Monday, October 25, 2010

The medium is the joke

In their paper "The medium is the joke: Online humor about and by networked computers" by Shifman and Blondheim (2010, pay-walled) the authors sampled 170 texts from "humor hubs" (that is, well-known humor sites), plus 80 videos from YouTube, ending up with 250 humorous items in their sample.

Manufactors, monopoly and the Microsoft menace In the absence of real alternative to Microsoft (though a friend once threatened me with installation of Linux) users make jokes which the authors interpret according to superiority theories (users are helpless to do anything but mock the ruler). Instead of throwing the Vista-installed laptop against the wall, the victims users show their frustration by making jokes. But it's not all Microsoft's fault: the authors suggest that because of the strong synonymity between Microsoft and the PC, people could be taking out their anger on Microsoft for "the failure of man and computer to interact harmoniously".

The users

Misusers: blondes, rednecks and usually other 'stupid' groups. Misusers are the people who can't work their computer properly.

Over-users: geeks; They are so familiar with computers they become emotionally attached to the ("You seriously consider devoting a web page to your computer. Not the brand, mind you, but the actual computer itself"). Over-users in jokes compromise their humanity and 'real' relationships in favor of their computers and cyberculture.

Abusers: The abusers "can be interpreted as the mirror image of the over-user". They use their computer to satisfy "the most earthly human drives" (pornography, frauds). Unlike computers, abusers have human-related faults.

Tech support
Tech Support
(source: the inevitable XKCD)

The tech support jokes address the gap between human expectations and how computers actually work. Tech supporters are considered a class of their own, "the closest parallel may, in fact, be the Oracle's Pythia or the priest in confession, mediating between man and the sublime divinity". The user has sinned and the computer stopped working. In order to communicate with the divine entity, the users turn to its priests, the tech support people.

I think the authors might have missed a sub-genre here, which I'll refer to as "tech-support are idiots" and is represented in the above XKCD comics. It's true there are many jokes about idiot customers, but tech-support personnel is also often mocked.

Anthropomorphism When computer become human. The sneezing computer, the icons attempting to kill one another on your desktop...These jokes are funny because of the sudden similarity between the very separated categories of 'human' and 'machine'.

Compumorphism The mocking of human groups by comparing traits associated with them to those of computers (computers are males because "they have a lot of data but are still useless"; computers are females because "no one but their creator understands their internal logic"). The traits allegedly shared by the computer and the group make them less than 'true humans'.

Neo-Luddism "If you can't join it, break it". A frustrated user is shown abusing a computer verbally and/or physically

Neo-luddites jokes can go both ways: either people laugh at the pathetic creature (the human, that is) or they relate to the rage.

I would like to thank Dr. Shifman who, at my request, sent me the paper. It has been both entertaining and informative. I wish the authors many citations.

Shifman, L., & Blondheim, M. (2010). The medium is the joke: Online humor about and by networked computers New media & society : 10.1177/1461444810365311

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