USA-YAHOO-MICROSOFT/A Yahoo! signs sits out front of their headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, February 1, 2008. Microsoft made a bid to buy Yahoo for $44.6 billion in cash and stock, seeking to join forces against Google in what would be the biggest Internet deal since the Time Warner-AOL merger. This logo has been updated and is no longer in use. REUTERS/Kimberly White (UNITED STATES)
"How Is Babby Formed?"
Perhaps no four words better sum up the legacy of the Yahoo Answers message board, which shut down Tuesday after 15 years. The once-mighty Yahoo, which Verizon is in the process of selling, said the site had declined in popularity.
At one point, surely, the message board was untinged by memeification. At some distant point, it must have been pure, a place where the curious would go to pose their most nagging of questions, from "How do I get someone to like me?" to "What's the meaning of life?"
Eventually, Yahoo Answers gained a following not from users who wanted to ask questions but from users who wanted to laugh at them - and became a key to understanding internet humor.
Its simplicity was the key. The boards weren't moderated the way today's social media platforms are and you could post questions anonymously, so mostly anything flew, which is how you'd end up with a question like "How Is Babby Formed?"
Did someone really want to know how a baby is made? Was it just a bit by an online comedian?
The answer is unknowable, but the post became internet legend.
It was one of the many absurd questions that would circulate online, in Facebook groups and subreddits, such as r/yahooanswers, which has 55,000 subscribers. It's a form of "lulz," which Ryan Milner, a media professor at the College of Charleston and author of "The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media," described as a "tendency in internet culture, this trollishiness, this laughing at other's people's expense with a kind of distant, ironic laughter."
"It's funny as this artifact, because I'm sure Yahoo didn't start this thing with the assumption that it would turn into this playground for lulz," Milner said. "So it makes sense Yahoo is shutting it down. When's the last time anyone got reliable information from Yahoo Answers?"
The forum became such a popular source of laughter that it helped power the popular podcast "My Brother, My Brother and Me," where brothers Tyler, Justin and Griffin McElroy would discuss some of the wilder posts.
Griffin said via email that he remembers not just "the profoundly weird things" people have asked but the ones that spark unlikely conversations.
"Case in point: I will never not think about the question in episode 448 where someone inquired why we don't eat fruit hot, because we eat spaghetti and pizza hot, and isn't that weird?" Griffin said. "And your gut instinct is to laugh at that ridiculous question, and then the depth of it develops as you swirl it around your brain like a fine wine. Like, why don't we eat hot grapes though? I've yet to find a satisfactory answer, because I'm not sure one exists.
"Also, it's possible that covering Yahoo Answers for over a decade has ruined my psyche, and that hot grapes are, objectively speaking, kind of a nonissue," he added.
Justin, on the other hand, likes "people with unusual interests trying to generate conversation about their specific passion. Such as 'What does David Spade mean to you?' or people in a really bad spot that they absolutely should not be relying on Yahoo Answers to get them out of, like, 'How to get Silly Putty out of bed sheets? I have made a terrible mistake.' I'm overthinking it, but I think people showing that kind of vulnerability to internet strangers is honestly kind of sweet."
That vulnerability also showcases another side of Yahoo Answers: Some people are genuinely seeking some sort of connection.
To that end, Justin said, "Every genuine answer ... is an act of service. There's really little motivation behind it other than wanting to help someone, to feel that sense that your lived experience has value to others."
That earnestness often clashes with the humor. Consider the viral YouTube video from 2016 titled "how is prangent formed," in which creator J.T. Sexkik attempts to pronounce all the various strange misspellings of the word "pregnant" found on the boards. They include "pegnat," "pragnet" and "pregante."
The laugh comes easy when you don't consider the fact that they may well have been - and probably were - posted by desperate people who didn't know where else to turn for answers. Maybe "Can u bleed while u are pergert?" was a sincere question asked by an extremely scared person.
That possibility, of course, makes the video considerably less amusing. On the other hand, maybe trolls wrote these questions to be, yes, "lulz."
This confusion is in keeping with Poe's Law, an internet culture maxim that suggests that parody and sincerity are indistinguishable online, because it's impossible to know the author's intent. In other words, it's not possible to know if the question "HOW DO I TURN OFF CAPLOCK?" is real. Maybe someone really couldn't type lowercase letters and was losing his mind, or maybe it's a joke post written specifically to go viral and poking fun at the ignorance of genuine questioners.
"A lot of that humor was very lulz-y in a sense, because the humor works by laughing at the nonstandard spelling, the nonstandard syntax, the lack of education. There's all kind of classist implications to the way that humor works," Milner said. "A lot of it was a punching-down type of humor."
Some of it, though, was merely ridiculous. Namely: How is babby formed? Many answers followed, but one stood among the rest and has lasted the test of time: "They need to do way instain mother> who kill thier babbys, becuse these babby cant fright back? It was on the news this mroing a mother in ar who had kill her three kids, they are taking the three babby back to new york too lady to rest. my pary are with the father who lost his chrilden ; i am truley sorry for your lots."
What's it mean? It may seem like a joke but is there a chance it's serious? Who knows? And maybe that's the whole point.