Friday, June 3, 2011

THERE ARE NO LAUGHS BUT THOSE THAT OBEY.

Or, "Why a Hugely Popular Joke is Also and Always a Good One."

It's time again to pull a topic from my comments section and lay it out in a dedicated post, because some things require too much explanation for a comment conversation. Our topics today are the star, the +1, the promotion, and the roundups.

After Tuesday's Roundup, an anonymous MBA reader commented with something along the lines of (and I'm paraphrasing here), "isn't this blog somewhat tedious and redundant?" and "you got two guys starred" and something about Deadspin commenting being a disappointing activity. It wasn't nearly that snarky - it was a pleasant comment, and so I responded with something to the effect of, "yes, they're tedious, but they allow us to have a bigger, more interesting conversation about mechanics, and no, I never ever ever ever ever got anyone starred or suspended or promoted or banned."

Initially, the important part of this exchange was the notion that blog critiques played a role in anyone getting starred, because it's obvious (to me) that there's no causal relationship whatsoever. There have been a few recent starrings that I can think of: Norm_de_Plume, who I mentioned once (and whose name I misspelled, regrettably, and to my eternal frustration) and only after he was starred; DJ Jazzy Jeff Weaver, who for a stretch was beyond doubt the hottest commenter on Deadspin even before he was starred; Rare Endangered Vuvuzela, who has been around for a good long while and who we have mentioned from time to time; and Raysism, who was starred during a DUAN conversation about how he should have been starred already.

But there's a larger point than whether my criticisms played a role in these specific starrings, and it's why I chose to steal the THERE ARE NO LAUGHS . . . line directly from our profile of AzureTexan; some commenters get it, while most other commenters do not yet get it. The it here is hard to define - Steve_U gets it, Tanfastic does not yet get it. Vodkanaut gets it, Paolo.Lex never did and probably never will. It is (roughly) an understanding of the kinds of punchlines that make for good jokes, married to an understanding of how to package those punchlines such that the impact is maximized. Deadspin commenting is different from just being funny, because unlike barroom humor or even standup, everyone in this room has only the material from the designated post around which to form their jokes - in that way, Deadspin commenting is more like Whose Line Is It Anyway?; time-sensitive, vaguely competitive, bound to a specific externally-generated topic, and measured against aggressively high standards of excellence. It takes healthy measures of talent and instinct, but practice and experience are also essential.

I chose Tanfastic above because I think of him as someone who can safely be lumped into the category of Deadspin commenters who don't yet have it. That may sound like a knock, but it is totally and genuinely not; Tanfastic attempts to be funny and seems to genuinely put effort into his comments. With practice and care (lots of care), Tanfastic will become a good commenter. Scanning the vast majority of pink commenters and, frankly, most of the unstarred commenters, it seems to me Tanfastic is in a good percentile based entirely upon those characteristics.

The commenters who adhere to that basic rule of Deadspin commenting, the one that goes be funny, usually just need practice to refine what they do before they eventually become solid contributors. So, you stick to the rule for a while and hone your craft and before too long, you're a good commenter. A cobra.la.la.la.la.la.la or BillBelichick or GaryOaklandAthletics - perfectly capable of submitting worthy comments on a daily basis. For some commenters, there next appears to be a certain turning point when their jokes become so streamlined and consistently solid that, star or no, they appear to have made another distinct leap forward. Eventually, such a person is going to become a featured commenter. And even then, after gaining a star, some commenters make yet another leap, where suddenly they have a very specific commenting voice and an immediately identifiable commenting style. Sooner or later, Mad Bastards All will probably feature this person in a Profile in Commenting.

That's more or less the timeline of becoming Gamboa Constrictor or Phintastic or Eddie Murray Sparkles. Follow the rule, hone your craft, develop your voice.

When you think of the Deadspin commentariat and the way jokes are appreciated, think of a cut stone, like a diamond. I know nothing about diamonds. I walk into a jewelry store or a museum, I see a jewel, it sparkles, I like it. That must be worth a million dollars! It doesn't have to be the fucking Hope Diamond. It could be a piece of glass for all I know. I like that it sparkles.

That's the experience some Deadspin readers and commenters have when commenting or reading comments: huh huh huh, he said "boobs". There's nothing in the world wrong with that. A joke that makes you laugh is good. Most jokes on Deadspin are worthy in this way.

