But this didn’t in any way prepare me for online publishing, where the issues of attribution, misinterpretation and volatility complicated things enormously. I had an easy ride in print. An easy ride that contrasted starkly with the often rewardless and vicious environs of cyberspace. But equally, an easy ride that’s helped me identify why online humourists find acceptance and recognition so hard to reach.
Have you ever found yourself attempting to light-entertain a new offline acquaintance, who has no concept of humour? You go straight in with a staggeringly stupid reply, and make the mistake of not roaring with laughter immediately afterward. As your outrageously idiotic response is met with a vacant and slightly patronising nod, you realise that you’ve been taken seriously. But it’s worse than that…
Not only has your humourless acquaintance taken your ridiculous remark at face value – they appear in no way surprised by it. Clearly, they not only think you’re an idiot – they were in fact also expecting you to be an idiot.
In the largely pre-Internet print world, a humourist wouldn’t really get much sense of this type of misinterpretation. An experienced editor would likely prime the audience’s expectations with verbal and visual signals, so they’d know they were about to read a piece of humour. And because of the nature of print publication, an author wouldn’t be taking feedback directly from the audience. There’d be a few letters sent to the magazine, the positive ones would be printed, and the inconvenient comments would probably be discarded.
There was also a prior implication that a magazine contributor was going to be good. After all, the editor was putting his money where his mouth was. The magazine was a commercial product, with a glossy cover, sitting pretty in a leading high street store. And readers were investing their own money in that magazine. Those factors would persuade readers to look very hard for value in the contents. Most, it seemed, would find some – if only to avoid a bout of cognitive dissonance.
But shouting away in a dark corner of the Internet is a very different matter. When you’re screaming to be heard in an evironment full of lunatics propagating their weird and irrational opinions, persuading people that you’re writing humour at all is hard enough – let alone persuading them that you’re writing good humour. There are people on the Internet who genuinely insist that the world is flat. How, in the light of that, does a satirist indicate that she or he is joking? It’s even worse than trying to entertain a humourless ‘real life’ acquaintance. The potential for misinterpretation is greater, and writing online, we don’t even have the luxury of body language to bail us out…
My own attempts at online humour began on traditional-style forums and message boards. Reaction proved highly erratic. I never did jokes – I typically wrote a type of non-political satire which was wide open to misinterpretation. On the first forum I joined, I was showered with Thanks and Reputation points. There were one or two instances of people taking me seriously and trying to explain how wrong I was, as if I were a very simple infant. But broadly, people got it, and liked it. The second forum I joined brought a similar experience.
The third, however, brought disaster. I was almost immediately branded a troll, and courtesy of what I suspect was a nifty bit of sockpuppetry, my Reputation score quickly descended into the minuses. I only stuck around long enough to work out that I wasn’t going to turn the situation around – a couple of days at most – but the lesson was clear. Fail to prime an audience for online humour, and there can be consequences.
So how do we prime the audience?
It seems like the best option for creators of online humour is to stick to very predictable formats, or else just designate their work as “funny”.
One example of a predictable format is that of the classic Internet meme. The archetypcal meme has an image background, then a block of bold, white, dark-outlined, capitalised text at the top, and another – the punchline – at the bottom… Alternatively, the text may be an observational one-liner, attributed to a person or animal in the image as a quote. But the look is still highly distictive. The strict formatting tells the audience to expect comedy, and memes in this extremely recognisable format are very successful.
Using these tried and tested humour formats might be a pretty safe way to generate laughs, but it places enormous limitations on progress. And there’s an even bigger problem for creatives using accepted formats for their online humour: appropriation.
Almost all well-recognised humour fomats on the Internet are short in form. Why is that a problem? Because with short-form content, sharing, is cutting the originator out of the loop. How does the average Internet user share a pictorial meme? Link to it on its original page? Of course not. They download it from Google Images and re-post it elsewhere. It’s a similar situation with one-liner gags. People don’t say: “Hey, I’ve seen this great joke – click this link to read it.” They just re-post the joke.
No one’s going to click a link to a picture they already have in front of them. No one’s going to click a link to a joke they’ve just read. If the whole commodity is being shared, then it’s effectively been appropriated by a third party.
Over time, as the content is shared more and more, the originator becomes less and less significant, and the content is simply attributed to “the Internet”. As more and more influencers and powerful blogs ‘share’ the short-form material, their huge reach ensures that the public will associate it with them, rather than its creator.
In theory, after the viral storm, no one will know who actually created the content, and indeed that’s exactly what we see. The content is recognised – its creator is not.
