It's Not Just You — PowerPoints Are Having A Moment

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images.
Ahead of Lorde's April 6 concert in New Jersey, she had unknowingly angered a fan with tickets to the show: 26-year-old media strategist Hillary Dale Benton. Benton had grown increasingly suspicious of the singer's alleged "friendship" with producer Jack Antonoff. As Antonoff's relationship with longtime girlfriend Lena Dunham waned, the electric chemistry between the co-collaborators became impossible to ignore. By January, Dunham and Antonoff confirmed their split, and a month later, these photos of Lorde and Antonoff surfaced. All three parties have denied the love triangle rumors, but Benton wasn't satisfied. Was she really about to applaud someone who had possibly just ruined a five year relationship? To get to the bottom of this heartbreaking mystery and organize her theories, a determined Benton realized there was only one conceivable thing left to do: Create a PowerPoint presentation.
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"Lorde and Jack Antonoff — An Emotionally Broken Journey" began as a personal passion project, a righteous quest for the truth. The more Benton went looking for proof of an illicit affair between the "Green Light" singer and Bleachers frontman, the more evidence she found. Song lyrics (“I know about what you did and I want to scream the truth”) and fishy quotes from interviews (“We were very obsessed with each other,” Lorde said of Antonoff) culminated with a 27-page slideshow. Benton was so proud of her own handiwork that she shared it with various pop culture Facebook groups.
Photo: Hillary Benton.
Photo: Hillary Benton.
Within days, the exhaustive PowerPoint exploded on the Facebook group “Who Weekly” (an offshoot of a popular celebrity/comedy podcast) with over a thousand comments, migrated to Twitter with hundreds of retweets, and was eventually picked up by outlets like Mashable and The Daily Dot. It even made its way to the man who literally invented PowerPoint decades ago, Robert Gaskins. He confirmed to me that he did in fact see Benton's masterpiece, and that he thought it was "interesting to see the format used for such a purpose."
The key to this document's virality isn't just its gossipy content but Benton's brilliant, obsessive presentation style. The slideshow breaks down an overwhelming amount of information into easy-to-understand chunks, communicating intrigue, clues and, ahem, melodrama in a comically crazed tone throughout. Factoids she stumbled upon about Lorde — did you know she "recently participated in a birth"? — and a vendetta against Sonja Yelich (Lorde's mother, who Benton blames for enabling the entire sordid romance), combined with photos embellished by Benton’s own commentary keep it compelling. But it’s the use of PowerPoint itself that made this a memed phenomenon – and, somehow, even funnier.
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The last time I had to make a PowerPoint was in high school – I definitely created over at least 50 of them, including an exploration of the symbolism in Ethan Frome – and I couldn't wait to graduate and never ever have to make one again. But today, PowerPoint has come back to haunt me. Often. For those who, like me, spend too much time on the internet, we can't go more than a month without someone using the scholastic/corporate software for extremely extracurricular reasons. PowerPoints are popping up on Tinder profiles and being sent to first dates and providing fodder for various photoshopped-based memes. But it wasn't until Benton's PowerPoint broke the internet last month that I realized they've officially transitioned from the classroom and boardroom to the Garden of Earthly Delights that is modern pop culture — but why?
"I’ve thought about this a lot," says Eric Thurm, a New York City writer who, for the past six years, has been hosting a regular PowerPoint-based comedy show called Drunk Education. “I think there are a lot of different reasons for it.”
Thurm attributes the success of his shows, which began as a riff on TedTalks and consist of comedians, writers, and scholars getting drunk and presenting on topics like "the horniness of St. Augustine" to "the way teen girl organizers could have prevented the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire" to the brilliance of Carly Rae Jepsen. Since most audience members are "vaguely fluent" in Powerpoint, Thurm says, their expectations are subverted when they're presented with something totally ridiculous.
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"You are using the format to acknowledge that it’s funny by taking it seriously," Thurm explains.
Take this Facebook Live created by One More Thing podcast hosts Jaye Hunt and Robert Ackerman last year. For a full 40 minutes, the hosts of the pop culture podcast take viewers through an extensive PowerPoint outlining their conspiracy theory that actress-singer Lea Michele is illiterate. This presentation was so well-researched and convincing, in fact, the Glee star herself (who can read, by the way) had to respond to it.
Photo: Courtesy of Facebook.
One by one, these viral moments proved that there are no restrictions to PowerPoints. You don't have to be a teacher or a scholar or a business professional to make one. Once it became clear that you could make a PowerPoint about literally anything, they became capable of so much more than we originally thought.
It's no surprise then, that they have also found a home in comedy. In her most recent special for Netflix's The Standups, comic Aparna Nancherla used a PowerPoint initially titled "You Had Me At YOLO: A Tenuous Exploration of How Digital Language Exists in an Ever-Evolving Landscape."
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
It sounds boring, but that's the point. Nancherla's real beef is with the fact that Emoji families come in only one skin tone, and it's this contrast between PowerPoint expectation and PowerPoint reality that makes it funny. If we want to get theoretical about it *clicks to next slide*, it falls right into psychology professor Peter McGraw's benign violation theory — that something is funny when it violates the way we think it should work in a non-threatening way. Or, as Aristotle put it *next slide* "The secret to humor is surprise."
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Sachi Ezura, producer at The Rundown with Robin Thede, did something similar last October at The Scientists, a comedy show hosted by Blythe Roberson and Madelyn Freed. The theme was cancer (the disease), and Ezura came on stage with a PowerPoint all about Cancer (the astrological sign). Not only was the presentation funny because of her staged misunderstanding of the premise, but the techniques she used to make it.
"My favorite thing is inserting really dumb internet-y things like Crazy Frog or a shitty midi version of a song that you would've seen on a geocities page in like 1999," Ezura explained. "Also just spelling things wrong and placing things all over the page, it's kind of bad on purpose."
Thurm, who's seen countless PowerPoint performances over the years, has his own preferences.
"I’m very fond of the thing where you say something and you click and a different piece of text comes up behind you," he suggested, adding, "What does it look like to kind of mess around with timing on weird animations? Having stuff take a really long time or a lot of things happening really fast or a lot of really bizarre image transitions?"
In retrospect, we should have seen this coming. While we may have graduated from school, and the ubiquity of the TedTalk has somewhat diminished, the PowerPoint has always followed us in one form or another. Twitter threads, Snapchat stories, and Instagram stories all present information in the same chronological manner, and joke structures like the one in the American Chopper memes as well as Twitter's "open for a surprise" rely on the same mechanisms PowerPoints have always used to be effective. But in these instances, it’s shitposting. It’s trolling. It’s the people who grew up resenting the stilted presentations they had to make for history class taking back the power and repurposing it in a way that’s actually fun – albeit incredibly deranged. That is the joke. Please, Benton begs people who might show Lorde herself the damning PowerPoint: remember that it's all just a joke.
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"The experience of having to explain to my parents that I made a 27 page PowerPoint plus appendices about the fact Lorde and Jack Antonoff...are 'intimate' — and no I don't actually believe this is why Donald Trump is president, and yes that's it on Google can you stop Googling me I'm so sorry about the language — the whole thing has made a compelling case for the argument that we're all living in a simulation," Benton says. Honestly? Sounds like it would make a good PowerPoint.
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