Laughter, Truth, and Timing

Two Fridays ago I gave a talk at TubeCon, a Finnish YouTube conference in Helsinki. YouTube personalities are more popular than “traditional” celebrities among teens in Finland, per a small survey linked to by Tubecon founder Risto Kuulasmaa [related U.S. links]. The cultural power of these online stars fascinates me. This is an edited version of the talk, with the gifs.

Humor is such an interesting word.

We use humor as a noun to refer to something amusing.

We use humor as a noun to describe being in a good mood.

And we use humor as an intransitive verb to indulge someone (“humor” them), perhaps clenching our teeth into a polite semblance of a smile.

All three ways to use humor are important in online communities, both as a member of a given community and when posting within a community. While TubeCon is an event about videos, online video communities are also about what happens in the comment sections, how fans share the videos, how various versions of the videos travel across social media platforms — these indicate the strength of an audience over time.

I’m going to talk today about inclusive humor, about how to let more of your audience laugh together. This gif is from the finale of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1977, forty years ago.

The emotion here is heightened, as there are fewer words, and it’s a wonderful use of physical comedy. It’s also a brilliant way to end a show with an ensemble cast — this iconic moment is not about which character has a line, but instead, the characters’ relationships to each other. Group hugs are harder to imagine in a dramatic series that isn’t about a team sport, but in comedy they make sense for significant moments.

This group-hug moment happened as an improv — the actors were supposed to hug and then disperse toward the tissues, but they kept hugging and so we as an audience cry-laugh as they shuffle over to the tissue box still wrapped in the hug. The memorable moments in entertainment are often a reveal: a moment when we understand a character’s motivation, see some kind of truth about ourselves, or comprehend a nuance of human nature. Some of those truths can be delivered while making people smile.

Aside: If, as an audience member, you feel you ‘get’ a piece of content, you are more likely to hit the heart button and share. There is a threshold when you want to go beyond liking and acknowledging the post, and feel compelled to share. (No one expects the Feline Inquisition.) An abundance of sharing gives a post or video the lift to recirculate through your feeds, to cross over groups geographically or politically distant: a share is more valuable than a like because that’s how you grow an audience.

In a recent example of inclusive humor, we see a few brands with excellent Twitter game right now. Nick Dimichino wrote this tweet in July for Square, a digital payment service. A few things: We have a brand Twitter interacting with a non-brand Twitter account. The key tweet has to be able to travel outside the context in the thread and it easily does. Part of why this works so well is that Square stays in the company voice. The follow-up tweet brings it back to the service Square offers instead of embarrassing the other account, which would be gratuitous. No need to take a victory lap at the expense of the smaller account.

Part of why we can laugh at this tweet is that Twitter can be (was once, could be again) ridiculous. There is a lightness to this exchange that feels better than the heaviness on our social platforms lately. This is a meta-conversation between two parties using made-up names. The Square account de-escalates the meanness of the prompting tweet by simply stating their usernames. It feels obvious — in a good way — and safe to laugh together.

You cannot clap back on all comments, of course, and more comments do not mean more conversation is happening. (If, say, you have 1,000 comments, and half are from bots posting spam links, 200 are racist or bigoted or harassment so must be hidden and deleted, then the 300 remaining comments are a much smaller overall response.)

Being able to make an audience smile requires thinking through how a post might be received negatively. Consider how it might fail. Optimism is great, being realistic will save you. When some portion of the audience wonders ‘What were they thinking?’, it means you forgot to think through how that post might feel to a specific group. If you look for sentiment patterns in comments and tags, and track how people are wrapping context of their own around shares of your stuff, you are less likely to be surprised the next time you publish. The default in social is public, but that does not mean it’s always a productive way to hear your audience. Responding to private/direct messages when you can complements listening to public comments. Do both.