Only the creators of online humour can change this. It’s in everyone else’s interests to keep online comedy in short form. Influencers and commercial blogs are happy. A bunch of unrecognised nobodies do all the work, and they get all the credit/money. Tech giants are delighted too. The sharing of complete, short-form content on their platforms is a major component in their success. They couldn’t care less whether or not the creator is recognised.
So one of the viable steps in gaining better recognition as a writer of online comedy is moving towards a longer format. Longer posts are not going to be re-posted in full. When they’re shared, people typically link to them rather than attempting to transfer the whole thing to another site. That not only means the creator keeps the visitor traffic they’ve earned, but also that they retain a much greater handle of control over their material. Additionally, shared links to the page on which they posted the content increase its status on the search engines. That increases the creator’s general visibility on the Internet.
A more substantial text length in a humour post adds weight to DMCA takedown requests too. So when people do re-post without permission, the writer has a much easier time getting the unauthorised copy removed. For example, quite recently I sent a DMCA notice to Google after one of my mid-length comedy pieces was posted without permission to the .blogspot platform. Within about an hour, the WHOLE BLOG had been suspended, and it’s never re-appeared. Substantial text gets respect in a way that images and one-liners just don’t.
But if we’re going to go long-form, how do we stop ourselves from being misinterpreted and perhaps verbally attacked? After all, if the main means of getting our comedy recognised as comedy is to use identifiable formats, and those formats are short-form, then going long-form is by nature going to make misinterpretation more likely…
THE NEW INTERNET
One fantastic property of the modern Internet is the way it’s come to allow publishers to construct the exact audience they want – from scratch. Old-school forums came with a ready-made audience, but Web 2.0 has brought the means to custom-build audiences. This facility to control the first line of content distribution is a major reason why forums with membership cliques, sockpuppet infestations and passive aggressive, blind-eye-to-bullying administrations have been driven out of the picture.
Now that the Web is less insular and more interconnected, most people are accountable to a lot more than a forum administrator. That’s a good thing. True, people are still bullied, and humourists can still be misinterpreted and attacked, but things are now more open, and there’s greater scope for resolution. A social media user can take a serious bullying issue or an out-of-control attack to a news site, and it’ll likely be taken seriously in a way that old-school forum bullying would not be.
If we can seek out specific individuals, whom we know will understand our humour, we not only dispense with the need to use set, widely-recognsed formats, but also the need to label our content as “Funny”. Twitter offers some pretty straightforward ways to reach like-minded people – even if you’re not that social. Simply ‘copy-following’ other humour writers (following their audience, essentially) can prompt immediate engagement, and get people taking an interest.
Blogs are a great tool for a comedy writer. Particularly if you intend to write in longer form and experiment, a blog is likely to trump social media on the basis of its search-firendliness. If you can write with viable search terms in mind, you may find a blog getting referrals from the search engines with barely any promotion at all.
Whether you enable comments is, on traditional blogging platforms like WordPress, up to you. I’m not really a fan of comments for humour posts. They’re good with hot topics of debate, but if all they’re going to say is: “Oh that’s funny” or “Great post”, then why bother? It doesn’t add anything. And some comedy can even be destroyed by comments.
For example, some of my comedy blog posts embody their main humour within a set of spoof comments. You can see a couple of examples in Hot King Lycra Promises Hottest Ever Performance and How To Find a Lost Train. To have real comments following the spoof comments would completely undermine the premise of these pieces.
It’s very hard to compete with the tide of short-form comedy ‘sharing’. A creator is unlikely to rival an ‘aggregator’ either for quality or volume, and if you look at the truly prosperous online humour presences, the great majority of them have built their profile on the back of other people’s work. I hate to send out the message that ‘appropriating’ and re-posting secondhand, short-form comedy content pays, but you can’t argue with the evidence. It clearly does.
On a joke-focused Twitter account I created, I could do three or four good jokes a week. I did well for Likes and Retweets given the account’s moderate following – but that was exactly the problem. I couldn’t provide the level of output to keep people’s attention and build a bigger, engaged following.
The content ‘aggregators’ were posting twenty or thirty fantastic short-form comedy items per day. And ultimately, unless they’re personally affected by content theft, no one on the Internet really cares if the content they get is secondhand. They’d rather have thirty brilliant jokes a day from a parasite, than three good ones a week from an actual writer. Hence, it’s the high-volume parasites people tend to follow and pay the most consistent attention to.
But if a large number of online humourists stopped pandering to short-form convention and set to work making their content harder for ‘aggregators’ to steal, we could see change. Not only much better recognition for the original creator, but also, perhaps, a new era of experimentation.