Harriet Walker: Eventually you have a whole table of people watching something on a phone


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The Independent Online

Have you seen the YouTube clip of the sneezing baby panda? Or the otters holding hands? Or the baby who convulses with giggles as his father rips up the rejection letter that has come in the post?

If you haven't, please do come round this week and I'll cook you dinner and play them to you. It'll be hilaire.

This is how we make jokes now. And this is how people judge whether you're funny. An awkward and public forum. A fold-out dining table full of medieval jesters waiting with bated breath for a red-faced king either to roar with laughter or chop off their heads.

Last week, I went for dinner at a friend's house, a dinner that segued into the ritualistic typing of search terms and playing of internet funnies. It has become a night out, in many senses, cheaper than the cinema and more interactive than watching paint dry. You can say you spent time with people when really all you did was use Google.

"Noooo, don't make it a YouTube party!" goes the plea at many sturdy-seeming drinking sessions when someone starts to say, "Oh, have you…? or, 'Oh, I must show you…'. Inevitably half of the table starts talking animatedly so they aren't suckered in, while the other half watches the clip. Eventually, the aloof half are undone by their own curiosity, and then you have a whole table of people watching something on a laptop or a phone. Everyone apart from the new-ish girlfriend who doesn't want to be there and the old-ish boyfriend looking for an escape route. This is how we make jokes now, by saying balls to badinage. You can't replay a good gag, after all.

The danger of a "YouTube party" is that a social event simply becomes an extended version of your desk at work, or your time spent flicking through the guff of modern malaise on the bus. Entertaining has become a forum for sitting down and sharing the web clips that made us laugh that week. Which is arguably what an email is for, although you don't get crisps and dips with those.

The number of dinner parties that have been curtailed because someone couldn't think of the next link to show, so everyone became fidgety and left… It's hard to come back from simply watching things, nigh-on impossible to foster a conversation again successfully. Like avoiding looking at the TV screen in a pub: once you do, you're done.

There's the frenetic impatience until it's your turn to share. The cold, sweaty feeling as you build up the courage to butt in and say – nonchalantly, of course – "Oh, have you seen this one?" The anxiety of people's reactions, the charged moment when someone searches and can't find what they're looking for, having banged on about it for the past half-hour. The familiar high when everyone laughs at your offering. The feeling of acceptance when someone else declares they've already seen it and it's good enough to watch again. Nirvana.

I remember one night lounging around on the sofa, and the girl I lived with showing me a clip that was actually just an ad. It felt like the end of civilization. For starters it wasn't that funny, plus I'd seen it only hours earlier in between segments of an ITV drama, it being an ad and all. She chuckled away. "I just love that talking bear!" she said, shaking her head.

According to social convention, if someone tells a bad joke, you pretend to laugh. If they should tell a dull, rather meandering story with no point, no real meaning and no pizzazz, you're duty-bound regardless to comment on it, or ask them about it, or even to up the ante by telling your own marginally less boring anecdote. But when someone plays you a bad YouTube clip, it's like a fart in a lift. Nowhere for it to go, unspoken but keenly felt, a source of mutual embarrassment and indignation. You don't want to talk about it, but you don't know what else to say. You feel like it's your fault, regardless of the fact it wasn't you that broke wind – or in this case, pressed play.

You just have to try to pick up again from where you left off. By this point, the more grumpily Luddite of the group may have wandered into the kitchen. You follow them, angling to say very quickly that it wasn't you who chose the last clip. But you find them putting on their coat and checking their phone. And you wish you hadn't let your friend's new boyfriend get the laptop out, but it's too late.

So you wander back through and laugh like a drain at some pandas going down a slide.