In its nearly nine years of existence, Twitter has grown to encompass an array of communities and subgenres. There’s media Twitter, weird Twitter, black Twitter, dad Twitter, and brand Twitter—each with distinct and overlapping references and formats. Joke formats, in particular, tend to ripple across networks in waves. One day, bae is everywhere. The next, it's all about the sign bunny.
As people continue to develop a sort of collective literacy of the tweet as a narrative form, Twitter’s uses and styles are evolving into an entirely new dialect.
Except maybe it’s not entirely new. While the platform has created new subtextual categories for communicating, Twitter often showcases classic philosophical theories of humor in action. In other words, the platform is new but the narrative structure is ancient.
For thousands of years theorists have attempted to group together the contextual elements that make a situation funny. The philosophical theories of humor explain the conditions that provoke laughter, often in relation to other human emotions.
The soup on your food truck is gross but thumbs up on your unique dispensing technique wait this is a street cleaner.— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) January 14, 2015
It’s no surprise that the three longest standing theories of humor—Superiority Theory, Relief Theory, and Incongruity Theory—are all over the funny side of Twitter.
What does a guy gotta do to be cast in a goddam Nicholas Sparks movie already?— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) October 20, 2014
Superiority Theory can be traced through generations of philosophers, all of whom were convinced that laughter is rooted in dislike or ill-will, and is a physical expression of having the upper hand in a situation. In his 1651 book Leviathan, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes explains laughter as the physical representation of sudden glory:
Sudden glory is the passion which maketh those grimaces called laughter; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.
Consider Hobbes' theory as it applies in a tweet like the one below.
Life hack: taco night? Play a maroon 5 song to your block of cheddar cheese and Adam Levine's voice will grate it for you.— brendan kelly (@badsandwich) December 28, 2014
This joke works on a couple of levels, which require the reader to understand several cultural references. There's ridicule of crafty workarounds called “life hacks.” Not only do you have to know what a life hack is, but also that Maroon 5 is a band and Adam Levine is its frontman. Finally, you have to understand that the whole thing is a fictional vignette in the tweeter's mind. Pithy, referential jokes are king when it comes to Superiority Theory on Twitter, because the sudden glory is often hidden between the lines.