The two of us blinked at each other. We had just swapped edits for chapter one of our latest coauthored book, You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape, and there was a problem. This chapter focused on the Satanic panics of the 1980s and ’90s, which we argued marked the beginning of the network crisis: a period of intensifying polarization and information disorder now central to our politics. For the second time, we’d rejected each other’s suggestions. Whitney was being too somber for Ryan, and Ryan was being too slapstick for Whitney. Clearly, we needed to have a conversation.
So we opened negotiations. Front and center was the question, on a scale of one to 10, how funny should You Are Here be? Ryan said seven. Whitney said two. We’d developed the one-to-10 scale while working on our previous book, The Ambivalent Internet; it was a way of posing questions, soliciting answers, and brokering compromises with minimal ego bruising. This was how we made decisions about everything from language choice to argument structure. But this was the first time we disagreed about jokes.
Previously, humor had characterized our work. A running editorial goal as we researched, drafted, and edited The Ambivalent Internet was to make each other laugh. We even opened its second chapter with a story about our own raucous laughter as we prepared to give an aggressively absurdist, meme-heavy academic presentation about the book.
But that was in 2015, the very tail end—for us, anyway—of the “lol nothing matters” myopia that had characterized our early work on internet culture. How we felt about humor at the outset of the project and how we felt on the day of our final submission—not incidentally, the day after the 2016 election—shifted considerably. Laughter still came easily in 2015. By the time the book was published in 2017, we’d stopped laughing—because all the dangers of all that laughter and that “lol nothing matters” mentality had grown painfully clear.
Whitney tackled these dangers in a follow-up project to The Ambivalent Internet exploring journalistic amplification of far-right memes. But in 2018, when we started writing You Are Here, we hadn’t fully dealt with our own laughter.
What began as a discussion about the appropriate number of Satan jokes in chapter one quickly broadened out to everything we’d overlooked—as scholars, as authors, as people—because so many of us had been so busy laughing for so long. The real question became one of how we were going to position ourselves within the crisis we were describing. Were we going to separate ourselves from it, and in that emotional distance crack jokes? Or would we place ourselves within it and take responsibility for our part?
These questions hit especially close to home as we reflected on internet culture. As we drafted The Ambivalent Internet, white supremacists had already adopted the trollish winking, ironic racism, and weaponized laughter that was so common online. But too many people didn’t notice, because all the jokes and all the memes looked the same as they ever did. Stealthily, smirkingly, white supremacists used these “jokes” to push the Overton window—the range of discourse politically acceptable to the mainstream—further and further to the far right. We couldn’t gloss over this history in You Are Here; we couldn’t fall back on easy laughter. We needed to address the political and ethical consequences of internet humor directly. So we devoted a chapter of the book to how fetishistic online laughter, our own very much included, had accelerated the network crisis.
Ultimately, the tone of You Are Here conveys our shifting relationship with laughter. This shift extends into how we communicate with each other and with others online. Our 2021 tone is much closer to the two than the seven. There remain some moments where humor, or at least wryness, peeks through; seriousness and comedy aren’t totally incompatible. What’s dangerous, and what the book explores, is when levity obscures context and the consequences for the people not laughing. In other words, when easy jokes obscure hard truths.
We sometimes still wish that we could be funny again—that things could go back to normal. But “normal” is what brought us to this moment, and so did a certain kind of decontextualized, myopic, deeply oblivious kind of humor. Neither thing can save us now; to wish for that world would be to turn away from the uncomfortable but necessary lessons of the last few years. This is what writing You Are Here taught us, and it’s what we hope readers take away: first, that our jokes must reflect an adult understanding of what is, ultimately, no laughing matter, and second, that regardless of how much fun we might be having, we all play a critical role in what the online environment is like—for better and for worse.
Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner are the authors of You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape, which MIT Press will publish on March 2.