One of my first memories of being online is also one of my first memories of laughing.
I was 13 years old, sitting in a chair staring at a beige Compaq Presario reading someone’s proto-blog. The proto-blog’s author made an ironic joke. I don’t remember what the joke was, but I do remember thinking, while laughing, that I finally understood what irony is, after having learned about it in English class. I realized I liked laughing, and I realized that I wanted to be funny, too.
So I tried hard from then on to be funny online. I first started with the obvious forms of comedy on my own proto-blog: puns, put-downs, and “How about airline food?” kind of jokes. No one listened to me. But after awhile, I got into a groove. I web surfed more. I started listening to other people. I recognized patterns of jokes, and I got slightly funnier. I even developed a very tiny posse of other young funny-to-a-few-others Internet people, one of whom I recently discovered is an actual stand-up comedian now.
I could never be an actual stand-up comedian, but I’d like to continue laughing, and I’d like to continue web surfing. This pairing seems destined for each other because they’re both so mysterious: It’s hard to pin down the exact reasons why we laugh or why so many of us are addicted to web surfing. At their best, both comedy and web surfing occupy the borderlands between reading and writing, listening and talking, making and collecting, teaching and learning, and laughing and joking. A joke online can be hard to define. It can start small and then snowball into something unexpected, morphing into various configurations—like watching a tiny house transform into a skyscraper, and then turn back into a house again.
So let’s take out both our microscopes and our telescopes, and see what we might find.
Specimen 1: A Link
Sometimes, a joke can look like a mere link.
A link can be funny because it’s surprising to the viewer. In some cases, the surprise could be a prank, which relies on having a victim. Such is the case of the rickroll.
In other instances, someone might be trolling someone else, which is often known for being mean-spirited, but it isn’t always. Sometimes it can even look quite nice:
A link can be used in a myriad of ways to make its mark on an individual or a group of people. Some jokes are meant to be funny to the link-giver, like the above-mentioned trolls and rickrolls. Then, there are jokes that are meant to be funny to the link-receiver. These can be like personal gifts—something that is funny because the giver knows the recipient’s personality and her sense of humor, and understands, or even creates, the context. That gift might be witty or quotable. Other times, the surprise speaks to a more universal, more anonymous audience, where the appeal hits people at an instinctual level.
Take, for example, the physical humor of linking to adorable, nearly slapstick, animals:
Specimen 2: A Pair
Sometimes you might see specimens that come as a duo, similar to the way that comedy acts like Tim & Eric; Tina Fey and Amy Poehler; and Key & Peele do. The two individual entities come together in a kind of Venn diagram, each side symbiotically riffing with the other. The laughter and creativity comes out of the interaction and the magnetic forces between them.
The pair of channels Startup/App Names that are Made Up Words and Made Up Words That Could be Startup/App Names, is like watching a joke give another joke a hug. Each channel is funny on its own, by virtue of a kind of vertical humor. The play on words makes it humorous on a subtler, more individual scale, while on a broader scale each channel plays up the ridiculousness of startup tech culture. When the channels come together, they play off each other in a way that makes the humor work horizontally as well: each builds off the other. It’s almost like watching a joke look at itself in the mirror, flipped around:
The channel Freak Hacks is another example of two entities playing off of each other. Only, instead of complementing each other, the two sides of this joke are wrestling. This channel reminds me of The Eric Andre Show in that they’re both satirical (“freak hacks” is a satire on life hacks), and they both relish physical extremes by using stunts as comedy. It’s visceral, grimy and absurd:
Specimen 3: A Collection
Sometimes links join other links, which join other links, until boom! There is a collection of links.
Sometimes a collection can be a meme.
A meme is very powerful because it draws energy from so many people, each of which, individually, only have to do a tiny bit of work to join the collective. Some jokes in a meme are better than others, but they’re all in the meme virus together. Sometimes, these memes might even join up with other memes, creating an even bigger sea of memes, perhaps growing into a supermeme. The Expanding Brain meme, for example, is a supermeme; it came out of a specific joke about Whomst and just kept growing. Here are a few more:
Sometimes a collection of links never intended to be a meme. Rather, a bunch of web surfers got together and used their powers for good, to build unexpected collections that would otherwise go unnoticed. These collections are often more curatorial and archaeological in nature than memes. They are not always funny, but they usually have the potential to be. For instance, Geocities websites are often mined for their comedic value, and Internet Artist Clubs have frequently collected items for humorous intent.
Bootleg Brands is a collection that seems very archaeological since so much digging and work—like taking and uploading photos of bootlegged items—had to be done for these images to get there. This work wasn’t necessarily all done by the people who’ve contributed to the collection; these images have perhaps traveled long distances in order to get to where they sit now. These bootleg brands are funny in a similar way that I find impressions, even sometimes bad ones, to be funny. There is something hilarious in the distortion in mimicry, and something intriguing in the histories and origins of what is being copied:
There are many, many configurations of an online joke. There are new discoveries happening all the time, as there is a new comedian/web surfer born—or perhaps resurfacing—every second.
Yet the lifecycle of a joke is often very short. All jokes die. Oftentimes, a joke dies immediately, as soon as a link is made. Sometimes, a joke grows bigger and bigger and then bursts completely into oblivion. Once in a while, a joke lasts a very long time. But jokes can be edited, discovered, and recycled to take on new forms. They can sometimes wait for a very long time in all the wrong conditions, like water bears, or maybe more like enduring atoms, stagnant inside of databases.