The problem with building a reputation on the internet is that character is defined by behavior, not by language, but on the internet all we have is language. Almost all of our interactions online are waged through language. That’s a problem, because as a species we tend to say that language is an inadequate guide to their character – that it’s deeds, not actions, that counts. We don’t have deeds online, really, so we get the performative aspect of online behavior that people are annoyed by. Take white people’s demonstration of their racial enlightment. Plenty of people have complained about the overt “I’m not a racist, really!” behavior of white people online. This is a function of being trapped in language as a medium of expression of one’s character. That’s particularly noticeable when it comes to race because of the very high stakes of your reputation in that regard, but it’s true of essentially any kind of self-definition online: being stuck in language leads to exaggerated performances of self. See, well, me and my abundant online pathologies.
I would argue that there are aspects of the performed self that are close to default in many online spaces, particularly Twitter. I believe that they produce instability that will, I hope, eventually kill the culture I’m talking about.
First, there’s the absolute rejection of sincerity of all kinds and at all times. Some people would deny that this is prevalent, but I don’t know how you can spend a day observing media Twitter without recognizing it as true. There are a lot of people who post dozens of tweets a day without a single one of them that allows for the sincere interpretation of its content, and in particular the emotional, human assumptions we would normally make about the expression as such. That is, for many online, every communication comes wrapped in codes that signal the speaker’s rejection of the emotions that we would normally assume come attached to that communication. Through a series of linguistic signals that are easier to recognize than to define, people let each other know that their tweets can’t be interpreted sincerely on the level of emotions. Sarcasm is not quite the right word, and neither is irony, and neither is snark, but it’d be hard to deny that this is one of the most obvious and universal markers of elite (high follower, high influence) online culture.
Second, there’s the privileging of savvy and knowingness above and beyond any other character trait that you might want to demonstrate to your audience. The most essential trait to demonstrate, in the culture I’m describing, is that everything that you are presented with is something that you have known about all along – something that you have a handle on. It’s not merely an attitude of competence and of being unthreatened, but of being bored by that which others might find novel, confusing, or intimidating. Everything that happens is something that you’ve already known about for some time, and you’re amazed that anyone could be surprised by it.
Third, there’s the default presumption of the correctness of a certain kind of politics, and political vocabulary, descended from the academic left. These politics are radical in their vocabulary, and in their (correct) assumptions of the entrenched and universal existence of social ills like racism and sexism, though they tend in practice to be much more concerned with social and linguistic expectations than with material or class analysis. (Again, trapped in language.) So these politics tend to be rather extreme on the descriptive end but rather inert on the prescriptive end; they’re the politics of critics, not of organizers. This political tendency interfaces with the knowingness tendency to create the basic communicative enforcement mechanism for these politics. It’s not merely that you should have a particular stance on particular political issues, but that you should have already known well enough to know what the correct stance is at the start of every controversy. Politics, in this culture, is analytically easy; every conflict has an obvious and correct stance that all good people assumed in the first place. It’s not just that you are on the right side, but that you can’t believe anyone didn’t already know the correct side at the very start of every debate.
Finally, there’s the insider tendency that both produces and is a product of these other tendencies. You are inside, and others are outside, of a circle of knowledge. People who perform the above tendencies are insiders who understand something fundamental; people who don’t are people who don’t understand. Crucially the presumption is that everyone would enact that performance if they only knew how. People aren’t assumed to reject these tendencies but merely to not understand that it’s been decided that this is the cool, savvy way to behave. Once you do demonstrate these tendencies, you can expect the typical benefits of insider status, which is the kind of social reinforcement you get when you enact the cultural rituals of these groups – in-jokes, political engagement, reinforcement of norms. That social reinforcement typically takes the form of the kinds of incentives that the internet has made quite explicit and quite quantitative, such as likes and favorites and retweets. Human beings tend to repeat behaviors that are rewarded, even if the rewards are cheap (think of how hard you try to get coins in Mario).
I don’t mean to imply that these tendencies are without their virtues. To begin with, oftentimes people really are quite funny in this mode. And Weird Twitter – which is much smaller than the phenomenon I’m describing here, but is a subculture within it, I think – has produced a lot of good art. Though they wouldn’t care for my blessing, some of the better Weird Twitter users really have found a novel form of artistic expression that is perfectly pitched to a unique technological and cultural moment. What’s more, while I am on the record with concerns about some aspects of this political style, there are definite advantages to making feminism, anti-racism, and similar the default political vocabulary of so many. As someone who is constitutionally unable to act in the register I’m describing in this post, I’m also someone who will inherently discount its virtues and play up its vices.
