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 for a sincere expression of the parodied views. The original statement, by Nathan Poe, read:
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 on Christianity. The post was made during a debate on 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 online 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 2017, Wired published an article calling it "2017's Most Important Internet Phenomenon" and noting that "Poe's Law applies to more and more internet interactions". The article gave examples of cases involving 4chan and President Donald Trump's administration where there were deliberate ambiguities over whether something was serious or intended as a parody, where people were using Poe's Law as "a refuge" to camouflage beliefs that would otherwise be considered unacceptable.
- 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 1332169.
- 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)
- Ellis, Emma Grey (5 June 2017). "Can't take a joke? that's just Poe's law, 2017's most important internet phenomenon". Wired. Retrieved 21 May 2018.
- How to Tell a Joke on the Internet, The Atlantic