The reality and impact of online humor and sharing on social media for UAHS students.

By Sammy Bonasso, ’20, Josie Stewart, ’21 and Callia Peterson, ’20

Dec. 16——locked out of the boys bathroom where they planned to congregate, a group of predominantly male students gathered in the hallway, clutching battery-powered candles and phones. The group held an unconventional memorial for the late rap artist Jarad Anthony Higgins, known as Juice WRLD eight days after his unfortunate death.

Junior Brodie Milliken led his peers in hosting this wake in between fourth and fifth period by spreading the word through Snapchat stories and posters around the hallways reading “Candlelit Juice WRLD Vigil.” He seized the attention of individuals aware of Higgins’ death and students interested in receiving social media attention by filming the event. Multiple students shared Milliken’s posters and the cacophony of rap lyrics during the wake on the app Tik Tok.

Milliken said the app, for which users can view and make 15- to 60-second comedy and talent videos, was the driving force behind the event after seeing many other schools in America host similar events.

After this, he commissioned help from friends and spread the word over the course of a day to gather the massive crowd the following week.

While many Instagram and Snapchat stories from UAHS students conveyed how deeply saddened they were by Higgins’ death at 21 years old, Milliken took a not-so-unconventional route of making a joke from what others see as a tragedy.

“I’m very much aware that it’s not okay to joke about someone’s death, [but] through the internet, we have become completely numb to just about everything,” Milliken said.

“…through the internet, we have become completely numb to just about everything.”

Junior Brodie Milliken

Much of Generation Z, which is generally classified as those born between 1995 and 2015, has turned to irony in the face of devastating and dangerous events as an attempt to mask the grim reality of issues they cannot control: climate change, abortion, terrorism and death.

The line between tragedy and humor has been blurred for students and the use of irony in dark situations only continues to mask realities.

comedy’s consequences

In 2017, senior Caleb Thorne took to Snapchat after a gas-leak evacuation his sophomore year. He posted a picture of a gas can accompanied with the phrase, “Don’t come to school tomorrow,” trying to make light of the situation earlier that day.

That night, though, two students poured gas on the school making it seem as if Thorne had done it.

He was suspended afterwards and said that expulsion was also considered despite him not actually pouring gas on the building. With events like these, Thorne believes it can be hard to differentiate between jokes and threats because of the lack of seriousness among students his age.

“From my perspective, it was clearly meant as a joke,” Thorne said. “I guess from the perspective of the administration, it could be taken as a threat, but if they had done literally five minutes of research, they could see it was a meme and not actually a threat against the school.”

Jokes with these phrases are not uncommon, especially with memes even joking about school shootings. For Gen Z, these events have become something normalized for students and most feel they have no way to make an impact on the issue. Many turn to humor: For example, on Tik Tok, many use the song “Pumped Up Kicks,” which addresses mental illness and gun violence, for comedy.

Milliken said that jokes like these have become more ironic recently than in the past and get continually darker, but at their current state, they are still acceptable and humorous.

While they may be categorized as dark or offensive, a majority of Gen Z understands that it acts as more of a way to cope than something actually harmful.

“I think that sometimes when tragedy happens, people like to make it into humor, which I think is like a coping mechanism,” senior Clare Baryluk said.

History teacher David Griffin, who shares from a perspective outside of Gen Z, said that people occasionally forget the consequences on others for our own goals, while also failing to realize the desensitization of these actions.

“We become desensitized to things a little bit,” he said. “Violence in schools would be another thing with that, where we’ve become so desensitized to it that news of it doesn’t even sometimes make the front pages of whatever device you’re looking at news on or the newspaper if it physically comes to you. So maybe we don’t take tragedy seriously enough.”

With the same example, junior Elizabeth Lembach believes that the humor has started to cross the blurred line of tragedy and some events and effects should be taken more seriously by her own generation.

“I don’t want to [say], ‘No edgy humor,’ but at some point it does [cause] negative effects. It perpetuates stereotypes and making jokes about [something like] school shootings—we should not have that. It’s something that’s real, and that’s scary.”

Included in these continuations are derogatory terms and generic or negative stereotypes. Most students believe that it varies whether words with racial or negative implications are acceptable in certain jokes, while Lembach and Baryluk believe it depends on the race or identity of the person.

“For instance, a white person can’t say the n-word, but I think black people are able to say the n-word, because it’s sort of like reclaiming a word that’s been used against them for a very long time,” Baryluk said. “I don’t think white people should make offensive jokes towards black people, but I think black people can make that, if they want to.”

Often, these words are used in a way that do not relate to the context of a joke and in general, many Gen Z jokes have no inherent meaning or are meant to relay any actual information.

“I find [nonsensical, random ironic humor] funny. Does that make me a bad person?” Baryluk said. “[Our generation has] been given so much, you know? So much technology. The humor that my parents would’ve found funny when they sat at the TV 20 or 30 years ago, I don’t think is what I find funny when I sit at the TV right now.”

Meanwhile, Griffin said that he typically doesn’t understand memes that he encounters on Twitter.