Now, when my (hypothetical) fiance walks into a jewelry store, she sees carats and clarity and color and cut and things called Pavilion angle and Crown depth. She sees these things because she spends an unseemly amount of time studying and researching gemstones - she knows from sparkling. While I'm pressing my nose against the glass and fawning over cubic zirconium, she's zeroed in on the one diamond in the whole joint that combines all those specific characteristics she's looking for in a truly valuable, truly worthy diamond.

And that's the experience a long-time Deadspin reader or commenter has on a daily basis; casually sorting through less refined jokes in pursuit of the ones that combine all those specific characteristics you're looking for in a truly worthy comment; premise, set-up, punchline, structure, timing, originality, creativity - a winner is a winner. Hang around Deadspin long enough, and your standards for a great joke will go through the roof. You will become the comment pro.

So, yes, the Roundups are usually redundant. Why? Because a winner is a winner, and a comment that gets 15 +1s is worthy of 15 +1s. It's subjective, but it's only so subjective. In the same way that a high quality diamond is rated with a high degree of objectivity, a great comment meets a certain set of criteria. Recording them can be tedious, but it's also kinda fun. The Roundups are meant to accomplish 3 things; 1. to chronicle the noteworthy comments of the day in an easy-access one-stop-shop sort of destination; 2. to provide (hopefully) useful feedback and ideas to Deadspin commenters; and 3. to enable a broader discussion of the mechanics of humor. You'd never read our mind-shatteringly long essay on the striking similarities in function of terror and humor if we didn't both give you context for that conversation and draw you in by catering to your need to read about yourselves. So there.

What followed from there in our little MBA comment conversation was a reply that suggested that the starring process seems arbitrary. This conversation has taken place in my comments section before, but it's worth drawing a distinction again, and as plainly as possible, because this can be confounding and frustrating for new readers and commenters:

Who is featured can seem inconsistent and arbitrary. As previously noted somewhere, the method of starring a commenter has changed over time, from a totally mechanical but nonetheless arbitrary system that rewarded activity and longevity to a more subjective (but not so subjective) system that rewards successful joke-making. There are any number of long-time featured commenters who achieved this status before the current system was in place. They don't always joke. Some never joke. This inconsistency can mislead and frustrate the hell out of new commenters, but it is what it is.

The starring system has plenty of rhyme and reason, and all you need to do is look at the most recent round of starrings to see that. This may be hard to believe, but as a long term reader and consumer of Deadspin comments, the distinction between a feature-worthy commenter and everyone else is crystal, crystal clear. You don't necessarily have to be my "fiance" to discern the difference, but it helps. DJ Jazzy Jeff Weaver had a comment promoted. No big deal. DJ Jazzy Jeff Weaver had 3 comments promoted on the same day - still not a big deal. DJ Jazzy Jeff Weaver went days and days and days and dozens and dozens of comments in a row without failing to be funny, without embarrassing himself, without shaming the noble art of joke-making - I promise you everyone who was paying attention thought the same thing; "this guy has it."

My point is, there is no such thing as "influencing the process", nor is the process inherently arbitrary. The same reason that a hugely popular comment is inescapably great applies to a great commenter rising to the surface - it's not all that subjective. I highlighted a commenter because he is great, and he was starred because he is great.

And finally, I'd like to once again briefly delve into the topic of Deadspin's commentariat as a group of catty, sniping, elitist jerks: my experience of this is the exact opposite. I've found the commentariat to be nearly defined by their communal, mutual, reciprocal support and interest in creating and sharing a good laugh and a good time. Yes, there's a lot of sarcasm and there's even been some mild hazing, but it's all genuinely in good fun. The response to laziness or hostility can be sharp, but the obvious deterrent is to avoid laziness and hostility. The rules of commenting are so simple and straightforward. Willful ignorance of those rules and standards is an act of hostility. Getting and staying on the good side of this group is startlingly simple - take pride in your creations and respect the one rule.

And that's just about all I have to say about that.

Friday's Roundup will be up later. Enjoy the miraculous weather.

