Poe's Law Explains a Lot About the Modern Internet

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 

Poe's law
It's hard to know when anyone online is joking. Is it serious, or is it satire? Thank goodness we have emojis. filo/Getty Images

Poe's law might not be as famous as Murphy's law, but it's something you probably encounter every time you log in to Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Medium — well most of the internet, these days really. This "law," which is more of an observation, has to do with the fact that it's so hard to know when anyone online is joking — or hiding behind a joke that's not at all funny.

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What Is Poe's Law?

It started with someone named Nathan Poe on a Christian forum in 2005. Poe's identity has never been confirmed, but they were apparently an agnostic engaging with some creationists about the origins of, well, everything.

But there were also people in the forum who were not creationists but were instead writing satirical posts about the origins of man and, well, also everything. The problem was that the satire was too good — so good, it became hard to tell which posts were sincerely defending creationism and which were just jokes.

That prompted Poe to write the comment that became forever known as Poe's law:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a creationist in such a way that someone won't mistake for the genuine article.

As we've all learned in the years since, this is a problem for most people on the internet, not just those who spar in creationist forums. It's what leads us to wish for a sarcasm font or even a consistent interpretation of emojis and punctuation online.

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Back in the early days of the internet, groups were small and siloed. Nobody would accidentally stumble across a particular creationist forum, so the people in that group knew the territory. They knew the posters and the terminology, and they had context for jokes and parodies.

As the internet grew — especially social media platforms — it was super easy for anyone to come across just about anything. Jokes and parodies were served to people outside the groups without context, and outside the groups, they did not look at all funny. Jokes could look offensive, or even believable.

At its worst, this leads to people posting hateful things and claiming they are just joking. But at its most benign, it makes people believe silly satirical articles and share them as truth. Just ask the former FIFA official who believed an article in The Onion about a (fake) 2015 World Cup being held in the United States after it lost its bid for the 2022 World Cup. Too bad the official didn't know The Onion is a site entirely based on satire. Maybe Nathan Poe works there.

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