Monday, March 11, 2013

Cracked and Online Information

They say there's more truth in comedy than tragedy.

Somehow, in our age of mass information in news, comedian Jon Stewart has emerged as the most trusted news anchor in our time, despite not being an actual news anchor.  His M.O. is to make light of politics in a humorous fashion. He approaches nonfictional discourse like other news sources, but Stewart uses his observations to point out humorous inconsistencies. Though there have been numerous charges of slant on Stewart's part, Stewart denies having any political ambitions. I guess if your underlying motives are purely for humor's sake, chances are people will trust you more.

Wait, this is all meta, isn't it? The joke is that people trust a comedian for news! Ha! Ha!

Something about that psychology towards comedy gives power towards comedic writing. Humor is non-threatening, but that does not mean that humor can't be challenging. It becomes an interesting platform where information can be disseminated, but people know better than to get defensive because they know that it's meant as humor.

How does this come through online? And what does it force us to consider? Let's look at the website Cracked for a guess at the answer.

Cracked is a humor magazine-turned-website with articles that range in discussion from history to pop culture to basic psychology. Their articles are typically written in the style of a digestible list, often with an eye-catching title like "5 Horrifying Additives You've Probably Eaten Today" or "5 Real Life Soldiers Who Make Rambo Look Like a Pussy".

You're drawn by the sensationalism of the article names and start reading. Suddenly, you discover the substance of Cracked - their material pulls from real information. Sometimes it's explicitly cited within the article, and sometimes it just needs a quick Google search to double-check its statements. The important point is that it's verifiable, because it draws its content from real events and information.

The website's format is set up in a way where, once you've finished with one article, you're greeted with four links to other articles, with their titles on display to catch your attention. So, you click on another article that sounds interesting. And then, another. Suddenly you've wasted an afternoon reading Cracked articles.

The layout of the website is brilliant, in that it keeps enticing you to read more. But they don't establish that allure from sensational titles alone. Because their articles' content is often substantial, the website tugs at our innate desire to learn new information.

Also, our innate desire for dick jokes.

And there's no shortage of breadth, either. You could be reading amateur social psychology one moment, and the sex lives of animals the next. There are many writers, and they collectively pool an assortment of facts about eye-catching topics. The common thread is that the crux of their humor appeals to your logos and ethos, as though someone took our previously-discussed paradigms of arguing online and used it for satire. This makes it easy to come away from an article feeling as though you've learned something new - as though you've gained something.

How far does Cracked's information disseminate? As of this writing, Alexa ranks it as among the top 1000 most viewed websites worldwide, and among the top 300 most viewed websites in the United States. In February of 2012 alone, the website received about 17 million unique visitors to their website.

Cracked has become to science, history, pop culture, etc what Jon Stewart has become to American politics. It has garnered a strange authoritative role, where we know that it is a humor website, but can still comfortably take its information to heart.

Except, the website isn't obligating itself to be a learning tool. It says that it's a humor website right on its slogan, front and center.

Does that destroy Cracked's edutainment value? No, not really. Nobody is deluding themselves about Cracked's status as a website. People know that the site's trying to be funny. Being skeptical about any substantial claims made on such a website is acceptable and encouraged - and verifying information on the website is an easy process.

Yet, because of this, Cracked must stay away from actively assuming a more serious role. Like Stewart's steadfast insistence that he is - and will be - nothing more than a comedian, Cracked does not attempt - and likely never will attempt - to command any further authority than a humor website should.

Is that squandered potential, or a necessary prerequisite to authority?

The lack of a platform that comes with humor gives the website an element of transparency and accessibility that most lecturers can only envy. But perhaps those virtues can only be found in the domain of humor, where the audience knows that the joker is harmless and cannot infringe on their sense of personal security. Perhaps that's an essential component in education - it cannot come from a source that can harm us.

Back to Stewart for a moment. Under the handle of a comedy show, Stewart makes no claims about personal authority, rendering all of his claims and statements on the show essentially without weight. You know up front that his words don't have a role in shaping issues that matter to you, so you have no reason to get defensive if he says something that you don't like. But, by doing so, you leave yourself open to absorbing more of his statements, since you'd probably be less guarded while listening to Stewart than you would to CNN or other news sites.

The same thing happens with Cracked. It is satire, and everybody knows that it's satire. Its articles don't actually matter in a greater scheme. By acknowledging this, you leave yourself more receptive to reading Cracked's articles, and you inadvertently allow yourself exposure to new and fascinating information. Contrast this to one's experience with Wikipedia, where one might frequently ask oneself "How much should I trust this?" while reading through a given article.

Seems legit.

Cracked tells you up front that it has no authority, and yet gains its authority through the standards of its content.

That's not to say that its content is perfect, of course. Some articles will directly challenge one another's claims (even if it is over a goofy thing like a zombie outbreak). Some articles do play it fast and loose with the source information for the sake of hilarious conclusions. But it is not a tragedy or "failing of the system" when these instances occur - because again, Cracked is satire. It's a win-win situation for the reader and for the website.

Psychology of humor and psychology of education may have more in common than we appreciate. Are there lessons to be learned from Cracked's popularity? If there's anything that news anchors could appreciably learn from Stewart, then there might be a thing or two that an educator could find worth studying about Cracked. It might be the non-threatening approach - after all, the authority that a teacher commands is an obvious component in the classroom setting. It might be the appeal to lowbrow universal humor. It might just be the presentation style of the information.

If a positive trend is being observed in a website like Cracked, then perhaps it's worth translating that trend to things that matter.

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