Shortened Punchlines

In the beginning, there was email. With electronic mail, people could suddenly communicate almost instantly over vast distances. After the obligatory interuniversity and intragovernmental look-what-we’ve-accomplished messages, email began to be a thing that ordinary people used to stay in touch over long distances, to communicate with co-workers and eventually to forward chain emails to everyone in their address books.

They say the hardest part of learning a new language is humor. But humor has been quick to worm its way into each “language” of the Internet. Email chains quickly became a way to send funny stories and jokes around the world. Tumblr, originally just another way to blog, is now dominated by streams of animated GIF jokes (if you don’t believe me, sit at the back of a packed lecture — it’s not like you were going to pay attention during shopping period anyway — and then count how many laptop screens are on When someone shows you a YouTube video, there’s a good bet it’s filed under “comedy.”

Over the summer, I received companywide emails at my internship about a local bear that was caught wandering near the office; the story had been picked up by the local news. Within minutes, someone had created a Twitter account for the bear (“C Line or D Line into town. Decisions, Decisions” and “Can’t a bear just catch some zzzzzs around here without all this paparazzi” were two tweets among many). After two days of sharing its thoughts, responding to questions, attracting 111 followers and itself following 24 others, @Brooklinebear stopped its activity forever.

Whether or not our attention spans are actually decreasing, as posited by everyone over the age of 40, is a complex issue. I would argue, at least, that our patience for punch lines is diminishing. What constitutes “funny” is now often a quick image (see: Yale Memes) or line of text, rather than the re-re-forwarded chain emails of yesterday. Among YouTube’s most popular videos are the five-second-long “Dramatic Chipmunk” and the sub-one-minute “Charlie Bit Me!” Jokes strive to rise above the crowd only for a few moments before being forgotten by all but

This doesn’t mean humor is dead; perhaps, in fact, the opposite. We’re being hit by so many funny photons that humorists have to work harder, think more creatively than ever, to achieve even a tiny glimpse of noticeability. To be an audience of the Internet today is exhilarating.

Consider the case of @StealthMountain. The Twitter bot is the product of a tireless computer’s efforts patrolling the Twitterverse for a particular grammatical error: Each time a tweet contains the phrase “sneak peak” (note misspelling), @StealthMountain politely tweets back, “I think you mean ‘sneak peek.’” (The Twitter account description calls itself “a sneaky peak.” Stealth mountain. Get it?) The point is, someone is actively paying money — in electricity bills, server time or what have you — to run the computer program that makes @StealthMountain possible. And it’s all so that someone can stumble onto the Twitter page, say, “Huh. That’s really clever,” and never look at it again (it loses a lot of its punch the second time around). Along the same vein, there’s @big_ben_clock, which tweets “BONG” to indicate the hour, on the hour — “BONG BONG BONG” is three o’clock London time — and a handful of other automated Twitter accounts that earn a chuckle but not much more. Heck, someone even made @OneTweetTony, whose account description is “I nail it on the first tweet every time,” and whose one and only tweet reads, “Nailed it! That’s a wrap!”

The point is, humor is evolving. It’s changing along with the technologies we use, and that’s not a bad thing. Stand-up comedy and humor essays won’t be replaced, just as Twitter hasn’t replaced email. We’re just in a more technologically diverse age, and so are our punch lines.