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Are you kidding me? When you can’t tell, the Web can be a dangerous place to joke

“I’m f**ked in the head alright, I think I’ma SHOOT UP A KINDERGARTEN AND WATCH THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT RAIN DOWN.”

Those words were posted to Facebook by 18-year-old Justin Carter in early 2013, two months after the hideous massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Another Facebook users scolded Carter for his provocative post. Someone from Canada reported him to police.

Today, the Austin, Texas, teen – a regular kid, according to his family, a fan of League of Legends and Minecraft, a harmless dork, not a murderer – may spend the next 10 years in jail for those words – words that were meant as a joke. A bad joke. A mean, hurtful joke. A joke I cannot imagine evoking laughter from a single person. But a joke all the same.

When a joke is taken seriously, the wannabe comedian often comes across as a complete tool.

“I thought as soon as the police talk to him, they will see it was a joke and let him go,” Jennifer, Justin’s mother, recently told the Dallas Observer. “If anything, it would be a misdemeanor. I thought if they talked to him, they would realize it was just his sarcastic sense of humor.”

The case of Justin Carter is but one of a million examples of law enforcement mistaking an online joke for real-life intent to cause harm. There’s the case of Paul Chambers, a British accountant who was convicted (then un-convicted) for joking on Twitter about blowing up an airport. There’s the story of New York comic Joe Lipari, revealed in an episode of This American Life, who in 2009 lashed out after a time-wasting debacle at an Apple Store by posting this paraphrased Fight Club quote to his Facebook page: “Joe Lipari might walk into an Apple store on Fifth Avenue with an Armalite AR-10 gas-powered semi-automatic weapon and pump round after round into one of those smug, fruity little concierges.” Soon after the post went up, a SWAT team knocked on Lipari’s door.

It is the job of police to take potentially serious matters seriously, of course. Assuming violent, off-color remarks on Facebook are said in jest, and are therefore not worth investigating, could potentially put others in danger. It serves society’s best interests to treat anything that sounds like a threat as such. But there is another factor at play here: The Internet is a place where jokes die. Because of this, I fear it is having a chilling effect on a precious form of free speech and human interaction.

The reason why jokes – jokes made not by known comedians or satirists but regular Janes and Joes – play poorly online is simple: Unserious comments and photos often lack the context necessary for us to understand them as jokes. Instead, we take this content at face value. And when a joke is taken seriously, the wannabe comedian often comes across as a complete tool. We deride the posters as half-wits. We mock their foolishness, and virtually high-five each other for our intellectual superiority. We turn them into the joke.

Take this photo, for example:

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Ask average Internet commenters who this kid is, and they’ll tell you he’s a sad mouth-breather who wants to look cool. They say he’s fat and worthless – he doesn’t even know what marijuana plants look like! What a dumbass. But what if this kid knew what he was doing – what if he knew that he was posing like a “gangster” with a plastic houseplant as if it were marijuana? What if it was meant as a joke? (What if most photos like this are a joke?) Never in a million years would we give this kid the benefit of the doubt. So we crap on him, over and over and over.

Examples of this are found across the Web. But websites like the Cheezburger Network’s Fail Blog, 9Gag, and Reddit’s CringePics community may be the worst offenders – platforms inadvertently devoted to bullying others into never again trying to be funny. 

Sites like these are the reason I never take post silly photos of my family or myself online. They are the reason I keep most of my jokes offline. Those who know me might instantly recognize a comment or photo as a joke. But all it takes is for some random “friend” or follower to screenshot a comment for my joke to come back to haunt me for the rest of my life.

Hoards of strangers may make fun of you, and potentially ruin your good name online.

I am certainly not the only one who takes this approach. According to a 2013 study of 3.9 million Facebook users by Facebook software engineering intern Sauvik Das, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon, and Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer, some 71 percent of users self-censor themselves on the social network. Of course, not all of these hastily deleted or edited status updates were jokes, but it seems safe to assume that some were.

So, at worst, off-handed comments can potentially land you in jail, or get you fired. Hoards of strangers may make fun of you, and potentially ruin your good name online. At best, the Internet’s chilling effect on jokes provides us with one of the best examples of the effects surveillance can have on free speech. Knowing that some joke you make on Facebook or Twitter might be read completely out of context can likely cause people to limit what they share online.

For many of you, this may seem perfectly harmless – perhaps even the way it should be. But for me, automatically assuming other people are horrible or dumb reflects ill on us, and it reduces the richness of our online lives. So next time you’re about to comment on how stupid someone is, at least take a second to consider that they might be in on the joke.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock/carol.anne

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