25 comments:

  1. Well said. As the Deadspin eye in the sky, you clearly get IT.

    --chadBROchocinco

    ReplyDelete
  2. Another well thought out, well written piece. +1 MBA

    ReplyDelete
  3. While I by no means intended to insult your blog or your efforts, as they are very insightful and clearly you put time and effort into writing this.
    I guess I have a few points.
    #1 Most of the DS commenters are, in fact, a very kind group of people. It can get snarky, it can get catty, but, you're right. It's not like other sites. The cattiness seems to stem more from Twitter, which seems like the Deadspin inner circle.
    #2 Here is my problem with the stars, and how I connected you to it. Let's ignore the process of how people obtain stars. It seems more like people get stars -- for whatever reason (or promoted, or mentioned in your column) and people say, "Hey, that guy! He's funny!" Where as new commenters tend to get overlooked in that gray, withered way. It's like a star has become proof that you are funny, and, thus, starred guy said it, so it's funny!
    #3 I clearly don't get it. I like the DS stories, and some comments are hilarious. Other times, I look at a comment that has been earned +1s and I feel like Elaine puzzling over the New Yorker cartoon. But, as stated, I don't get it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The interesting thing is that "it" is always evolving. Honestly, some of the stuff that, say, Christmas Ape used to post would not fly nowadays. As the site has evolved, so has the comment zeitgeist.

    -MKM

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is a great piece. I was going to delve deeply into my view on why the perception of the commentariat as elitist is probably a fair one, but thought otherwise. I'll simply say that the majority of the featured commenters clearly take great pride in their work, and demand that others do the same. When someone comes in and is consistently unfunny in the comments section, they're going to hear about it. That rubs some people the wrong way, but I think it makes the site better as a whole.

    +1

    --StuartScottsEye

    ReplyDelete
  6. You really hit the nail on the head regarding how one "learns" to comment. When I was till getting my footing I would make absolutely brutal comments all the time. But if you stick around long enough and take the time to learn from other commenters, eventually a switch flips and you get "it."

    -Tulos_Mullet.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous, your #2 makes no sense. If someone "gets" a star and is only then thought to be funny, then that presupposes that he, or she, was once unstarred and thus, under your framework unfunny. i.e. a new, or gray commenter.

    As for stars being proof that one is funny, that's kind of the entire point of the star. That's while you'll see comments like "get this man a star" when an unstarred commenter says something hilarious.

    I don't think anyone thinks every single thing a starred commenter says is hilarious just because it came from a starred commenter. Otherwise, every starred comment would get a +1.

    To put it plainly: Starred commenters are starred commenters for a reason. Unstarred are unstarred for a reason.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Well-written and articulated piece. I was starred last year by Drew and it was definitely too early (I’d only been commenting sparingly for a few months). I didn’t have the experience to fully know what “it” was. After being starred I got frustrated trying to construct the perfect joke, especially because I didn’t really know what that meant. In addition, many of the comments began to seem so archetypal that it appeared the same jokes were being made…just with different content. After awhile it seemed pointless. So I took a 6-month hiatus. This blog has given me a new perspective on deadspin commenting. I’m excited to get back into things and hopefully with some time (and possibly recreational drugs) I’ll become a worthwhile starred commenter.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This was helpful, thanks very much. Feedback is the best method of improvement, be it good feedback or bad feedback.

    I've read Deadspin since the inception, started paying real attention to the comments during the Barbaro saga (awesome), and only started commenting recently. Thus far it's been a humility sandwich with an exceedingly thin spread of good times.

    Thanks again, keep up the great work

    -Tanfastic

    ReplyDelete
  10. There have been some discussions lately about past comments that people still love, and as I've read through some, I've seen my old stuff from a couple of years ago, under my original commenting handle...and a lot of it made me cringe. It has taken time to get better and have a better understanding of what works and what doesn't. And still, a lot of what I think is funny doesn't always work.

    I've learned to try to be more selective, and shockingly, have used Cheese Mac's advice to type a joke, then look at it and really think if it's worth posting or not. Often it isn't and I do anyway, but that's just me. Although I've hit the cancel button a ton lately, compared to never in the past.

    As far as the elitist thing...that's just the East Coasters in the commentariat, not us on the West Coast.

    This was a great read.

