about their childhood, often they turned to humor as a defense mechanism. It was a way they discovered to deflect harm or attract attention. Humor was a way for comics to validate their worth and prove to themselves their superiority. To understand humor on the web, you have to look at it from this perspective.
By far the largest majority of humor on the web comprises of memes, catchphrases, remixes and repetition. All your base are belong to us, lolcatz, goatse and the rest. Some of them are funny. With the enormous profusion that is characteristic of the Internet, it would be impossible for some of them not to be funny. But, by far, the majority are not. They are tired, cliched rehashes of beaten to death jokes. Why then, do they persist? Because their goal never was to be funny, your amusement is never the prime concern. Instead, they exist as a credential of citizenship. It is a communication from the poster that he belongs to some in-group for which a set of memes form the common language and the humor is both simultaneously inclusionary of those who get the reference and exclusionary to those who do not. It’s of no coincidence that Family Guy is a show particularly beloved by the Internet citizenry, given that a full half the jokes on there comprise of mere recognition of some obscure, pop cultural phenomena.
The next largest contingent of internet humor comprises of pedanticism. Ask a serious question on the internet and there is some slight chance you may get a serious answer but you can almost always be guaranteed a series of stupid answers which answer the letter of the question while avoiding the spirit. Again, regardless of whether the answer was serious or subversive, the purpose was almost never to be helpful, by as a validation of cleverness. To answer seriously provides your bona-fides as an expert who is able to intelligently comment on a domain but to provide a joke answer is much easier to accomplish and gives you a platform to demonstrate your wit. This, as far as I can gather, is why Quora is so ruthless about extirpating parody answers. For any given question, a few people might have the requisite domain expertise to give a serious answer but almost anybody can provide a parody and, while a few might be genuinely funny, most will be a lazy attempt at recognition which contributes nothing but a sense of smug self-satisfaction for the poster.
Thus far, I have delved into two particular types of Internet humor but the same general principle applies to almost everything else the Internet citizenry writes, both online and off. Humor serves in a pure operational context, to prove worth, intelligence, belonging or superiority. It is not there to please, delight or amuse (except insofar as these further an operational goal) because it is rare that you could care enough to want to do so.
I want to note again at this point that this is not a description of all humor present everywhere on the Internet, just that deployed by the particular segment of the population which I term the Internet citizens. It has been interesting over the years, as the number of tourists on the web has started to overwhelm the citizenry, how the different cultures have merged and adapted. In a way, it mirrors the integration of African-American culture into the mainstream starting from the 60’s and continuing on into today. Most web literate people are familiar with the lingo and conventions of the Internet citizenry now and some of it has shifted into the mainstream so much that the origins have become murky. At the same time, entire communities are forming which do not derive from the legacy of Internet culture and want nothing to do with it. They are finding, much to their surprise that the virgin lands they thought they were inhabiting actually have injuns on them and that they’re none too happy for the intrusion.
I think it’s essentially for anyone trying to deploy an online community right now to be aware of the various factions and interest groups that occupy the web and how they can be both an asset and liability to your efforts. The last 10 years has been littered with the corpses of various naive corporate community building attempts who inadvertently blundered head on into these swamps like the Chevy Tahoe “Make your own ad” campaign, the Time 100 4chan stunt or Mr Splashypants among hundreds of others. I hope this impromptu ethnographic sketch provides some degree of insight into how to properly navigate the Internet and effectively deal with the natives.