Humor and Play in CMC

Humor and Play in CMC

Ilona Vandergriff
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-773-2.ch015
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This chapter summarizes the growing body of research on humor and play in computer-mediated communication (CMC) from disciplines such as psychology, applied linguistics, and foreign language acquisition that seeks to explain the abundance of humor and language play in computer-mediated communication. Humor researchers, for example, have shown how the absence of the nonverbal repertoire in CMC may encourage play while, at the same time, making it more difficult to signal a joke. From the perspective of computer-mediated discourse analysis, certain linguistic and interactional features of computer-mediated discourse may promote non-seriousness (Herring, 1999). Another strand of research focuses on the social functions of humor in constituting and maintaining online communities (Hübler & Bell, 2003). The emerging picture of language play and humor in CMC is becoming clearer but, at the same time, increasingly complex.
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More than other media, digital communication has been associated with humor, joking, language play, role play, and other nonserious communication (e.g., Belz & Reinhardt, 2004; Crystal, 2001, 2008; Daisley, 1994; Danet, 1998, 2001; del-Teso-Craviotto, 2006; Fisher et al., 2000; Georgakopoulou, 2005; Hancock, 2004; Herring, 1999, 2001; Kopomaa, 2005; Nastri et al., 2006; North, 2007; Rellstab, 2008; Rouzie, 2001; Sotillo, 2000). Because of its central role in human interaction, different strands of research from disciplines such as psychology, applied linguistics, and foreign language acquisition have sought to explain the abundance of humor and language play in computer-mediated communication (CMC). The present chapter surveys this growing body of research on verbal humor, spontaneous joking, and play in CMC-based environments.1 Following a working definition of the notion of play, the chapter discusses different types of humorous discourse in CMC. It then summarizes how different CMC modes and their contexts of use affect language play. In view of the rapid growth of digital communication, its potential as a creative medium, and the accompanying changes in social interaction, the chapter aims to outline and synthesize research on verbal humor and play in CMC and thus provide a snapshot of what we know and do not know thus far. The emerging picture is complex and, in many ways, unexpected. A number of empirical studies of humor and play in CMC have produced surprising results. For example, Baym’s (1995) early study found that CMC, conceived as a tool for transactional workplace functions to distribute information and increase efficiency, was found to be surprisingly hospitable to humor. Along the same lines, Hancock’s (2004) study also shows that CMC participants use irony more frequently than in face-to-face (FTF) interaction, even though irony is assumed to rely on subtle cues that are unavailable in CMC. These two studies are mentioned here to exemplify how emerging research findings continue to challenge widely held beliefs.

To a large extent, research on humor and play in CMC mirrors that on CMC in general. First, researchers continue to explore in what way the digital media change language use, including humorous discourse. Examples include Hancock’s (2004) study on CMC irony cues or Vandergriff & Fuchs’ (under review) study on CMC humor support. A second strand of research is asking how people overcome the perceived inadequacies of the medium and adapt the new technologies to social interaction (see, e.g., Walther, 2004), where humor plays a central role in attaining relational goals. Much of the CMC research is thus in line with more broadly conceived communication theories (e.g., Clark & Brennan, 1991; see also Herring, 2001). As people move between semiotic systems, they adapt their use of the language to the communication tool and the objective(s). Beyond a better understanding of CMC as such, the study of new media promises to yield fruitful results because, ultimately, looking at language and interaction “through the lens of new tools” (Walther, 2004, p. 386) can focus our attention on aspects of language and social interaction that have either been hidden from view or lost in the sea of data produced by speech interactions. Rather than viewing text-only CMC as a restrictive or impoverished medium, the “worlds of words” (Marvin, 1995) of CMC provide researchers a way to look at language as an interactive unimodal system “without the ‘noise’ of physical appearance, bodily co-orientation, proxemic management, vocal pitch, cadence, and quality, and numerous other cues that are part and parcel of speech but that are absent in the online universe” (Walther, 2004, p. 388). In this way, the study of humorous discourse in CMC may yield new insights into the inner workings of humor and play in language and social interaction.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Initialism: Abbreviation of a phrase using the initial letters of each phrase in the word, e.g., LOL ‘laugh out loud’

monomodality: communication is limited to one mode only, e.g. text

Multimodality: communication in more than one mode, e.g. text/graphics or text/audio

FTF or F2F – face-to-face communication: conversation in a face-to-face setting, oral interaction

SCMC - synchronous computer-mediated communication: network-based real-time digital communication between two or more users. Participants are online at the same time.

ACMC - asynchronous computer-mediated communication: network-based communication via digital messages between two or more users. Participants do not have to be online at the same time because messages are stored on a server.

Emoticon: a typed rendering of facial expression, e.g., the smiley face:)

Language humor/play: Verbal humor, joking or other non-seriousness.

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