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Online, everyone's a comedian

October 30, 2009|Monica Hesse | Hesse writes for the Washington Post

Erin Ryan has more than a thousand followers on the popular femblog Jezebel.com, which would be a lot for anyone on the Internet but is really a lot considering that she's not one of the site's bloggers; she's merely one of the site's anonymous commenters, responding to posts with dry, breezy one-liners that one reads and thinks . . . withering.

That's a lot of random people who like Ryan's stuff, and the blogosphere isn't known for its charity.

"I've definitely gotten better at knowing what works," says Ryan, whose day job is in finance. In the beginning she was all over the place. "Now my sense of humor is sharper and to the point."

She agonizes over sentence construction and word choice; she hears from old friends who say, "I didn't remember you as so witty!"

The Internet is making us lots of things -- attention suckers, drama queens, stupid. Is it also making us witty?

It is, after all, the capital of the one-liner, the brief dose of snark that reflects our tsetse fly attention span. There is the Tweet. The message board comment. The Facebook status update, which newcomers to the site wield with embarrassing banality. Gillian is folding laundry and watching Jim mow the lawn!

Oh, Gillian.

But the newbie will improve, because the Internet one-liner comes with instant grading systems, from the Retweet to the elegant "Liking" of the status update. Eventually, through endless feedback, Gillian is going to understand that no one "likes" her laundry.

"Humor is the pre-identified currency online," says David Karp, founder of the microblogging site Tumblr.com, or, as Wired's Scott Brown calls it in his essay on comedy and the Internet, the "Lingua Franca" of the wired world. Failed attempts at it are met with vicious mockery and so entire pockets of the Internet turn into humor boot camps. Make us laugh, or leave.

"We absorb humor like osmosis -- by just being immersed, like the Berlitz system for language," says Victor Raskin, founding editor of the academic journal Humor.

We trust the wisdom of the crowds.

"If I say something I intend to be funny but don't immediately get LOLs and ROFLs, I will assume that it's not funny."

We either slink away or step up our game.

"It's the vanity of it all," Karp says. "If I can immediately watch my 'like' count and the view count ratchet up . . . I'll be checking my iPhone every five minutes for the rest of the evening to see how I'm doing."

Comedians are "incredibly skillful technicians," Raskin says. "And every technique is developed with the full knowledge of other people's techniques."

And every one-liner online builds on the one before it, and when we find the format that gives us the smirks, we become like attention-starved lab rats, rapping on levers, waiting for that elusive ba-dum-bum.

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