But from 30,000 feet, I think you can see some problems here. To begin with, there really are communicative problems that stem from the death of sincerity. Not emotional or psychic or spiritual problems, as many have identified, but communicative problems in the simplest sense of people not understanding what one another mean. Sincerity, it turns out, has a no-bullshit essential function to play in human communication; when you can’t ever really presume that the person you’re talking to sincerely means what they say, communication frequently fails on the most basic level: on the creation of mutual understanding. Last night someone sent me a piece of writing that he wanted me to look at, as happens fairly often. Unfortunately my campus’s archaic email system doesn’t let you know, on the cell phone interface, that an email has an attachment, so I just wrote “Tell me more!,” thinking he was just asking me if I was interested in chatting. Seeing that, he thought I had insulted him – that I was indicating a lack of interest instead of the precise opposite. Sure, that could happen anytime you’re dealing with a text medium. But I think the universal presumption of insincerity is causing more and more of these minor communications breakdowns, particular on Twitter where the communications are artificially limited in length.
There’s also some real emotional work that human beings have to do that just relies on conventionally sincere expression. I wrote an apology yesterday. It was necessary – apologies, after all, are things that you owe. I was immediately greeted with some “lols” about it on Twitter. I have no idea why; indeed some of the lolers were the people who were telling me to apologize in the first place. I think the kind of unardoned expression that’s required for a genuine, non-weaselly apology is simply taken for ridiculous these days. But sometimes, human beings have to apologize, or plead, or confess, or praise. Praise is a big one for these tensions. The oddest thing is when someone with a meticulously dry Twitter feed suddenly feels moved to praise something in a reverential way, whatever it might be. It sticks out like a sore thumb. Everybody’s entitled to some sarcastic remarks, but when you’re as relentless with them as many people are, it seems almost to degrade the very possibility of genuine expression.
Finally, there are some political problems that come from the frequent melding of social justice politics and these cultural tendencies. I’ve written about them at length, so I won’t rehash here. Again I don’t mean to deny that there are some virtues with making being cool and being socially liberal inextricable. I’ll just say that, as insider politics always are, these ways of political expression are much better at pulling in people already inclined to agree than they are to convince the unconvinced. Because of the preeminent virtue of knowingness – because you are meant to already know everything by the time you come to any discussion or controversy – it’s hard to know when teaching might happen. And besides, teaching always requires a certain unguarded exchange between teacher and student.
Things can change. I don’t think this way of engaging with the world ages well; most people, I’m presuming, don’t want to be saying “lol pigpoopballs lol” when they’re grandparents. There is certainly a sense, in our culture, that endless jokiness is something you grow up from, although the extension of adolescent culture into more and more of adult life is itself a much-discussed aspect of contemporary life. Parenthood would seem to instill a certain level of perpetual minor indignity and fear that makes it hard to maintain this level of studied insincerity. It really does strike me as a lot of work. Seems exhausting to me to have to curate yourself so meticulously.
I don’t know. Things like this often seem intractable until they suddenly change. It won’t come from cultural analysis. To the degree that an essay like this penetrates the environs of this culture, it will itself just be shared with a lol. The endurance of the permanently ironized life lies in the way that you can just turn that attitude back on critiques of it. I don’t know what it is, but between even the most accurate criticism of sarcastic engagement and sarcastic engagement itself, the latter always wins. Besides: insiderism requires outsiders against which to define itself, so every critical take provides the culture with the alternative it needs to sustain itself. lol meme lol gif lol lol.
Maybe the best thing to say is just that contemporary culture is complicated by a deep confusion about underdogs and bullies, that we can no longer identify insider or outsider easily, and that capital has undertaken a deliberate process of mystification about power. The linguistic and culture code I’m describing arose from an insurgent tendency, and indeed, those who use it do not occupy a seat of economic or political power. They have, instead, become part of a dominant cultural force that has been divided entirely from that base in material power. Capitalism has given us cool and kept power for itself, divorced the affect of resistance from actual resistance, and at this stage we have to merely remain alive to what is happening under our noses as we attempt to secure the inevitable next stage of human affairs.