Dissecting the Frog

image by imp kerr

Sometimes the only difference between trolling and corporate linkbait is the advertising revenue

Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind. – E.B. White

Even people who appreciate jokes rarely bother to unpack why a particular joke is funny; not only is the analytic process tedious, it has the immediate effect of rendering even the funniest joke dull. But whether or not they really do die on the dissection table, jokes have a great deal to say about the people who make them. Anthropologist G. Legman emphasizes this point in the 1975 introduction to his ethnography of dirty jokes, No Laughing Matter: Rationale of the Dirty Joke, a must-read volume containing sections on “Defiling the Mother” and “Urinating on Others,” among others. “A person’s favorite joke is the key to that person’s character,” he writes, suggesting that what a person laughs at reveals who that person is. Among the most revealing jokes are those directed at a specific individual or group. According to Legman, these tendentious jokes, a term popularized by Freud in his seminal Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, originate as “hostile impulses of free-floating aggression in the tellers of jokes” and thus function as “expression[s] of social and sexual anxieties [the joke tellers] are otherwise unable to absorb or express.” Just as a single fossilized dinosaur bone can shed light on a vanished world, a joke can help reconstruct the cultural landscape out of which it emerges.

Throughout his ethnography, Legman investigates the relationship between individual jokes and their individual tellers. Even more revealing, however, are jokes shared by groups. In addition to gesturing towards the inside/outside distinction (i.e. those who “get it” versus those who do not), analysis of group laughter helps excavate community standards (which subjects are deemed appropriate for joking), as well as community hierarchies (who tells the jokes, who laughs, and who is expected to remain silent). It also calls attention to community tensions — information that is every bit as revealing as uncontested group norms.

While individual jokes tell us a great deal about the person who makes them, group jokes tell us even more — specifically they highlight the form and function of that specific community. These community standards may then be placed in the context of the larger culture, thus revealing as much about the latter as it does about the former. Gabriella Coleman’s examination of hacker humor in Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking provides a striking example of this approach. Through her analysis of the craftand craftiness of hacking, a discussion she prefaces with the above E.B. White quote, Coleman calls attention to the tensions inherent to hacker culture, and furthermore to the ways in which these tensions gesture to the wider ideological landscape. In so doing, she presents a fuller and more nuanced account of what for many people is a bewildering and vaguely threatening cultural space.

As a case study, Coleman considers the quip “RTFM” (“Read the Fucking Manual”). In free and open software (F/OSS) circles, the semi-comedic command to figure things out yourself is one method by which the community polices its borders. The injunction deployed on various chat rooms by hackers in the know against more inexperienced hackers and/or hackers who have a question that has already been answered elsewhere, thus framing RTFM as “a comedic, though stern, form of social discipline," Coleman writes. In addition to providing insight into the F/OSS community, RTFM highlights the tension between individual and group achievement. As Coleman explains, hackers, and particularly F/OSS hackers, value “communal populism” expressed through “mutual aid and cooperative reciprocity.” The interests of the many thus outweigh the interests of the individual. At the same time, hackers venerate “self-reliance, individual achievement, and meritocracy,” resulting in the following oscillation:

While the populist stance affirms the equal worth of everyone who contributes to an endeavor, the elitist one distributes credit, rewarding on the basis of superior accomplishment, technical prowess, and individual talent—all judged meticulously by other hackers. Hackers will spend hours helping each other, working closely together through some problem. Yet they also engage in agonistic practices of technical jousting and boasting with peers, and in turn, this works to create hierarchies of difference among this fraternal order of “elite wizards.”

