Yesterday, in the Gothamist editors chat board, Ben Yakas posted a link to the following tweet:
This is definitely the deepest and most metaphysical question posed by NYC subway ticket machines pic.twitter.com/47mXKMvsma
— Tom Gara (@tomgara) March 23, 2016
Along with a suggested title, should we have chosen to blog it: "Existential Questions Posed By Traversing NYC."
Tom's tweet wasn't exactly a joke. It was more of a mordant observation—a clever take on one of the little details of NYC life that most people don't notice. It's not the kind of thing that would make you laugh, but people appreciate cleverness, and since Tuesday his Tweet has been liked and retweeted many thousands of times.
I pointed out to Ben that this joke had in fact been made many times before, going back to at least 2013, when the card machines were first altered to allow you to put both time and value on a single card (before that you had to have two cards if you wanted one that was unlimited and one that was not.)
Here's the first version I was able to find, from March 2013—but it's likely that other people had made similar jokes even earlier:
The way you can now "Add Time" to a Metrocard feels so existential.
— Anna Wahrman (@wahrman) March 8, 2013
The regeneration of obvious jokes is a common phenomenon on the Internet. Andy Baio, one of the longest running bloggers, wrote a whole essay about it last year, pointing out that in the age of Twitter, any joke or observation that's based on an experience shared by many people is very, very, very likely to be made multiple times, not due to plagiarism (which is of course still an issue, and explains some of the repeats), but simply due to a kind of Internet joke "multiple discovery": "the hypothesis that most scientific discoveries and inventions are made independently and more or less simultaneously by multiple scientists and inventors."
Twitter, along with other social networks, has commodified cleverness. In the old days, a joke like this might occur to many people, but the only one who would get credit for it was the stand-up comic who eventually used it in his act, or the TV writer who put it into a script. Now, we can trace the history of a joke over time, and it becomes crystal clear that being funny or clever is actually a very common skill.
This, of course, leads directly to the devaluation of the artistic act. It's not that all comics and TV writers will be put out of work all at once—there's still plenty of work required to make the right joke at the right time to the right audience—but increasingly, that is becoming a problem of search and discovery, instead of a problem of invention. That means more people can do it, and in any market where a lot of people can do something, the price that employers will pay will commensurately decrease... maybe not right away, but eventually.
This has already happened in a number of other creative fields that I myself practice, for instance, prose writing, or photography. The first reaction of practitioners in the field is incredulity that amateurs could ever produce the quality that the professionals do. That's soon replaced by anger, both at the amateurs and at the system that enables them, and finally, resignation, and a search for higher paying work elsewhere.
I would like to suggest another reaction, which is a commitment to overthrowing the tyrannical capitalist system that makes working people run ever faster to earn the same wages. Perhaps it is time for all creative comrades to stop struggling and realize they have joined the submerged working class, and to band together on that basis with other poor people to change the system which oppresses everyone. This could happen in many ways: artists and comedians could join the "Fight for 15" or "Black Lives Matter" struggles, or creative unions could throw their weight behind social democratic candidates for office, or TV writers could sneak in multiple plots about universal wage subsidies, for instance.
Think about that the next time you chuckle at a joke that you've seen before on Twitter!
NB.: It occurs to me one more skill the internet has commodified is thoughtful political essay writing on Internet phenomena... I wonder if an article on this very joke or something very similar has been written before! Let me know if it has.