“On Twitter, though, that type of in-groupness is harder to come by, or at the very least more blurry; it’s one person tweeting to tens or hundreds or thousands of people they may or may not know, and attempts to foster the sense of an in-group can backfire. If I sarcastically tweet an enthusiastic endorsement for a presidential candidate, for example, I may want everyone who reads it to get the joke — my followers, in this case, are my in-group — but Poe’s law will inevitably do its thing. (Even so, there are ways to create that feeling of closeness: In Smith’s research, when people tweeted at one another, they were more likely to use sarcasm if their profiles showed that they had interests in common.)
Complicating these online interactions is the fact that in real life, we tend to use sarcasm differently with people we’re close to. Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School, last year co-authored a paperthat portrayed sarcasm as “a double-edged sword,” as he describes it: The study found that using sarcasm tended to boost people’s creativity, but it also tended to diminish the goodwill they felt toward whomever they were interacting with. The second effect had one notable exception: Sarcasm didn’t have the same negative effect on a relationship that was alreadystrong.
“When can sarcasm be successful without creating conflict? It’s when you have a high level of trust with someone,” he says — in those cases, a sarcastic statement, even though it’s negative, can make a point without coming off as hostile. But on social media, statements aren’t necessarily tailored to one specific audience with a specific level of familiarity — when you send a tweet, you’re sending it to friends and strangers alike, meaning the mitigating effect of closeness is often lost. Something intended as gentler sarcasm, in other words, may still come off as harsher thanintended.
But Hancock argues that sarcasm on social media may be less about relationships — connecting to, or shutting out, another person — than about presenting oneself in a certain light. It’s less a social act and more a performative one. “A lot of times there, you’re signaling from an identity point of view,” Hancock says. If you tweet a sarcastic comment about a celebrity, for example, “you’re identifying with people who don’t like, say, Kim Kardashian, and you’re making fun of people that do. So even when you’re doing it into the void, to some imagined audience, you can still be signaling whose side you’re on.”