RTFM calls direct attention to this oscillation. On one hand, sharing information is important; sharing information is how hackers learn, and is in fact the undergirding principle of the F/OSS movement. This is the populist strain within F/OSS. On the other hand, hackers emphasize and celebrate autonomy, self-determination and self- sufficiency, particularly in relation to problem solving. Hackers’ great push for openness and transparency is thus complicated, if not outright contradicted, by their simultaneous privileging of rugged individualism — perfectly embodied by the assertion that one should not rely on other people’s knowledge and instead should solve whatever problem oneself. By translating and contextualizing hacker humor, particularly RTFM, Coleman highlights the process by which notions of self-interest and collective responsibility unfold and sometimes collide within F/OSS circles. She also calls attention to tensions within liberal ideology as a whole — an ideology that somehow manages to privilege the group, through emphasis on equality, meritocracy, and access, and the individual, through emphasis of individual freedom and liberty. These tensions are not, in other words, restricted just to F/OSS circles, they are embedded within and in fact emerge from liberalism itself.

Just as Coleman explores hacker humor in order to better delineate hacker culture, humor was the primary entry point into my own research on trolls. Through close analysis of the kinds of jokes trolls made, as well as the people, places, and things the trolls most frequently targeted, I was able to establish the contours of the subculture. From there I extrapolated out, allowing me to make much larger claims not just about trolls, but about the culture out of which they emerge; my theory of cultural digestion, which argues that trolls scavenge, reappropriate, and weaponize existing tropes and cultural sensitivities in order to generate the greatest possible number of lulz (evil laughs) was born out of precisely this joke-work.

Take, for example, the relationship between trolling humor and sensationalist corporate media practices. While trolls are often — and understandably — accused of rabid sociopathy, particularly in their crass treatment of disaster victims, corporate media outlets are often every bit as guilty of courting precisely the sensationalism, spectacle, and emotional exploitation for which trolls are unequivocally condemned. In fact, and as I discuss in this response to the panic surrounding Holmies, professed fans of Aurora Colorado shooter James Holmes, and in another response to the #cutforbieber controversy, in which trolls threatened to cut themselves after images of Justin Bieber smoking pot hit the web, it is often difficult to distinguish between organized trolling and media linkbait.

As I argue in both pieces, the primary difference between trolling and sensationalist linkbait is that the latter is supported by advertising revenue. What Coleman’s and my respective research projects highlight, then, is the complicated relationship between humor, community formation, and the larger culture. Hacker humor and wit, for example, gestures both to the borders of the F/OSS community and to the much more pervasive logic of neo-liberalism, while specific trolling jokes serve as subcultural scaffolding and draw attention to the connections between trolling humor and mainstream culture, particularly sensationalist media. This culturally holistic approach to humor is particularly helpful when attempting to understand the most upsetting kinds of jokes. When framed as self-contained artifacts, hateful or otherwise corrosive jokes don’t do too much, beyond casting aspersions on the joke teller. But when placed in the context of a specific community, and even more revealing, when that community is placed in the context of the wider culture, corrosive jokes often have as much to tell us about the latter as they do about the former.

Consider Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s much-maligned stint as 2013 Oscar host. MacFarlane’s performance was peppered with explicitly sexist (and racist, and homophobic) humor, including a musical number in which MacFarlane enumerated a list of actresses who had filmed topless scenes (uncreatively titled "We Saw Your Boobs”). MacFarlane and his jokes received a great deal of criticism, and rightly so. But for the most part the resulting ire was directed at the specific utterances, and of course the man who made them. Again, understandable.

But placed within the context of an industry described by feminist media scholar Carol Stabile as an outright “misogyny factory," MacFarlane’s jokes have an entirely different story to tell. Not only was MacFarlane hired by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to make precisely these sorts of jokes, the Oscar show producers approved and helped choreograph every single word that came out of his mouth. MacFarlane’s performance was, in other words, a team effort. Ultimately, however, the problem of sexist humor is much bigger and more insidious than anything seen or said at the 2013 Oscar ceremony. The underlying issue — the issue upon which MacFarlane’s Oscar performance was predicated — is the fact that Hollywood as a whole tolerates, encourages, and explicitly rewards sexist attitudes.

The moral of this story is that humor does much more than make people laugh. Jokes are directly reflective of the communities out of which they emerge, which themselves are directly reflective of the cultural logics that undergird their formation. By working backwards from joke to community to culture, it is therefore possible to understand just how enmeshed our utterances really are — for better and for worse.