“Oftentimes, [the memes] are so hyper-focused that I don’t sometimes understand the humor in them,” Griffin said. “I have to do a little bit of research to figure out what they’re conveying and learn a little bit about them.”

sea to shining sea

In the 2016 election, memes of Hillary Clinton, President Donald Trump and even Ken Bone, a man who simply asked a question at a presidential debate, filled almost every social media platform.

From previous presidential candidate Ted Cruz becoming the Zodiac Killer on Instagram to President Trump’s tweeted typo of “covfefe” becoming a trending hashtag, political situations and elections are not immune to what has now become “Gen-Z humor.”

In a recent trend on Tik Tok, President Trump’s impeachment, which sparked news outlets around the country to offer constant updates and opinions, led to the idea for creators on social apps to inquire why President Trump is “stuck in a peach.” Creators make jokes about gay conversion camps under Vice President Pence and create memes about all who died in 2019—with our president being at the top of this list.

These political takes are not uncommon, though, and even have been given labels by essayist and social change activist Andrew Boyd. According to The Guardian, Boyd coined the term “meme warfare,” meaning an “attempt to use shareable images and ideas in an effort to engender real political change” and “meme magic,” which refers more specifically to the 2016 election, being a “phenomenon which has helped vocalize and activate the more extreme wings of the Trump base.”

The names of these agendas may not be familiar to students, but the idea of actual change through humor is certainly recognizable among students, but Baryluk thinks that it doesn’t start change at the top.

“I really don’t think that Congress or the presidential office is pulling out their phones and looking at ‘we did surgery on a grape,’” Baryluk said. “I think they have more important things to worry about.”

Milliken said that memes or jokes about any situation impact reality whether intended or not.

Similarly, Lembach finds that living in UA can ask as a censor to real outcomes and masks students from realities that they have created with their own jokes, making a comparison to UAHS students joking about gang deaths and signs while few to no students here have dealt with this situation even though they are common outside of UA.

“There’s a lot of violence,” Baryluk said in concurrence. ‘I don’t think people realize how much violence there is in Columbus that we don’t experience at all to any degree.”

Disregarding political effects, there are obvious social effects that Lembach believes can be harmful when repeatedly posted on the internet for impressionable students to see.

Lembach said, “If you’re not exposed to reality, you just make this comical version of it.”

From an adult perspective, Griffin has seen comedians in the past make noticeable impacts in reality and conversations, which can apply now to comedians on stage and on the screen.

“Humor has been a controversial issue, pretty much ever since humor has been around. Comedians like Lenny Bruce, or comedians like, in the 1980s, when I was a kid growing up,” he said. “Humor pushes boundaries, and that’s kind of sometimes what humor is about: pushing those boundaries and making uncomfortable things that maybe we ought to be talking about.”

Mutually assured disparagement

Recently, jokes emerged about “World War III” on Tik Tok and Instagram after President Trump ordered American forces to kill an Iranian General, thus causing threats to the United States from Iran.

Although a war is not actually upon the nation, hashtags, videos and tweets about WWIII are posted to every platform enough to actually worry some students that a draft is impending.

“With my older brother, I can’t even talk about the WWIII memes at my house because he is so genuinely afraid of the draft that the jokes scare him because he’s 18,” Milliken said.  “Every other kid just makes jokes about the draft. It is scary, and it is becoming more and more real. It’s becoming scarier.”

Despite this, Milliken still believes that the conflict between Iran and the United States is appropriate to joke about at its current state, and even if it worsens, it won’t stop the internet from making more memes.

According to the news and past wars, history teacher Nate Palmer believes that people blew the potential conflict out of proportion, partly attributed to the jokes seen by students about the situation.

“The Vietnam War was the last time we had a draft, and it was incredibly unpopular. With that historical precedent, it would be challenging [to have a draft],” Palmer said. “I think that [the fear of WWIII] was probably a knee-jerk reaction that maybe was overplayed a little bit.”

Still, on Instagram alone, #WWIII currently has over 100,000 posts. On Tik Tok, the same hashtag has over 550 million views. While the conflict is less newsworthy now and the trend has started to die down on these platforms, there is always something new to take its place.

Right now, the tragedy being exploited for humor is the coronavirus, prompted by jokes about the popular beer, Corona, and the seemingly negative start to 2020 as the first two months come to a close.

Currently, #Corona has more than 300 million views of videos about the virus that originated in China. Especially in UA, these jokes have become real since the only known cases of the illness are in California, the Philippines, Massachusetts, Illinois, Arizona and Washington according to CBS News, while none have been confirmed in Ohio.


The entire investigation of modern humor is closely tied to a peripheral question: Has the internet molded a generation with completely idiosyncratic tastes and habits?

“Humor has gotten super ironic and dark. I really hope it doesn’t continue on this path because it could become very dark,” Milliken said. “Access to the internet has brought out really weird humor [from our generation].”

Like Milliken, many believe the edginess of Gen Z’s humor is unprecedented, but others acknowledge that comedy preferences shift with every coming age.

“There are some things that are always funny that are classic humor,” Griffin said. “But I also do observe that what we value and what we find funny from generation to generation changes.”

Milliken differs, however.

“In any tragic situation, most people would feel absolutely sad and devastated for something like that,” he said. “Now we have an entire generation that just thinks it’s funny.”