Poe's law is an adage of Internet culture stating that, without a clear indicator of the author's intent, it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views so obviously exaggerated that it cannot be mistaken by some readers or viewers as a sincere expression of the parodied views.
The original statement of the adage, by Nathan Poe, was:
Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won't mistake for the genuine article.
"Poe's law" is based on a comment written by Nathan Poe in 2005 on christianforums.com, an Internet forum about Christianity. The post was written in the context of a debate about creationism, where a previous poster had remarked to another user "Good thing you included the winky. Otherwise people might think you are serious". Poe then replied, "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won't mistake for the genuine article". The original statement of Poe's law referred specifically to creationism, but it has since been generalized to apply to any kind of fundamentalism or extremism.
In part, Poe was simply reiterating common advice about the need to clearly mark written sarcasm or parody (e.g. with a smiling or winking emoticon) to avoid confusion. As early as 1983, Jerry Schwarz, in a post on Usenet, wrote:
Avoid sarcasm and facetious remarks.
Without the voice inflection and body language of personal communication these are easily misinterpreted. A sideways smile, :-), has become widely accepted on the net as an indication that "I'm only kidding". If you submit a satiric item without this symbol, no matter how obvious the satire is to you, do not be surprised if people take it seriously.
In its original form, Poe's law referred only to Creationist beliefs and parodies thereof. Since then, the law has been expanded to include all forms of extreme beliefs and parodies or satire of them. It has also been observed[by whom?] that the more sincerely a reader holds a belief, the more likely they are to take a parody of that belief as a serious expression rather than as a parody. For example, the website LandoverBaptist.org (a website satirising extreme Christian beliefs, with such headlines as "Local Injuns Ordered to Stay Away From Thanksgiving Festivities" and "Pastor Instructs Women to Vote For Whomever Their Husband Tells Them to Vote For!") posts mail the site receives by those who take the site entirely seriously.
Poe's law has also been extended into the realm of politics. The website americaspeakingout.com, originally founded by the Republican Party in order to solicit citizen's input, was almost immediately inundated with extreme responses ranging from the anachronistic ("End child labor laws... [children] need to spend their youth in factories!") to the factually incorrect ("A 'teacher' told my child... that dolphins were mammals and not fish!... If it swims in the water, it is a FISH...".)
Numerous examples exist. Internet forums such as reddit claim observation of Poe's law in action quite often.
- Poe, Nathan (11 August 2005). "Big contradictions in the evolution theory, page 3". christianforums.com. Archived from the original on January 14, 2017. Retrieved January 14, 2017.
- Aikin, Scott F. (23 January 2009). "Poe's Law, Group Polarization, and the Epistemology of Online Religious Discourse". Social Science Research Network. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1332169. SSRN .
- Chivers, Tom (23 October 2009). "Internet rules and laws: the top 10, from Godwin to Poe". The Telegraph.: "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing."
- Harcoff, Pete (10 August 2005). "Big contradictions in the evolution theory". christianforums.com. Archived from the original on January 14, 2016. Retrieved January 14, 2016.
- "Emily Post for Usenet". Newsgroup: net.announce. 1 November 1983. (Emily Post)
- "Can't Take a Joke? That's Just Poe's Law, 2017's Most Important Internet Phenomenon". WIRED. Retrieved 2017-11-03.
- Harper, Christian. "Local Injuns Ordered to Stay Away From Thanksgiving Festivities". www.landoverbaptist.org. Retrieved 2017-11-03.
- ltd, americhrist. "Pastor Instructs Women to Vote For Whomever Their Husband Tells Them to Vote For!". www.landoverbaptist.org. Retrieved 2017-11-03.
- Harper, Christian. "LANDOVER BAPTIST READER MAIL FROM NOVEMBER 2011". www.landoverbaptist.org. Retrieved 2017-11-03.
- Benen, Steve (2010-05-26). "America Speaking Out, but not very well". Washington Monthly - Politics. Retrieved 2017-11-03.
- How to Tell a Joke on the Internet, The Atlantic