The Best YouTube Video is an occasional series where Motherboard searches for the best YouTube video ever made, usually on Friday afternoons right before the margarita alarm rings. Previously The Best YouTube Video: Matt 'Rockstar' Sikorski Audition.
You've probably fucked something up this week. But that's okay! I've fucked some stuff up this week too. We all do from time to time.
For as incredible as human beings are—I mean, shit, we built the Great Wall and microscopic volcanoes—we've all made a lot of mistakes along the way. It's an essential part of the human condition; you can't make an omelette without dropping some eggs on the floor, and you can't build a technological marvel of a society without some Chernobyls along the way.
As you may have noticed over the years, as you handed more and more of your life to the web, the internet—websites and netizens alike—have a particular fascination with the Fail Condition. "Guy Rides Goat Off Cliff ULTIMATE FAIL" will always get more salary-funding clicks and views than "Gal Successfully Does Something, Which Is Pretty Amazing Because at the End of the Day We're All Just a Collection of Atoms That Mysteriously Coalesced into Something Amazing." Why?
I believe the prevailing theory ties into an innate human affinity for schadenfreude, or the joy of laughing at other's suffering. A 2013 study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology found that kids are actually able to process the schadenfreude concept early in their lives, which was tied to their concept of morality. We love seeing the bad guy fail because he's being a shitbird, and we learn it at a young age.
It's a rather interesting thought, especially if we blow it up to the macro, societal level. Human success has largely been driven by our sociable nature—we're pretty lame bags of flesh, after all, at least compared to a tiger or some other apex predator—yet our willingness to work together is a delicate balancing act constantly on the edge of collapse.
The Richard Dawkins of the world love to argue that our genes program each of us to go out and get mine, and in a sense that's true. In general, we're all driven to find happiness and improve our station in life, even if our individual definitions of what each of those are vary widely. But even if we're completely selfish, it's obvious to many humans (bless our advanced intelligence) that working together can provide material, individual benefits.
The thing is, our associations are far more fluid than, say, a wolf pack. We're able to bounce in and out of teams to do different tasks, which makes us far more flexible and productive as a whole. This ability, which is like code-switching but for every facet of life, is the bedrock to our society, and what's helped us elevate beyond simple familial ties.
That's all well and great, yet even we humans are susceptible to an essential conundrum in animal behavior: How do you help someone out without getting cheated? Or, in blunt terms, if I'm going to scratch your back, how in the hell do I know you'll scratch mine?
These nodal maps show sharing relationships based on kinship and for the population at large (hosting network) in Tsimané tribes. Some nodes have far more sharing relationships than others. (Larger dots are larger families, green are youngest, red oldest.) Image: Hooper et. al
A 2013 study on beer-making by the Tsimané people of the Bolivian Amazon found that people willing to host gatherings to drink manioc beer—a time-consuming yet good vibe-inducing thing to make—were often quickly repaid in kind by guests. Still, the reciprocity wasn't perfect, which means some people might just prefer to host, or others repaid the kindess with other efforts, or some simply are moochers, which are hard to defend against, aside from not inviting them over again.
Which brings us back to schadenfreude: It's really hard to make a preemptive strike against cheaters and do-nothings, which might be why we get so much enjoyment out of seeing them fail, get called out, or otherwise have their day ruined.
It also would help explain why kids see other's fails, epic or otherwise, as tied into morality. If the idea that fails are funny when they happen to bad people is pervasive through society, then it can act as a check against bad behavior, like an endemic psycho-memetic cultural threat of being put in the proverbial stockade.
There's a limit to how much fail we can enjoy, however. In a fascinating book on schadenfreude and American media, author Amber Eliza Watts teased out the concept of fails in that great bastion of American culture: the reality show. Watts argues that schadenfreude is "integral to each narrative structure" of such nominally-positive, uplifting shows as Dancing with the Stars and American Idol, which, at the time of her writing, were the most popular shows in America.
But unlike other shows for which fail is the raison d'etre, those shows feature fail as a hook, as a sexy disaster sideshow to the main story, which is driven by a happier narrative. Again, it seems to tie into our essential views on schadenfreude and morality, and most people would rather have the good guy win out.
As Watts writes, "While schadenfreude is a universal emotion, it appears there limits to what the network audience will watch and enjoy. All of these shows [from a list of canceled shows, including an insane ABC show whose premise was letting white, middle-class families pass moral judgments on "alternative" families] appear to have crossed some moral line—whether they involved the nature of broadcasting elaborate hoaxes involving unwilling participants, exploiting unstable family relations, or using bigotry as the program's 'hook.'"
Even in fucking reality television, schadenfreude still acts as a moral compass, like a cosmic version of your mom pointing at a boorish drunk and saying "Don't ever be that guy," that we enjoy most when the fail feels righteous.
So if schadenfreude is a moralistic societal glue, why is it that online, where context is completely lacking for just about everything, we enjoy fails so much?
Take the video above: First, it's funny as hell. Second, a search through the web to try to find some backstory only resulted in the video being posted and reposted all over the place, and not once with any explanation as to who this runner is and why he had such a bad start. (This piece will continue that trend, unfortunately.)
The internet is kayfabe writ large, with our online society no more than a dramatized morality play about the regular-ass lives we actually live.
Clearly the video is popular as hell, and it's just a guy who either fucked up or got hosed. There's no evidence he's a jerk or anything that would justify our enjoyment. It's just funny, even it's purely us laughing at his bad day, and not us trying to hold civilization together with a fail-based justice system.
I think a lot of it has to do with how we treat our lives online. For as much as we've shifted our living environment into the web, we still don't treat online life as real life. It's the reason people spend their time trolling endlessly, the reason we tweet trash talk we'd never say in person, and the reason we comment on every article like Oscar from The Office. "Actually," we say online, backed up by knowledge we just scraped from a cursory reading of Wikipedia.
Basically, we still don't treat our lives online as real, even as they very much have become that way. Our social media and dating profiles are still highly-curated caricatures of our actual selves, and we all take the time to carefully craft our interactions to make us sound cooler, smarter, tougher, or less like we give a fuck than we actually do. The internet is kayfabe writ large, with our online society no more than a dramatized morality play about the regular-ass lives we actually live.
In that structure, which is built on fake roles we've built for ourselves, actual morality can bend to the will of our narrative. So the kid who smashes through a slide or the guy who gets a football to the nuts or the girl who falls over the railing is funny, not simply because we enjoy other's suffering, but because we're able to justify that suffering by saying—or typing, more likely—"Fuck that guy, he probably deserved it." (It's notable that the only comment on "Bad Start" reads simply "unlucky. what a deaf tosser.")
There are plenty of other examples of how this dramatized vision of morality plays out online, with the various polarized image macros popular on Reddit being an obvious example. No one gives a shit if Good Guy Greg or Scumbag Stacy are actually good or bad people in real life—although plenty of people will still make authoritatively unsubstantiated claims to any number of theories—because they're simply pawns in the faux-reality we're building for ourselves inside the most powerful invention humanity has ever developed. And so when we see some guy blow it at a track race, something he clearly is bummed about, we just laugh, because hey, that dickbag probably deserved it.