Article | 8 min read

Only joking: how online humor brings us together

By Chelsea Larsson

Last updated March 7, 2017

Fellow citizens of the internet, we are stressed out. From real news to fake news to real news being called “fake news,” the internet has recently gotten a lot angrier. No longer are overzealous parents with their abundant baby photos the most aggravating thing in our feeds. If you are like me, your Facebook and Twitter streams are a constant barrage of political Amber Alerts—each one inciting us to action. The pressure is so great that some people have taken to blocking political Facebook posts altogether—although, admittedly putting our heads in the sand is not an answer to real world problems.

Being informed on politics is vital, especially when your country is teetering on the edge. But, every now and then we have to take a breather, if not for self-care then simply to digest what we’ve read.

Which is why I would like to remind us of the internet’s other great source of content abundance (no, not pornography)—comedy. There is so much funny online. And funny is good for you. Studies show real psychological and physiological benefits for people who dabble in humor. It makes you calmer, lowers blood pressure, minimizes hostility, and decreases stress. Humor is also an effective vehicle for creating connections—with friends and frenemies. And, in light of all the political education we have to undergo today, humor is an effective and approachable way to share new (and touchy) ideas with your peers.

In light of all the political education we have to undergo today, humor is an effective and approachable way to share new (and touchy) ideas with your peers.

But the best part is, imbibing in a bit of comedy online can make you a better person offline.

Sharing a LOL online helps us bond IRL

We use humor every day to connect with those around us. Think of sending your coworker a goofy meme in Slack, or making funny faces to cheer up your kid. It’s natural to want to spread joy. In fact, one of our first emotional acts as babies (besides crying) is to smile at adults to encourage engagement with us. Dubbed the “social smile” by psychoanalyst David Winnicott, this act describes how babies grin at their mothers as a way to bond. Winnicott proposes that by sharing joy with someone, even if it’s just a smile,

Abigail Posner, Head Strategist at Google, sees memes as an online version of that same “social smile.” In Fast Company, Posner says “Our new visual culture is one in which we’re constantly offering each other little gifts, little moments of pleasure that remind us we’re truly and deeply bonded to one another.”

These “little gifts” of humor can be especially powerful in difficult conversations. Customer support agents, for instance, have found success in using GIFs to add lightness and humanity to customer support interactions. And we as a nation were briefly united in laughter after the heated 2016 election by the Obama and Biden memes, in spite of our bi-partisan divide. There’s something about these playful images that help us communicate emotions when words fail us. Amanda Brennan, a researcher at Know Your Meme said in a 2012 interview, “Memes allow people to reflect on feelings that they want to talk about in an easily consumable way.”

Humor can make us more open-minded

Have you ever wondered why there isn’t a conservative Jon Stewart? Alison Dagnes, a political scientist, has a theory. Dagnes researched the types of people who go into comedy and found that they are more likely to be people who question societal norms. In her book, A Conservative Walks Into a Bar, she sums it up as such, “Conservatism supports institutions and satire aims to knock these institutions down a peg.” So, in some ways, being receptive to new ideas is a requirement for comedians.

But even when you aren’t the one making jokes, being around humor can make you a more open-minded person. Comedic interactions raise our emotional intelligence and force us to examine things in a new way. In this state of openness, we are less likely to be judgemental of unfamiliar perspectives. Comedian George Carlin put it this way, “No one is ever more him/herself than when they really laugh. Their defenses are down. It’s very Zen-like, that moment. They are completely open, completely themselves when that message hits the brain and the laugh begins. That’s when new ideas can be implanted. If a new idea slips in at that moment, it has a chance to grow.”

“No one is ever more him/herself than when they really laugh. Their defenses are down. It’s very Zen-like, that moment.” – George Carlin

Before the internet, this type of comedic inception was only available via live shows, TV specials, or a standup’s record. It had to be sought out. Also, the limited amount of distribution channels resulted in fewer comedic voices in the world. With the advent of YouTube and social media, that archaic bottleneck has been eliminated. Now comics of any level can distribute material at a record pace and on a wide range of topics. From a Muslim version of The Cosby Show or U.S. gun control from an Aussie’s perspective, their message could be something that expands your horizons.

Comedy gives us a way to cope with real world problems

After 9/11, the nation was racked with grief and comedians were at a loss. When Saturday Night Live (SNL) was set to air on 9/29, the cast and producer Lorne Michaels were understandably trepidatious. Was it too soon to be funny? SNL addressed their quandary by inviting then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as well as NYC firefighters and police officers to take the stage for the opening monologue. After a tribute to the victims and heroes of 9/11, Mayor Giuliani spoke about the importance of keeping New York institutions “open for business,” and mentioned SNL as one of the key institutions that must continue. Lorne Michaels responded to this by asking, “Can we be funny?” to which Giuliani replied with the now famous line, “Why start now?”

Giuliani’s answer was more than just a punchline, it was blessing for comedians across the nation to help the country to heal through laughter. Or as a communications and rhetoric expert, Dr. Paul Achter writes, “Paralleling his mobilization of America’s first city— its firefighters, police officers, and victims of the attacks—Giuliani had now mobilized a comic institution in the service of a country’s need to laugh. Other commentators stated the mayor’s point directly: comedy after 9/11 could be useful to audiences,

Relate illustration Chelsea Larsson

In most negative situations, we’ll do anything to feel a spark of joy. So it’s not surprising that as a people, we’ve historically looked to comedians to help us process tragic situations. With the internet, though, it’s easier for them to spread the healing far and wide. Anna Akana is a comedian tackling tough subjects in funny ways on her YouTube channel. After the suicide of her younger sister due to bullying, she’s also become an anti-bullying advocate who helps young people use humor as a shield. In a series of anti-bullying videos, she tells viewers, “Try to make them and yourself laugh. When I was bullied in high school, I would often join in on the teasing to take the power away from them and restore it in myself. Humor not only has the power to diffuse tension filled situations but it helps you heal from some of the most terrible things that happen to you.” Over 200,000 people have viewed this message, an audience that would have been hard to reach offline.

Using humor as a coping mechanism lets us recast our darkest experiences in a new light. Especially for those of us who’ve fallen victim to an overpowering force, laughing at Goliath can be empowering. Dr. Sharon Lockyer, an expert in critical comedy studies shared this in The Guardian, “What I’ve really noticed in my research, is a rise in the bullied or demonised or oppressed taking ownership of comedy directed at them, subverting it and using it to make people laugh with rather than at them.”

Despite our differences, we are all humans. Humor reminds us of that fact. If you can share a laugh with someone, you can tap into their humanity, and connect on a core level that goes far deeper than religion, politics, or class.

The next time you go online to share your rallying cry, try to share a bit of humor too. Think of it as a comedic carbon offset. Maybe if enough of us do it, we’ll be a more open-minded and joyful society online and off.

Chelsea Larsson is one of the forces behind brand content on Zendesk and Relate. A communicator in both words and pictures, Chelsea enjoys writing features that encourage new conversations about old ideas, and drawing colorful narratives that make readers smile. Twitter: @ChelseaLarsson.

Illustrations by Chelsea Larsson.