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If you use Facebook, perhaps you can think of a friend of yours who posts a lot of politically charged comments there. And perhaps you can think of a friend who often posts things that make you laugh.
But Natalie Pennington is willing to bet those are two different people. Based on her research, that funny friend’s Facebook posts are likely to stay away from politics and focus more on stories from his or her personal life — especially romantic relationships.
“If you write a status update that involves political talk, you are actually viewed as less capable of producing humor than other people,” said Pennington, a doctoral student in Kansas University’s communication studies department who focuses her research on social media.
This finding is one of several from an article just published by Pennington and Jeff Hall, an associate professor of communication studies, in the scholarly journal “HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research.” They pulled information from a research project, now three years along, that studied how Facebook users perceive themselves and compared it with strangers’ perceptions of their profile pages. They recruited 100 Facebook users, in line with the general demographics of the site, to share their profiles, as well as 35 people to study them and offer observations.
For this study, Pennington examined what might make Facebook users perceive others, or themselves, as funny. And a few trends became clear.
One was that, for the most part, users who go heavy on the politics are perceived as unfunny, no matter if they lean liberal or conservative. Pennington, who actually doesn’t mind a bit of politics on Facebook herself, wasn’t too surprised by that.
But she was surprised, she said, to see what funny users did post about. They favored a lot of personal stories from their daily lives, especially involving their significant others.
“Several times throughout, anytime somebody talked about their relationship, they tried to do so in a humorous way,” Pennington said. She guessed that perhaps Facebookers don’t want to flaunt their relationship status in front of friends who might be single, so they turn to humor to lighten the mood.
One status update that observers found funny, even though they didn’t know the people involved personally, was from a woman who wrote that she was quite proud of an “awesome” curry dish she’d prepared — but she was worried it might kill her boyfriend, who had an acid reflux problem.
It goes to show that funny people on Facebook, though they may be broadcasting their thoughts to hundreds of people, don’t often craft jokes as if they were stand-up comedians. They just tell stories, as if they were talking with friends.
“How many of them will stand in front of an audience of 800 and tell jokes?” Hall said.
Other things common among users found to be funny, Pennington said, were pop-culture references (the profile pages used in the study coincided with the news about Charlie Sheen’s public breakdown, so he and his “winning” catchphrase were frequent culprits) and jokes that poke fun at oneself.
One thing about those self-deprecating jokes, though: They’ll often draw a lot of comments, but most friends don’t tend to click the “Like” button.
That makes sense, if you think about it: When one user in the study posted, “I’m changing my relationship status to ‘out of order,’” after a breakup, her friends naturally didn’t want to indicate they “liked” the news. Instead, they offered support in comments, which Pennington says hints at why we might make fun of ourselves on Facebook in the first place.
“When we self-deprecate, we want friends to say, ‘Oh, that’s not true of you. That’s not how you are,’” Pennington said.
That’s true of people online or offline, communications research has found. And that may be the biggest lesson of the research, Hall said: Maybe social media, text messaging and other advances haven’t really changed the way people communicate with each other all that much, when it comes down to it—just the medium they use.