Twitter – and its relatives in the world of instantaneous electronic communication, such as SMS and Facebook – have altered human communication to such an extent as to invite comparison to the advent of the printing press. “Just as the printing press may have caused a neurological re-wiring after the fifteenth century, so too may the Internet in the twenty-first,” suggests Andrew G. Haldane, of the Bank of England, in a speech he gave earlier this year. “But this time technology’s impact may be less benign,” he adds.  Haldane cites the work of Nicholas Carr, whose famous book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” makes Haldane’s warning quite explicit: “[W]hat the net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation.” 
“Four green lights in a row. #blessed.”, tweets Aziz Ansari’s character in a recent episode of the popular TV show Parks and Recreation. Soon after, a new tweet appears on his feed: “Just hit a fire hydrant, but I survived. #Unbreakable.”
These tweets perhaps exemplify Twitter’s 160-character universe of electronic trivialities and truncated thoughts. They also, though, exhibit what, I claim, is a subtle and distinct brand of humor emerging within Twitter: the ironic and allusive use of the hashtag. We’ll see moreover that this humor finds a surprising parallel in the creative use of poetic allusion pioneered by the 1596 Chinese epic novel Chin P’ing Mei, or The Plum in the Golden Vase.
I’ll investigate and discuss these fascinating forms of humor.
Chin P’ing Mei
Chin P’ing Mei, translated by David Todd Roy as The Plum in the Golden Vase, is a fascinating work. First circulated in 1596 in the late Ming dynasty, the English translation comprises five volumes and well over 3,000 pages. Princeton University Press likens the work, in scope and quality, only to The Tale of Genji (written in Japan around 1010) and Don Quixote . The novel follows Hsi-men Ch’ing, an adulterous aspiring government official, as he philanders and manipulates his way through Ming dynasty Chinese society. Roy sees the novel as both a satire and a condemnation of the improprieties of the day. 
An analysis of Chin P’ing Mei’s literary themes is the subject of another essay, and I refer the reader to Roy’s excellent introduction to his authoritative translation.  What interests me most – aside from the novel’s vivid and often hilarious depictions of interpersonal interaction – is what Roy calls its “creative use of traditional formulaic material”. Narration, especially in these scenes of dialogue, often halts and gives way to lines of indented text – drawn from the popular poetry, songs, and sayings of the era – which complete, confirm, or attest to the truth of the topics at hand. From Roy’s introduction:
The spoken or unspoken thoughts of the characters are also often expressed in a complex mosaic of borrowed language, comprising proverbial sayings, catch phrases, stock epithets and couplets, quotations from earlier poetry and song, and formulaic language of all kinds inherited from the literary tale as well as traditional vernacular fiction and drama. 
These allusions “are, unfortunately, largely lost on the modern reader, even in China,” Roy concedes . (Roy’s comprehensive command of the cultural and poetic material of the era is no less astounding than the translation itself.)
I cite examples of these poetic allusions, presenting images taken from the Princeton University Press publication of the Roy translation:
A hashtag, in Twitter, is a word or string of text in a tweet preceded by a pound sign. (#example.) Twitter supports a feature by which the multitude of tweets that contain any particular hashtag can be viewed together on a single page, sometimes alongside related news, photos, and more. In each of these individual tweets, the tagged text becomes a hyperlink to this common feed.
Hashtags are used to connect an isolated, individual message to a broader social commonplace. In the sense that Tweets containing a particular hashtag are collected and listed together, this is true quite literally. More abstractly, using a hashtag connects an isolated idea to a larger, socially held idea. This latter function has become both popular and influential.
This latter practice occurs even when the electronic connection to the larger community is severed. In these situations, indeed, though no literal connection results, the gesture of connecting is made, and this gesture alone has a distinctive effect. A few observations attest to this phenomenon’s prevalence.
First, hashtags are used even in situations where identically tagged material is not being aggregated. Facebook users put hashtags in their statuses even before Facebook began tracking them, for example, and many even use hashtags in their texts. I once, for example, texted Josh the message “#childhood” together with a link to a memorable piece of classical music. Though the hashtag was not identified, the gesture of connecting was made, and it conveyed something.
Second, many hashtags feature material which is not in the public domain, and which has even perhaps been made up on the spot. Though these hashtags meet no preexisting larger idea, they, again, convey the gesture of having done so. “#DreamBig,” a Facebook friend concluded, after posting a story about an entertaining lucid dream. The phrase “Dream Big” is perhaps, vaguely at least, part of our common culture. But the content of another user’s clever response to this post – “#luciddreamsdocometrue” – is surely not. The comment was entertaining nonetheless, and its tongue-in-cheek hashtag was partly to thank.
This gesture of connecting to larger ideas will prove to be central.
Why is it funny?
These two practices – the Chin P’ing Mei’s “use of traditional formulaic material”, and Twitter users’ ironic use of hashtags – achieve strikingly similar results. They each serve to evoke a connection between isolated, local social circumstances on the one hand and larger public truisms on the other. They create unexpected connections between what we might call local and global. That’s why they’re funny.
It’s funny when cultural truisms are brought to bear on everyday situations. “This has been true all along,” the connection might suggest. “We’ve been here before.” When Chin P’ing Mei’s narrator writes, for example, that “Tai-an also had had more than enough to drink and no sooner closed his eyes than he became oblivious to: ‘Heaven above and earth below.’ (IV, 106),” we learn that even an episode as undignified as Tai-an’s drunkenness has a precedent in the poetic literature. The connection brings an amusing feeling of familiarity.
When the correspondence between local and global is indirect or absurd, moreover, the humor amplifies. “If I’d been married to [Wu Sung] I might have gotten by somehow or other,” pines P’an Chin-lien, the unhappy wife of the purportedly unattractive Wu the Elder. Describing her husband, P’an Chin-lien invokes a couplet, complaining, “He’s only: ‘Three parts human, and / Seven parts ghoul.’ (I, 32).” While the contextual environment of the quote’s original source is unclear – Roy includes an attribution, but no more – the quote’s absurdity, and the incongruity of its adaption to the task of describing the unfortunate Wu, make for hilarious reading.
These observations mirror the situation in Twitter, where cultural minutiae are brought to bear on incongruous or ridiculous situations. Aziz Ansari’s use of the vague, ironic remark “blessed” to describe a string of green lights is a fine example. So is his use of the equally vague cultural slogan “Unbreakable” to describe crashing into a fire hydrant. The gesture of connection from local to global generates this distinctive form of humor.
If these tweets had omitted merely the hashtag symbol, then their effect would have been different, and greatly diminished. This seems to present an obstacle to our theory. If attribution is our goal, then why do we need the hashtags at all? Analogously, why is the fact that Chin P’ing Mei’s attributions are so conspicuously attributions so central to the humor’s success? It’s hard to say.
Herein, I feel, lies the truest and deepest aspect of this phenomenon. The effectiveness of conspicuously connecting local to global, and its elusiveness, its evasion of our understanding, together point to the mystery of humor more broadly – a mystery that we, as we laugh, yet fail to understand.
- Andrew Haldane’s speech Growing Fast and Slow
- Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
- John Cassidy: “The Attention-Deficit-Disorder Economy”
- Princeton University Press’s information page on Chin P’ing Mei