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Why is the Web so funny?

This article appears in the issue June 2012 [Volume 21, Issue 6]


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Knowledge is serious business. People can spend their lives tweezing apart tiny micro-organisms or living in swamps swatting away mosquitoes and venom-dipped snakes in order to uncover a single fact. Few serious knowledge workers are in it for the money. Their sacrifices are real and are made in every aspect of human life: the social, economic, social, domestic. And not infrequently the consequences can save or fail to save lives. Knowledge is serious business.

A lot to do with knowledge

Our institutions of knowledge generally reflect that in their physical manifestations, University buildings are grand. Libraries frequently look like Greek temples. Serious books are printed on expensive paper and don't use the Comic Sans font.

So, why is the Web so funny?

Of course I'm not talking about the part of the Web that has nothing to do with knowledge. But a surprising amount of the Web is concerned with knowledge in one form or another. It may be knowledge about Kim Kardashian's new boyfriend, or about how to make a Paula Deen donut burger, or about whether the ending to the latest episode of "Game of Thrones" is what it seems, but all those are paths tread by creatures that can know. And of course the knowledge on the Web is quite often far more serious than that, whether it's online science journals or medical advice or personal testimony about life experiences.

A lighter touch

In all this, pretty much the only knowledge that is dead serious is in the posts that emulate prior forms. The article in an online scientific journal is likely to be very much like articles in printed scientific journals, but the post on the same topic perhaps by the same scientist on her blog is far more likely to exhibit a light touch. There will be a deprecating aside, a bad pun, a caution against taking a point wrong by making fun of it.

One obvious reason for this: Humor is a leavening agent. It makes the post more entertaining. Criticizing a post for being a little funny seems to me to be like criticizing it for being well written or for being interesting. Humor only seems to be demeaning to a topic because we've decided that knowledge needs a top hat and tails to be real. But who decided that? And could it be that the need for knowledge to be dressed up in serious attire is an indication that knowledge lacks self-confidence?

But the presence of humor in expressions of knowledge is not just about making one's work more readable, which, granted, one might instead put as pandering to one's readers. It also allows for brief excursions from one's topic. If the joke is not too silly, it can shed unexpected light on the topic.

The breadth of what we share

But even if the joke is a pointless aside, the humor of knowledge does something far more important than the trivial quip itself. It announces that the author and the reader have something more in common than their interest in the topic under discussion. It says that knowledge is not enough, that knowing is a human activity, and that humans are embedded in a shared context that is always far wider than that of any particular topic. Our discussion of genes and proteins, or minerals and acids, or economics and carbohydrates occurs within lives that care about these matters because of broader concerns that we have in common. A shared joke, even a little aside, only makes sense because of the breadth of what we have in common: what we know, what we assume, what we care about.

Knowledge is funny on the Web because humor expresses the truth about the world within which knowledge makes sense, and the truth about the inevitable humanity of knowledge itself.


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