Scroll Top

Gen-Z Humor and Absurdity: a misnomer


Illustration by Andrew Mazariegos-Ovalle 


Gen-Z humor has come to be defined by its absurdity. It delights or confuses, depending on what side of the divide you fall under. These divisions are not clearly delineated by age but rather by buying into patterns of Gen-Z humor creation that rely on increasingly layered jokes formed by algorithms. The absurdity of Gen-Z humor is an explanation that fails to look at the specific technological and social contexts that form it. Or put it in Gen-Z meme form, “You think you fell from the Coconut Tree? You exist in the context of everything that came before you and everything in which you exist.”


The algorithm developed as a trend in social media as Gen-Z matured. In the new internet age, the first interactions of Gen-Z with the internet as a sustained method of entertainment and communication exist within the framework of the algorithm. Algorithms have become increasingly targeted, started on Twitter and Vine with hashtags, and have now developed into the almost God-like TikTok algorithm. By allowing videos to use sounds to create trends that evolve upon each other, TikTok accelerated the layering of jokes and cultural artifacts started by earlier generations of social media in which trends and tropes too developed through musical motifs and visual indicators — think of men wearing towels on their head to represent women on vine or the Harlem Shake trend that you could predict the ending of as soon as you heard the first chord. 


Social media has transformed from a nexus of communication into a method of distributing information — serious and humorous. Long-form and short-form content of increasingly niche and layered content appear on the feed, giving it the appearance of a joint or shared experience. Part of the absurdity of Gen-Z humor comes from communicating the individualized interests formed and reinforced by algorithms. I can reference a meme with thousands of iterations to a friend and be met with utter confusion. Distance in consumed content and humor causes distance and can even sow distrust, “What do you mean you’re not on Donghua Jinlong TikTok?” We are all taken in by communities and niches that connect us to and make us illegible to outsiders. New verbs, nouns, facial expressions, and tones of voice come from these enclaves of social media that disrupt our traditional meaning-making, though without much impact on the larger society, remaining relegated mostly to their origins. 


An element of Gen-Z humor I would be remiss not to mention is the commodification and cannibalization of marginalized cultures, namely Black American culture. Many phrases and grammatical constructions from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) have been appropriated as “Gen-Z slang.” Examples include “periodt,” “finna,” and the popularization of the habitual be. All of these indicate the corrosive consumer culture of the algorithm age that treats all communities as existing in a shared network that can be taken up as a trend without considering the contexts in which they were formed and exist outside the internet. 


Other cultures, too, have been further commodified through the internet, notably “K-Culture” and Ball culture as embodied by Black Trans women, Drag Queens, and others who defy the gender binary. Content flows through Gen-Z without context until content creators insert it, leaving many to commodity and cannibalize material under a unified “Gen-Z slang/humor” modicum without care, erasing the originators of these trends in favor of creating a united, smoothed-over, whitened history of the Gen-Z vernacular. Falling back to the absurdity of Gen-Z humor fails to recognize how it too exists within systems of oppression that create and coopt cultures through anti-Blackness, orientalism, and heteropatriarchy. 


Constant continent consumption makes Gen-Z jokes fleeting. Constant attention is needed to keep up with trends, which evolve and layer with each new participant in a trend. As algorithms continue to untie and divide, we must question how Gen-Z humor can assist or limit collation building in an age of late-stage capitalism in which consumerism has reached such a frenzied pace that our references can grow irrelevant by the time they leave our mouths. “Do you think you fell out of a coconut tree?”

+ posts