Attack of the Memecats

Una Mullally’s brief summary of internet humour in one of the many, many round-up-of-the-year articles published last month (a filler of round-ups? A google? An impending Christmas party?) caught my eye. It’s little more than a throwaway comment, but the following in particular got me thinking:

The humour around such ventures is hit and miss, but there’s a jaded predictability to the insistence of laughing at and then spreading increasingly tired gags. Putting the “ah here, leave it out” Dublin holler over footage of an aircraft flying into the Twin Towers just isn’t funny. Neither is a guy looking into the camera on The Late Late Show. Or the laziness of Lolcat text over endless photographs of strange celebrity expressions.

Some gif-based Tumblrs – the scrapbook for a generation – actually yielded some laughs, in particular Dublin Gays and Hungover Owls. But there’s still the nagging sense that trawling through photographs of people who look like things is a colossal waste of time.[i]

I think this is mostly right: there is something about internet humour which tends to make it increasingly jaded and lazy. My best guess is that this is a combination of two broad but plausible generalisations. Humour made for the internet tends to have little depth or nuance. It must work almost instantly, getting a response in the second or two that we typically give to a gif or photo, or the thirty seconds that we might spend on a YouTube clip. That’s why so much of it relies on celebrities or riffs on other well-known clips or tropes such as Lolcat text. The pool from which successful memes are fished is very broad (broader than any previous source of comedy) but very shallow.

Second, successful ideas are reproduced. This isn’t new: everyone has had the experience of hearing the same joke from different people, and usually they won’t have independently come up with the same idea. The internet amplifies this effect, by increasing the number of people who see something amusing and wish to pass it on, and the numbers of individuals who want a slice of the comedy pie and have enough spare time and technical know-how to get involved.  

Something similar has happened in music: the number of people putting out recordings to a (potentially) mass audience is now far greater than ever before, and it’s difficult to see it decreasing in the near future. The means of production and distribution are no longer the exclusive property of a handful of large corporations. But in music, this increases the pressure to stand out by being different (principally by mixing together as many genres and textures as possible). In comedy, the most striking effect seems to be endless variations on existing themes. Ideas tend to get worn out by constant repetition; gems are buried in the landslide of cheap imitations.

That said, I wonder if Mullally’s criticism is a little too sweeping. After all, jokes (particularly short, memorable ones) have been repeated and generated spin-offs for a long time now, without well-established formats (‘What’s the difference between…?’ / ‘How many such-and-suches does it take…?’) becoming obsolete. The fact that there are a lot of bad memes circulating doesn’t make the pictures-of-people-who-look-like-things format, for example, a waste of time in and of itself. It does make the case for greater quality-control, but on the internet it was ever thus.

[i] A number of these examples are specifically Irish, but as far as I can see they’re pretty representative of the world-wide web.

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