Sounds like they played a useful part in their small communities, populated as it were with clashing egos, dark subterfuges, and much black magiks; all such pomposity needing the occasional puncturing of a fart joke.
Sounds like a wiki, no?
Note though that simply acting the fool wasn't enough -- they had to dress the fool. I suspect any other regular joe who acted the fool wasn't indulged so readily, and the outward accoutrements served as a signifier of license.
Therefore: for the role of fool to be played in an online community some recognisable signifier need be present, lest others think the fools behaviour acceptable and emulate it.
But: in the great equality of wiki, how does one bestow such signifiers without creating special accounts? Perhaps this is instead another anonymous personae, much like AnonymousDonor, WikiMaster, etc?
Perhaps taking this too seriously...
Court jesters only apply to serious, closed environments such as the courts of medieval aristocracies. After all, if there's humour to be found elsewhere, such as in a recreational forum, comic relief doesn't need a dedicated role.
Wikis or other websites aren't normally closed environments, nor are many so serious that they require a designated role such as a jester. Indeed, it would be very difficult to even find the individual designated as the patron to sponsor the jester. Maybe the owner of the site. What usually happens is some less-serious sub-stratum of the community supports a jester. This can be very destructive if the remaining portion of the community--perhaps those who have invested the most in the community--becomes annoyed with the constant stabs for attention a self-designated jester requires to satisfy him or herself emotionally.
The real answer is ensuring that the participants never become so serious that they lose their sense of humour. It's just not healthy to lose your sense of humour about a situation, and similary for a group of people to lose their collective humour about a situation. A team that laughs together, works together after all. -- SunirShah
Perhaps this is a case for not using real names? (see UseRealNamesDiscussion) Obvious pseudonyms could act as the fool's garb. It could also allow someone to play both roles at different times - having two personae, one which is taken seriously, and another which exists strictly for the purpose of being the fool. Having someone around who reminds people to lighten up can be invaluable. -- ErikDeBill
You're arguing for a DramaticIdentity, which is different than not using your real name. For instance, on a wiki RecentChanges would still show to the larger group who the person was, so the person remains accountable precisely because that person is using his or her real name in the larger context of the whole wiki. It's inexcusable to use a pseudonym to make fun of others because that isn't being a CourtJester. You lose the right to punch him in the face, so to speak. It's the balance and tension between excesses of speech that makes the CourtJester role function.
I would still avoid the willful construction of a CourtJester DramaticIdentity. That would take the sponteneity out of the joke, making it unfunny. If you have to call a joke a joke, it isn't funny. -- SunirShah
It might take the spontaneity out of the joke, but it also avoids misunderstandings. Like that article from the Onion that's been floating around in conservative christian circles talking about how Harry Potter has brought about a dramatic rise in satanism among elementary and middle schoolers. The Onion is a humor magazine, but some people need extra clues to catch satire.
Likewise, there's no need to archive every "that's what she said." joke - the purpose of the joke is generally momentary, to break up rising tensions before they get out of hand. Court scribes didn't take notes of what the court jesters said - that was reserved for the serious pronouncements of others at court. Likewise, if a person is known for piping in with jokes regularly, what they say in all seriousness will be tinged by that recollection. Having two separate personae avoids lessening the weight of more serious statements.
There is no reason that a wiki could not allow a person to have multiple identities pre-configured. A drop down where the "Your user name is foo" is now - with all the identities I have cookies for. I can fake the same thing now, by deleting my cookie and adding a new one. It's just less convenient, and MeatBall has an explicitly stated policy asking me not to.
Online communities are new and different mediums. Communication generally takes place asynchronously (although the ChatterBox on PerlMonks performs an interesting bridging function between synchronous and asynchronous). Jokes can't rely on spontaneity as much, because the timing cannot be part of the delivery. --ErikDeBill
"The Jester *enables coping* with the rapid change of pace of today's organizations. He delights by breaking rules and highlighting the absurdities in rules and regulations that can't keep pace."
-- Team Management Systems Online, Chris Patty, "The Court Jester as a Metaphor for Learning and Change" http://www.tms.com.au/tms12-1d.html
"The detached stance of the jester allows them to take the side of the people [chance] in order to curb the excesses of the system [design] -- without ever trying to overthrow it -- their purpose is not to replace one system with another, but to free us from the fetters of all systems."
-- Beatrice K. Otto, Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/640914.html