An acquaintance, who goes by syzygyzip elsewhere, and several others, recently spoke on this subject which interests me too, and I wanted to share my own thoughts — which I do not think are much different, and I do not pretend originality here. The subject is the phenomenally prevalent trend of the highest rated comment on a Reddit post, YouTube video, Twitter thread, etc. tending to be a sarcastic joke that, especially in the case of sites such as Reddit, where threads are much longer than Twitter and textual communication is the norm, almost completely redirects all attention. I want to be clear here that I do not cite Reddit with the implicit intent of eyerolling at “Redditors”, as if its vast userbase could be rolled up into to one (detestable) type. This is a behavior which extends to every major platform where some level of discussion occurs, and I have zero interest in holier-than-thou reductions. Anyway: such a comment makes the topic, which could be greatly serious and deserving of equally serious discussion (or — here’s a thought — no online discussion at all!), appear silly and essentially frivolous or ridiculous. This redirected attention takes the form not just of subsequent posters building on or praising the joke, but of the more abstract awarding of points to the joker: likes, upvotes, whatever.
From one angle, these instances are illustrations of a system built to keep people addicted to getting as much attention as possible. People are not drawn to cold but to heat, and the most heated states besides lust are hilarity and anger (see: uhhh, all of social media). Here, one might object and remark that getting people to laugh is a skill, and that we should not be eager to dismiss comedy as just a shallow easy tactic to draw others’ eyes towards oneself. Contextually, this can be true. But the overshadowing fact is that, online, one always can find an audience. Unless some sort of moderation is in place (and even then), threads and comment sections have turned into free-for-alls where anyone can jump in, make a clever deconstructive quip, and find some measure of success. From another angle, I think that these instances betray a deep, possibly generational, cynical nihilism about existence: nothing can ever be beautiful, noble, horrible, profound (for example: the image of Messier 87′s supermassive black hole); all must be reduced to a punchline, for all is absurdity. The ultimate effect is that any and every story is soon buried among all the others because it is only as good as the riffs it produces. Look, laugh (probably not aloud), and move on.
What’s most interesting to me about all of this is that that escalating free-for-all aspect of online spaces has created a very strange situation where discursive appropriateness or inappropriateness is no longer a consideration, outside of how bigoted we perceive a person’s expressions to be. Somehow, we’ve created and are tolerating a split where prejudicial ideology (however our group is defining that) is inadmissible, yet we have no noticeable problem with look-at-me nihilistic ideology inserting itself any- and everywhere. Here, the matter of appropriateness and inappropriateness pertains to tone. It is true that the Internet is not the equivalent to in-person social functions (even as we collectively have come to often treat it as equal to or greater than what is usually termed real life); but how often would we tolerate, in our presence, a person who self-inserts near the start of every conversation and brings it all to a halt and then around to theirself with a wisecrack? I’d find it tiring and highly irritating pretty quickly, and would want that person to leave my social groups. And yet, if one dares to make even a non-critical observation online about this phenomenal prevalence of the Class Clown, they would likely be piled on for being, seemingly, utterly humorless. “Let people enjoy things.”
For a time, in grade school — probably up to fourth grade — I was a class clown myself, likely because I was not getting the attentive care I needed from my family. To this day, judging by laughter, I also tend to be the funniest person in my social groups. You might think that this history and these traits would’ve primed me to be more aligned with the trend I have described; and I guess I was, for a while, when I was more frequently and more uncritically active on all sort of social media, including dedicated forums, and less in tune with myself. It’s totally possible that my about-face is another case where my awareness of a thing’s extreme commonness for some reason prompts me to critically distance. In fact, I am sure that is part of what’s driving my position here. But I think too that the unabated and apply-anywhere nihilism I sense in the online Class Clown is too obviously empty and non-reflective for me to entertain anymore. It is ironic that the act is taken up ostensibly to satisfy the self, yet that none of these jokes express anything special to the individuals: they are each anonymous affectations of disorder; like syzygyzip so descriptively wrote: “I can see [it] as chucking little pebbles at the march of progress; like a kid would, maybe, oblivious to the symbolic content of the act.”