Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

“Why Post This?”: Boundary-Making in Humour (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Ailin (Zhi Wen) Li

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

The contours of humour are nuanced and when content deals with serious topics such as mental health, financial struggles, and poor academic achievement, it is difficult to understand how students decide what is or is not a funny meme. I will not attempt to provide a flowchart or categorization scheme for identifying humour in memes, as a concrete answer still largely eludes me. The purpose of my project was not to figure out how humour factored into the virality of a meme, either. Considering that memes are largely meant to inspire or induce laughter, though, I could not ignore the role humour and laughter played in shaping the interactions with memes and between members. In this blog post, I provide an illustration of how humour is negotiated when UofT Memes for Edgy Teens (UTMET) members come across a meme that borders on being unfunny or worthy of unlaughter.

This distinction between humour and laughter is key, and it is one made clearly by Dodds and Kirby (2013). They argue that “what we find funny is, to some extent, acquired” (2013, 51) and what is funny today may not be funny a week from now (or vice versa; what was unfunny yesterday because it was “too soon” to joke about might become funny tomorrow). One theory of humour, called disposition theory, asserts that “what is considered to be funny depends in large part upon prevailing social context, and what is thought to be acceptable or unacceptable” (Dodds & Kirby 2013, 52). I draw upon this theory of unlaughter in my article, but here I would like to provide one concrete example of how these tensions may manifest at times in the UTMET Facebook group.

One meme I came across during my observations suggests the idea of closely considering suicide, depicting a logarithmic function with a slope (“Me”) approaching the x-axis (“Suicide”; Two concerned commenters replied to the post, referring to mental health resources available at the university ( The language of this comment struck me, as the concern wasn’t directed towards the OP (original poster) but to “anyone seeing this.” That is, the concerned commenter is operating under the assumption that a meme about thoughts of suicide might actually be relevant to UTMET members, suggesting that a likely proportion of this group has suicidal thoughts or tendencies. This kind of interaction affirms that UTMET members operate under some kind of assumption that all memes posted in this group are relatable to some extent.

Yet, there is still a hesitation to believe the meme is completely serious, expressed by the commenter’s use of: “I realize this post is probably a joke” (emphasis added). While many memes in the group are highly exaggerated, it appears that memes such as ones dealing with suicide require too great a suspension of disbelief. The two members who commented on the post experienced boundary-heightening humour (Smith 2009)—rather than being amused by the content, these two members took the content of the meme more seriously and turned it into an opportunity to connect with individuals who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts.

In this instance, exaggerated humour was still provided the basis for a bonding experience, but through unlaughter. This example, and others mentioned in my article, reveal to me the delicate balance between what is funny and what is not when it comes to memes, and how both types of memes can serve a purpose. The exact mechanisms behind why specific memes are funny or not are still unknown to me, but it is clear that both funny and unfunny memes serve a purpose in creating bonding experiences for students.


Dodds, Klaus, and Philip Kirby. 2013. “It’s Not a Laughing Matter: Critical Geopolitics, Humour and Unlaughter.” Geopolitics 18: 45-59.

Smith, Moira. 2009. “Humor, Unlaughter, and Boundary Maintenance.” Journal of American Folklore 122 (484): 148-171.

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