Rhodri Marsden: Being funny on the web is a serious business

Cyberclinic

Put your brain in gear before you open your mouth," was a piece of advice which my father used to offer me whenever I'd just failed spectacularly to do so. At some point about 20 years ago he gave up, figuring I'd learn from my mistakes, perhaps after offering one wisecrack too many to some bloke with big fists. But I still have a bad habit of saying things without thinking in an attempt to be funny – and naturally, in this age of social media, the same applies to posting stuff online. While I've clearly learned nothing from my father, I have learned two related lessons – one is that if you think something is funny, the vast majority of people won't agree with you.

The other is that if you ever have to say: "I was only joking," you can safely mark down your joke as a damp squib.

In real life, you can accompany cheeky gags with a knowing wink, thus establishing beyond all doubt that a) you don't really mean what you say, and b) that you're a bit annoying. Online, the process isn't as clear cut. The flags people use to indicate the oncoming juggernaut of humour – the word LOL, emoticons such as :) and, distressingly, :-P – are so clumsy that people understandably don't bother using them. So jokes backfire, trivial asides take on ludicrous significance and the wrong end of the stick is grabbed so firmly and so often that you couldn't be blamed for wondering whether that might be the right end of the stick after all. And this happens daily. A friend of mine was recently labelled a BNP supporter because he'd interacted with a fake Nick Griffin Twitter account. A "funny" document put together by a female student at North Carolina's Duke University detailing her sexual exploits, solely for her friends' amusement, was leaked online last week – and suddenly it's being subjected to more cultural analysis than The Female Eunuch.

An Arsenal fan made a lame joke on Twitter about Duncan Bannatyne's wife having an affair (she isn't, he said, hastily); Bannatyne saw it, threatened legal action and for 24 hours it was all-out war between defenders of free, slightly crap speech and upholders of Bannatyne's right to get annoyed.

These isolated incidents are so unimportant as to be laughable, but they keep happening. Bad jokes into the internet don't go – as Paul Chambers discovered to his cost, when he tweeted about the possibility of blowing up Robin Hood airport and found himself in court.

With humour, context is everything. Frankie Boyle gets away with as much as he does because we're familiar with his shtick. Online, however, everything can so easily be lifted out of context. Last weekend, for the potential amusement of about four people, I described myself as being socially inadequate and seedy, but it's conceivable that some people thought it was a cry for help.

Justin Bieber (still not entirely sure who he is) recently pretended to have a girlfriend – a cue for his teenage fans to send death threats to the girl in question. Bannatyne himself has, in the past, described another Twitter user as a "grave danger to children" and upset some other people by making a light-hearted reference to suicide.

I've no idea why he did either of these things, but as I've only seen his remarks out of context, I just assume they're benign.

We have a clear choice: either stop taking inconsequential, fleeting online messages so seriously, or stop being unamusing on the internet. The former will probably be slightly easier.



***



Stefan Savage, professor of the University of California, has just produced a paper on a modern strain of sweatshop labour: solving Captchas, the jumbles of letters and numbers that accompany online forms to prove that the respondent is a human being and not a computer.

Rather than develop automated systems to solve them, criminals use cheap labour, paying around one cent per dozen.

"The quality of life is slightly better than being in a textile mill," says Savage – but there's nothing illegal about paying someone to solve a puzzle.

The only upside is that Captcha solving helps to digitise old newspapers via the Recaptcha project; words that digitising computers stumble over often appear in Captchas and we solve around 100m of them every day. Not that this provides a crumb of comfort for sweatshop workers.

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