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By Omid Faramarzi


“Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s clinical depression”: Omid Faramarzi deep dives into what makes gen z humour so dark.

Gen z  - the post-millennial group of 1995-2012 babies - may just be the funniest generation alive. At least we are according to this article. We know how to write ironic, self-deprecating and multi-layered memes like no generation before us. However, with our humour breaking into the mainstream, some people outside our supposedly “Xanny”-loving set are starting to see this new wave of highly critical and often depressive online humour as cause for concern. Search on Google for “nihilism”, and gen z appear as a related topic. Search for “why is gen z...” and the autofill reads “...humour so dark”.


Where does this dark taste in humour come from? And, perhaps more importantly, should we be worried about it?


Firstly, let’s look at the biggest culprit for why us youngsters are acting so crudding-well kooky: the internet. 


The internet is a beautiful place. You have the knowledge of a collective hive-mind stretching from Timbuktu to Tyneside at your fingertips, and the stories of everyone in-between to bring you daily inspiration and fascination. The internet is also an abjectly disgusting, perverse and seriously troubled arena. It’s the place where you can find a plethora of dead baby jokes, weird shit like ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ , and all the delights of creepypasta. Keep in mind that this was the environment where many of us did a fair portion of our emotional development, where we formed our communication skills and learnt what was “normal”. 


Should we be surprised at this new radical surrealist approach to humour?


Others blame this humour’s existence on a collective anxiety, resulting from current affairs and the social pressures placed on our age group. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the nihilism of posts like this could be down to the sub-optimal state of the economy...


And that posts like this could easily have been influenced by literally anything Donald Trump has tweeted:


But if it is down to the effect of consistent bad news that gen z-ers like myself are waxing lyrical with a poisoned pen, then it would be worth taking a deeper look at just how bad the news has been for us. When you consider that anyone under the age of 25 did the majority of their growing up in a post-9/11 world, with all the joys of the credit crunch, subsequent global recessions, re-emergence of Arab-Israeli and N. Korean-American tensions, countless episodes of terrorism and national trauma, and the rise of nationalism to boot, then is it any surprise we’re so nihilistic? The fact is, we’ve been hearing nothing but bad news from as far back as we can remember. In times gone by you could turn the tv off and turn the newspaper over to escape the news, now we’re constantly connected now to the point where there is no escape. This brings me to the next stimulus for gen z humour that’s been causing a bit of a ruckus - mental health.


One trend that’s caused the most concern with some is that of young people making fun of their own mental ill health. Studies show that gen z are loneliest and most stressed out generation yet. While the posts we see might seem worrying, they could also be a sign of people learning to deal with their own problems through humour, and using social media as their canvas.    


This theory goes some way to explain the tendency for dark humour, but when we consider why memes have become the conduit for such jokes, things get a little complicated.


One thing that’s most striking about some of these posts, is their tendency towards a surreal and almost dadaist style - that is, a style that creates things that are decidedly anti-art yet still social commentary.


Megan Hoins for Medium hits the nail on the head in her article ‘“Neo-Dadaism”: Absurdist Humor and the Millennial Generation’ when she writes, “this generation is fueled (sic) by a similar desire to that of the Dadaists: to address the disillusionment of our generation in relation to all of the current events we are witnessing, particularly within the United States”. Reframing the existence of things like the ‘distracted boyfriend’ phenomena through this lens might help to give context to the absurdity of the humour; that it is in fact a form of rebellion.


What all of this shows, is that ‘meme cycles’ (a particular style of meme being re-shared in slightly different forms) create the impression that gen z humour is darker than it really is. The number one rule of comedy in days gone by was that you didn’t rip off another person’s joke, but as the Venn diagrams of meme culture and the desire to be always funny online have overlapped, this is exactly what has happened. In a given meme cycle you can see hundreds of posts on Twitter and Instagram that use the same format, the same sentence structure, and the same root of a joke you’d seen not three scrolls before, but all with one small variation. It could be a name, a pop culture reference, or even the introduction of a new patois, but each post is essentially an attempt of one-upmanship to the post that has precluded it. The result of this is that we wind up with hundreds, possibly thousands, of meme-based jokes that all look as if they come from a hive-mind. And if the joke is particularly dark, that paints a disturbing picture of the generation we have come to see as “accessibility natives”.

The last point I want to make is this - that it could be the function and nature of social media that makes this growth in dark humour so very prolific. We’ve known for a while now that gen z are prone to posting and deleting on Instagram and Twitter to try and curate the most likes. Social media is a platform to garner fame as much as any other - and one method of garnering this fame is through humour.


Far from being a cult, this proliferation of dark humour is indicative of a competitive culture in which the individual seeks to break away from the masses through fame and recognition.


We’re probably not following a serious attitude of darkness or even demonstrating a real response to a social context. In short, the kids are alright, they’re just over-dramatic and fame-hungry.

Image by author.

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