I continue to feel asking for preference is a great way to structure response, and encourage finding a small action that brings a group who follow a show closer. (More on my Serial work just below and here.) A lot of the Internet feels flattened into yes/no, on/off, winner/loser binaries, especially lately, and by voting in this poll you could not lose or be wrong. You could have a strong preference, but that doesn’t make either side correct. The attempt here is for clarity and measurement, not to squash anyone’s voice or engage with Betteridge’s Law of headlines. You cannot prevent sh*t from happening (please expect that it will), but you can plan toward managing a less-than-ideal situation.

As more of our watching becomes asynchronous, I think a lot about how we can handle whatever the reverse of a spoiler is. Social platforms continue to push toward Live and Watching shows together (with all the attending echoes of traditional timed broadcast events, writ small), when what we may truly want is control of when we watch a show, and ways to coordinate discussion about what happened with friends or people who appear to care about the characters at the same level of intensity we do. (Character motivation examinations and how a plot point made us feel become as important as what happened in potential spoilers.) Finding ways to recognize those who are caught up with a season or news cycle while being vague enough not to drop all the details (see the screenshot above, re: the exact diagnosis), can be a good meeting place for an audience. It will look more like a chaotic traffic roundabout than a public square, though, humans are messy.

We live in interesting times. A dictionary account is much-loved on social. A dictionary. A reference publication offering definitions of words. This would not normally be hot content, but the Merriam-Webster team knows how to read the room that is Twitter dot com, and they’ve taken trending lookups and made all of their fans feel less alone in knowing many other people are following the news closely too and want to know what a relevant word means, and, in fact, still believe that words have meaning. To use the dictionary site’s definition service does not mean someone must follow or share the dictionary’s social, but every query contributes to the lookup trends, so the trends cross groups. The team also maintains a friendly, informative tone, leaving space for the audience to build jokes on top of their posts.

During this unsteady moment of global political theater, an audience more often than not encounters your post when feeling, well, kind of meh.

In the U.S., we’re watching C-SPAN, which was formerly maybe the most boring TV network ever, with televised coverage of federal proceedings. Lately, though, empowering clips are emerging from those proceedings like California Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ “Reclaiming my time,” at a House Financial Services Committee meeting recently. She was asking the Treasury Secretary why he hadn’t responded to a letter from her office, and the secretary attempted to run out the clock by talking about her accomplishments — so Waters interrupted his attempt by repeatedly stating, “Reclaiming my time.” She is using a procedural rule, and stating the obvious, following protocol and exhibiting certainty.

Of the many remixes and fan art images that followed, Mykal Kilgore’s gospel mix is my favorite, a solid loop for Instagram, fun to watch even without the political context. We all want to be in control of and have others treat us with respect.

Split-screening yourself is an old YouTube convention (sometimes into different characters) and here the screen sections show us the different vocal lines that build the harmony — watching makes us wonder if all of us have a mighty choir inside to join with each other’s choirs.

I’ve been reading Joel Dinerstein’s The Origins of Cool in Postwar America lately, and the author defines the original meaning of ‘cool’ (a noun and a verb) partly through noir film and jazz musicians like Lester Young, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday. He writes,

To be cool meant you carried personal authority through a stylish mask of stoicism… In the postwar era, to be cool meant negotiating a resistant mode of being in the world. And the origins of cool — as of nearly all art and aesthetics — can be found in the transmutation of pain and loss into something dynamic and uplifting.

These legendary jazz musicians needed to be cool because much like today it wasn’t safe to be a person of color. Police violence was and is very real. These musicians decades ago had to measure their responses, create their art under duress. Their level of cool is something many of us still try to emulate.

When you are in a position of cultural power, as many online artists and creators are, your path toward cool today can be one of resistance to pettiness and demeaning actions. Your cool can be a resistance to making jokes at the expense of a vulnerable group. Your cool can be not making it about you — perhaps it’s someone else’s turn to solo. Pause, listen.

It behooves us to be clever and inclusive in our laughter, a more precious commodity in interesting times. Hope sustains itself out of casual reach. Social posts and replies are motes we throw off as we determine who we are, indicators of the present state of our core selves. And should that core be hollow vanity any true influence will eventually recede. By what you make, and what you share, let your personal goal be to lift all of us with your wit. Thank you in advance.