Have you ever looked at a picture or a GIF that was meant to describe a feeling or a situation that someone had, and wondered how exactly you ‘got’ what it was about?
For a while now, my research has focused on the question of how we are able to decipher digital texts that, if you think about it, can actually be pretty cryptic. Certain genres of internet humour work on ‘randomness’ and incongruity – pairing a caption with an image that one might not have expected, or that doesn’t straightforwardly describe what the caption is about. In ‘MFW’ jokes, when a person describes their feeling in a particular situation, it is no coincidence that what is used is an image or GIF from a different context – an amateur YouTube video, TV show, film and so on. It would not be considered funny if the person simply turned the camera on themselves and acted out the literal feeling they were describing.
These types of texts make sense because they relied on shared social knowledges. They rely on references that set up a puzzle that may be decoded, if you have the shared knowledge required to do so. The cryptic element generates a feeling of togetherness because such jokes are not open to everyone to be read.
Recently, I had an article come out in Social Media + Society, which is an online, open access journal, so you can read it without a paywall. You can access it here. In the article, I develop the idea that these shared knowledges are not simply banal but are based on power. These knowledges involve assumptions of race, gender and class that are called upon to make meaning and to ‘get’ the joke in the GIF within a matter of seconds.
Because academic work is never done, I am also giving a paper based on this article, but rethinking it drawing on a strand of critical race theory developed by Shannon Sullivan which I had not yet explored when initially drafting the article. This theoretical framework prompts inquiry into how our bodily senses reflect unconscious knowledges and assumptions about race: the ‘smell’ of foods that are coded as ‘too strong’ or ‘exotic’; or, as I focus on in the paper, how vision itself fixes on certain bodily ‘differences’.
I am also presenting a seminar on the tensions and questions that arise when you are researching both digital media and gender, which is kindly hosted by Deakin on their city campus in Melbourne on 25 November. If you’re interested, the details are here.