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Laughter Doesn’t Scale

April 1st is the moment when the brands come to life and speak as humans


A woman diagnosed as suffering from hilarious mania. Color lithograph, 1892, after J. Williamson, 1890.

It’s April Fools’ Day on the Internet! Once, years ago, this was a fun day when people made stupid, nerdy jokes. Take, for example, “A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers,” i.e. Internet-over-carrier-pigeon. That was an “official” proposal released in 1990, part of a tradition of goofy nerd in-jokes that looked completely serious but was completely ridiculous—done by nerds for nerds, all good.

Since at least 2000, Google has been honoring that tradition by pulling fairly mild April Fools’ pranks—for example, in 2015 it made Google Maps look and work like Pac-Man. Google has, over the years, been joined by many other Internet organizations all piling onto the laughter heap.

It’s worth noting that Google’s best April Fools’ joke was not a joke: They announced Gmail on April 1, 2004—with a gigabyte of storage space. That sounded insane at the time and the tone of the message seemed casual:

The inspiration for Gmail came from a Google user complaining about the poor quality of existing email services, recalled Larry Page, Google co-founder and president, Products. “She kvetched about spending all her time filing messages or trying to find them,” Page said. “And when she’s not doing that, she has to delete email like crazy to stay under the obligatory four megabyte limit. So she asked, ‘Can’t you people fix this?’”

In retrospect this was a great move: Release something huge on April 1st, create ambiguity and excitement and disbelief, and then back it up with a real product. Now Gmail has more than a billion users, even though it’s worse at composing emails than it used to be. Its userbase has expanded exponentially. But as a result, its humor surface has contracted dramatically.

When you have lots of users making jokes is a serious business. But this year Google decided to really go for it, and premiered a Gmail feature called “mic drop,” that, when clicked, inserted an animated GIF of a Minion dropping a microphone into your email, then sent the message, and then muted the email chain. The idea was this would be a fun way to say “this conversation is over!

They put the button in the same place as the “Send + Archive” button.

The consumer will now laugh

It was an immediate mess: People were sending GIFs that they didn’t intend to send. Andy Baio started to gather up links to the mess on Twitter. One person said he got fired from a freelance writing gig; another one sent the GIF with a prayer request. Not only was it frustrating but it made people think you were the sender of Minion GIFs. The whole affair is fully, and appropriately, summarized as a Twitter moment. And of course it’s major global news. Google took the thing down after a few hours (a very hard pivot) and apologized:

Well, it looks like we pranked ourselves this year. 😟 Due to a bug, the MicDrop feature inadvertently caused more headaches than laughs. We’re truly sorry. The feature has been turned off. If you are still seeing it, please reload your Gmail page.

There’s a lesson that I (this is Paul) have learned very painfully, and others have learned it too: Laughter doesn’t scale. Irony in one zone of the Internet doesn’t work outside of that zone. Everyone you know might think you’re hilarious. Doesn’t matter online.

This is one of the reasons why Twitter is such an existential pit, because the moment you have any success (i.e. lots of retweets) you are immediately punished by complete inanity, forced misunderstanding, nonsense—and, sometimes, if you’re a woman, by a miscellany of invasive threats. There’s no medium that punishes success like the Internet.

It’s not that people don’t get the jokes you make; they don’t even get that there is a joke at all. To them you are not funny, and never will be. They are the ones who are perfect for the medium, because they will repeat the same nostrums over and over, while funny people just drift away. (This is the market gap that Slack fills. It is a product that lets less funny people feel hilarious, successfully marrying enterprise groupware to local improv groups.)

This factor is rarely considered by product people, or by anyone, but it’s real. Humor is an amazing means of reaching a large audience, jokes are naturally viral—but there is a powerful immune system that kicks in with any successful joke. The Internet is the world’s greatest joke killer—and yet everyone thinks they are funny. Consider this chart of how funny you can be as the number of users increases.

There is no science behind this chart, but we’re consultants.

April 1st is the moment when the brands come to life and speak as humans, like the animals on Christmas. Look at us, say the brands, wearing their reddest noses, honking their honky horns. We are so human! And on that day the rest of us, normally prone to laughter, suddenly find nothing funny. It’s a terrible situation.

As I write this I just got an email from GrubHub announcing Grüber, their ride-sharing app. Fearing that anyone might take it seriously, GrubHub writes: “Just kidding. We do one thing better than anyone — food ordering and delivery — and we’re sticking to it.” I guess this message is fine if you, the user, really like engaging with the GrubHub brand. Maybe you do! Or maybe GrubHub is an arbitrary means of shoveling General Tso’s into your mouth, late at night — a vehicle of shame, an accelerant of regret. Maybe you already feel guilt at making people ride around on mopeds bringing you salty crap to dump down your gullet, and their hilarious joke just reminds you of global inequity and the nasty core at so much of the new Internet economy. YMMV.

Laughter does not scale. It’s a lesson we’re all learning, along with all the other horrible lessons that come from living on the crumbling cliff of the network. If you do things online, when someone tells you, “that’s not funny,” well, they’re right.

Story published on Apr 1, 2016.