Understanding Gen Z: Post-ironic Humour
Updated: Feb 4
If you have been online lately, mainly to the areas of the internet populated by the youth of today such as TikTok or Instagram, you might be sat scratching your head at the type of humour that the younger generation, namely Gen Z, have developed.
It doesn’t seem to make sense nor rely on any traditional concept of humour, does it? Often featuring no set-up and very loose, obscure, and sometimes disturbing references.
It's also the likely reason why your targeted meme marketing flops every. Damn. Time.
Many marketing Guru’s often proclaim that they have discovered the ‘formula to virality’, and if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. However, there are certain ingredients you can sprinkle in to make sure that people respond to it.
Let us get something straight, we are writing this article because we have seen too many companies blast out a meme with all good intentions ready to watch it fly high, meanwhile, we look on knowing its terrible fate.
This is the first part of our series ‘Understanding Gen Z’ and arguably the most important lesson.
The cornerstone of Gen Z humour is in the evolution of Irony. So, let us get into it.
There are different levels of irony:
Pre-irony (0 layers)
Irony (1 layer)
Post-irony (2 layers)
Meta-irony (2 layers)
At layer 0 is sincerity or pre-irony, for irony to work it is imperative to know what the ‘sincere’ sentiment is. Satire and irony require a base of reality so that people can identify what is being subverted.
At layer 1 is irony as we all know it.
So, there are many types of basic irony, there's dramatic irony, where you know something as the reader that a character does not.
There’s situational irony where you expect something to occur but its subverted.
And verbal irony which we know as sarcasm.
Now, 1 layer of irony is what the older generations are steeped in, as a result, it is very ‘boomer’. If you examine the subreddit r/boomerhumour you can see how younger people find the fact that boomers find 1-layer irony funny, and that is, well, funny. (how ironic)
And this is where irony has mutated for the younger audience.
1 layer is simply not enough. Now to really understand Gen Z humour, we must explore the multiple layers of irony (and we are not even going to touch on hyper-irony.)
So, post irony could be described as ‘the return to sincerity from irony’.
Let us take ‘The Dab’ for example. If you are not familiar with Dabbing it was a dance move that became popular in 2015 with the rise of trap music from the southern states of America (Layer 0).
As the popularity of it grew it became a meme both offline and online. As such, it quickly became uncool and cringe-worthy in popular culture. As a result, people starting dabbing ironically (Layer 1).
Subsequently dabbing ironically became popular, but it had become so habitual that people continued to dab; this is now Post-ironic (Layer 2).
We can think of the layers of irony as layers of constructionism.
If layer 0 is a teapot.
Layer 1 is the dismantling of the pot or ‘breaking’ the norm.
Layer 2, the ‘post-ironic’, would be taking those parts and building something new.
And thus, we conclude with Meta-irony. This is very similar to post irony, but the foundations have faded. Post-irony mandates that the ‘truth’ be recognised and exists and takes you (the audience) through a journey of the layers of irony. However, Meta-Irony is more confused, the ‘truth’ is muddled.
The employer of Meta-irony does not know (or at least does not want you to know) what the sincere is, it is more a recognition of something than a comment on it. Ultimately, it exists only in reference to itself, it conveys no meaning.
The difference between each type is nicely represented here:
The Post/Meta-ironic is evolution, it is a coded reality for younger generations to camouflage in a time where they are more visible than ever.
Gen Z are born with social media; a categorical documentation of their entire lives. Older generations had the privilege of finding themselves and establishing an identity before proclaiming it to the world whereas Gen Z did not.
This complex webbing of irony allows them to morph and change whilst under observation, allowing them to push the boundaries of thought in a time where the scrutiny of public opinion weighs heavy in a cancel culture.
This may all seem confusing; it is meant to be. But not to us at WYSPR, if you want to crack the code and finally break through to your audience then visit our website at wyspr.co.uk or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I leave you with a few memes: