Computer Mediated Communication: Life, Love, Laughter

August 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Christopher Holcomb, “A Class of Clowns: Spontaneous Joking in Computer-Assisted Discussions” (1997)

OH MY, what is the relationship between paralinguistic cues and online humor? Here’s a possible account! I taught this class, see. And in this class we communicated primarily via discussion board. Almost immediately students developed their own discourse community of LULZ (though it weren’t exactly lulz on account of this is 1997); pretty much right out of the gate they began deliberately misspelling words, misusing punctuation, abusing the capslock function and relying on bizarre turns of phrases and anachronisms in order to convey humorous intentions. In other words, language itself became a site of play—not surprising, considering that words and letters were the only tools at the students’ disposal (7-11). Course that’s just how humor emerged, not why humor –and a particular kind of humor at that, one which just as quickly designated a group of Lames who just didn’t get it– would have established itself as the dominant mode of discourse. Prolly the relative informality of their electronic discussions encouraged a kind of playfulness, plus the course itself I bet, which focused on comedy in literature. The point is, the linguistic play frame necessitated by computer mediation seemed to simultaneously necessitate a specific comedic aesthetic. This is probably significant!

Mike Hubler and Diana Bell, “Computer-Mediated Humor and Ethos: Exploring Threads of Constitutive Humor in Online Communities” (2003)

Here’s another account of what happens when you throw a bunch of humans on a mailing list. This one called SENDMAIL, a university writing center listserv. It wasn’t long before a pretty distinctive “we” began to emerge, which per Holcomb automatically implies a dumbass “them” (thus defining the group via negativa). We describe this process—which is unavoidably messy, the ultimate in chicken-and-egg postulation—as constitutive. Nutshell version: once a play-frame is established, as happened on SENDMAIL, so too emerges the outlines of community. Borders foster content, which feeds into further content, which simultaneously contextualizes and reconfigures the explicit meaning(s) of a given image, video, or statement. i.e. an emergent joke refers back to a previous joke and therefore weaves itself/is woven into the collective cultural fabric. The joke is subsequently (re)created and (re)deployed, further fortifying whatever group identity. Thus within the community play-frame, all reading is writing, all reception is creation; to encounter is to participate and to participate is to sustain community ethos (277-82).

What I learned from these fine scholars

One of the things that interests me most –besides CYBERBULLIES and anti-fans and general dark-sidedness– is the “we” of internet culture. I talked a bit about this in oh whatever that post was, the ROFLshit one, though in that case I was thinking about the we in relation to them, to the other, which for me at least is pretty serious (and politically complicated) business. But what about the “we” itself? I’ve struggled to identify its exact border(s), although “border” is probably the wrong term, it’s not a place, it’s not territory. Still, it’s one of those I-know-it-when-I-see-it kinds of deals — internet people in the audience, you know exactly what I mean by this. Because it’s obvious, right? I mean, we know immediately when we’re being addressed. Right?

Sure but how? How do we know we’re we, where does this we come from? Given Holcomb and Bell/Hubler’s analyses, it seems reasonable to suggest that the internet itself has something to do with it. Le Internet, after all, presents a (relatively) novel communicative space; naturally, this space would support novel discursive forms. Yeah yeah technological determinism is for JERKS, etc. I would however argue that the tension between virtual absence and presence, that is, between speaking and writing (which I’m presenting with implied square-quotes, since the difference between those two categories isn’t always entirely clear, certainly not online), necessitates an affective reorientation among online conversants.

I realize that it’s hardly fucking groundbreaking to be like, one cannot communicate online in the same ways that one communicates irl, due to lack of pitch, facial expressions and body language, all of which help clarify (or complicate) explicit statements of fact or opinion. #noshit, but the implications of this #noshitedness are important and bear spelling out. So yeah, we can’t read (that is, literally see) each other’s bodies online (at least when we’re talkin bout text text text), but we can read each other in other ways. And not just read each other, but write ourselves into existence. Or maybe code is a more accurate term. Within the ROFLcommunity (or whatever you’d call it), these codings take on a very distinctive aesthetic — the nature of this aesthetic is a different matter entirely. For now the important point is that we communicate –and in the process grow into that “we”– through paralinguistic play. Play, here, does not merely imply passive enjoyment (though enjoyment is a frequent byproduct LOL). It’s a noun and a verb, and may be understood in terms of simultaneous creation (one plays with/manipulates language) and reception (one encounters/decodes a playful utterance); in addition to establishing what is being engaged, play also dictates how one engages it. Which explains both the affinity ROFL/internet people feel towards each other (we’re literally speaking the same language) AND the ease with which this “we” ends up pointing to the uninitiated “them.”

tl;dr the internet doesn’t cause ROFLshit. But the material strictures of the interbutts limit what we can do and how we can do it; out of this emerges a particular play-frame, which subsumes (and subsequently animates) all who enter. In conclusion of course there’s a ROFLwe.


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