    - Phintastic

    ReplyDelete
  11. A star on Deadspin seems nice, and it would be pretty cool to get one, but I get ridiculously excited even when one of my dopey jokes gets promoted so I'm content in unstarred land.

    ReplyDelete
  12. cheese-mac,
    Maybe my #2 point doesn't make any sense. I guess I was trying to make a point that stars increase popularity, which I guess is what they are supposed to do anyway. You're right, it's a way of pointing out this person does good work. I got caught up in my own circular, existential logic.
    My main point was that I was not trying to be offensive. And it prompted a very nice from MBA and other commenters.

    ReplyDelete
  13. What jumps out at me is just how inherently useful MBA is for those of us who, despite being featured, have not made "The Leap", as Bill Simmons puts it. I've been mentioned on this thing a grand total of twice. Once for probably the single funniest thing I've ever said on Deadspin, the other for a swing-and-a-miss where I made an effort to be funny and just flat-out whiffed on it. All the other times, I've been a utility infielder of sorts, good enough to play in the major leagues but never going to see the light of day in the All-Star Game. MBA keeps me on my toes---I know that if I blow a joke I'm going to get called out on it, so there is an extra layer of caution between me and my own sense of humor (in the whiff aforementioned, I broke the rule of "don't post what doesn't make you yourself laugh out loud").

    I've got a reliable jump shot (the comeback improvement joke), but I ain't a five-tool player. Thanks for being kind regardless.

    - SimuLord

    ReplyDelete
  14. +1. Great stuff.

    And to Anonymous, the Second, as someone who spends a fair amount of time chatting with other Spinners on Twitter, I have no idea where you're getting an "inner-circle" vibe from. It's the most friendly, informal atmosphere I can imagine.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I have to agree with IronMike about Twitter - I don't get that "inner circle" feeling at all from the Deadspinners who are on there. We very rarely talk about DS on Twitter - we mostly just make stupid jokes about our daily lives and then snark on whatever games/spelling bees happen to be on. The only time a DS comment gets referenced is if it mentions someone specifically and needs their attention.

    Twitter serves as an extension of Deadspin commenting, and for me - as someone who rarely comments outside of DUAN because I'm not funny - it's really more of a replacement.

    -PolkPanther

    ReplyDelete
  16. Iron Mike & Polk -
    Twitter is a great extension of Deadspin commenting. I'm just not in that extension. As stated above, I just don't get it. It is friendly, informal, and funny. I'm not.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Sorry you feel that way, since we're always encouraging more commenters to get on Twitter. Give it a shot, maybe. It's a shit ton of fun, my friend.

    -PolkPanther

    ReplyDelete
  18. Dude, you called it catty. It's the furthest thing from that (which you sort of seem to say now). I wish you well in your quest to find a serious establishment of appropriate decorum for the commentariat to gather.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Me-OW!

    Thanks for the craft and thought that you put into this and the other longform stuff, MS.

    The dailies are convenient and fun (and flattering), but the analysis is a conversation-starter.

    ReplyDelete
  20. DJ Jazzy Jeff WeaverJune 4, 2011 at 7:14 AM

    I'd just like to say that I couldn't disagree more w.r.t the whole catty/elitist thing.

    I started commenting like three months ago, and almost immediately, I felt warmly welcomed by the starred folks. I was surprised at how flat-out nice and encouraging everyone was.

    To MBA, thanks again for the recognition. I think the fact that I "get it" is simply due to the fact that I've been reading Deadspin literally since its inception but just recently decided to start commenting.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I totally agree about the whole "gets it"/"doesn't get it" dynamic. But I'd add a "sort of gets it" category in the middle, for unstarred commenters like me, who will probably average two or three promoted comments per day but have enough clunkers throughout the day to balance them out.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Just an addition, from one of those who we need to learn from:

    http://bobbybigwheel.tumblr.com/post/346551194/how-do-i-achieve-the-elusive-star-on-deadspin-i-have

    ReplyDelete
  23. Man, you are doing excellent work.
    Every mention is an honor. Recapping the day has become so much more streamlined and informative. I'm so glad I found you. Even if it was lurking in the bushes outside my trailer.

    -GC

    ReplyDelete
  24. That's a good of a contemporary version of the commentist manifesto as I think we're ever going to get.

    ReplyDelete