A lot of people have to spend hours analyzing cartoons in The New Yorker magazine to figure out why they're funny.
Nancy Baym analyzes them in the name of science.
Baym, an associate professor of communication studies at Kansas University, has spent the past few months looking at cartoons that deal with how the Internet affects relationships. She's hoping to get some insight into how people learn their expectations of the Internet.
"They haven't gotten less funny the more I'm looking at them," Baym says. "If anything, I'm more impressed with them the more I look at them. I might look at a cartoon 100 times and think I interpreted every interpretation and then think, 'Oh, my gosh. It's REALLY about ... .'"
Baym, who grew up laughing at New Yorker cartoons, got the idea for the study after completing another research project last year about online communication.
Data collected from KU students who kept logs of their communication showed online interactions were as effective as face-to-face or phone communications. But in interviews, students overwhelmingly said Internet communication was "vastly inferior" to other forms.
"It's like they were reading from a script," Baym says. "It got me thinking, 'Where does this script come from?'"
So she started analyzing the cartoons, one easily obtainable form of mass media that often deals with the Internet. She'd like to eventually expand her study to include music lyrics, TV and movies, among other media forms.
Her decision to look at The New Yorker was, in part, sparked by a famous 1993 cartoon. In it, one dog is sitting at a computer, talking to another dog.
"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," the Web-surfing mutt says.
Using a recently created CD database of New Yorker archives, Baym tracked down 126 cartoons dealing with the Internet. Fifty-one of those dealt with interpersonal communication.
"Humor juxtaposes things that don't belong together but you recognize," Baym says. "I started by trying to figure out what's being juxtaposed in these cartoons. The idea that what they're juxtaposing are the promises the Internet offers us and the problems that keep us from realizing those promises, or the ways promises end up being more dangerous than they appear to be."
The promises tend to focus on things like making new relationships, easy access to commerce and unlimited information. The drawbacks, meanwhile, are that your wife or boss might be looking over your shoulder or that the person behind an Internet identity might not be who they appear to be.
Baym notes that the dog cartoon has been used to show both the benefits and dark side of the Internet.
New Yorker cartoons are legendary for their dry wit. In an episode of "Seinfeld," Elaine works tirelessly to figure out why a cartoon was funny.
(Interestingly, that cartoon, too, dealt with the Internet; it showed a cat who had read a dog's e-mail.)
Some other cartoon/Internet examples:
¢ A woman sits on a tractor in a small urban apartment. She says: "I got it from eBay."
¢ A woman looks over the shoulder of a man sitting at his laptop. She says: "And just what was that little window you clicked off when I came in?"
¢ A father and mother sit their son on the couch. The caption: "It's very important that you try very, very hard to remember where you electronically transferred Mommy and Daddy's assets."
Baym is tweaking her paper on the study, hoping to get it published.
Though she says the cartoons offer just one perspective on why people have anxieties about the Internet, she says The New Yorker could be used to analyze the history of a variety of social issues. So she took the research seriously.
Of course, that's not to say she didn't giggle quite a bit during her work.
"I grew up," she says, "with the belief that New Yorker cartoons really were funnier than other humor."