The internet is one big in-joke

Or, the occult hand and why you hate to see it

The internet is a series of tubes. It’s also a huge collection of in-jokes.

Every meme, every GIF, every entry on Urban Dictionary is something that some people get and most entirely miss, and that’s the whole point. Do you even lift? Too soon. Hate to see it. 

It brings to mind a famous line from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, in which the authors advise writers to avoid slang:

“If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better.”

On the internet, the quotation marks are hyperlinks — and without the blue underline, the reference becomes an in-joke. When the in-joke gets outed, every reader of The New York Times can join the select society of those who know You Hate to See It is the meme of the summer.

In a way, these memes are the evolution of in-jokes in traditional media. In the days of newsprint, bored editors and reporters would slip in all sorts of references that readers would totally miss. Malcolm Gladwell famously recounted Washington Post newsroom contests to slip specific phrases like “raises new and troubling questions” and “perverse and often baffling” into as many stories as possible. It can’t top The Order of The Occult Hand, though: A national, multi-decade campaign to use the gothic phrasing “It was as if an occult hand …” wherever the purple phrase could find purchase. The joke was that it “was slipped into copy to prove that one’s editors were unobservant and had no taste.” But at the same time, “it looked so good in print that no one noticed, not even — especially not — the editors.” And so the Order spread.

Is this surprising creativity, my hard-working definition of the word wit? Yes, but only to people in the know enough to be surprised — and then they’re all the more delighted because they can’t believe this joke is hiding in plain sight. It’s dog-whistle wit; there’d be no point if everyone could hear it.

Which is why the Wikipedia page Recurring Themes and In-Jokes in Private Eye and a similar page over at TVTropes are like an annotated explanation of a magician’s tricks. The British satirical magazine is the pinnacle of in-jokery, a publication built on a half-century of esoteric references. It’s a collective memory, a way to include all its readers in their select society, and a means to ensure that when embarrassing things happen to public figures, they are never, ever forgotten.

On those pages, you’ll learn how “discussing Ugandan affairs” became a euphemism for sex, why “a taxi driver writes” is a way to insert horrific opinions into the mouth of the common man, and that the final two entries of a good list should be “Er” and “That’s it.

Er, that’s it.


Quick quips; lightning

“Up to a point, Lord Copper.” — Evelyn Waugh

In his 1938 novel Scoop, the acerbic author (1903-1966) presents this classic way to enable your idiotic boss while subtly disagreeing with him. Does it work? Up to a point.

“Comment is free but facts are on expenses.” — Tom Stoppard

The British playwright (1937-) riffed on The Guardian’s famous tagline (in which facts are sacred) in his play Night and Day.

“Journalism consists of saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” — G.K. Chesterton

The larger point here from the British polymath (1874-1936) is that if no one even cares about the text, what difference does the subtext make?


Thanks for sampling the 94th issue of Get Wit Quick, the weekly compendium of ungettable jokes. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting is available in blue, black, and Australian editions. The series of tubes line is the original internet in-joke. All in-jokes need more people in them, so please share this newsletter with co-conspirators.