July 19, 2019

Single-Entendre Principles

It seems like a thousand years ago now, but I used to be an avid reader of Hipster Runoff, a blog about “alt” culture notable for its ambiguous, deadpan approach to language and tone. Here’s how Rob Walker described it in a 2010 New York Times article, about a conference at MIT devoted to “what is awesome on the Internet”: “HipsterRunoff frequently comments on Web culture in the texting-speak patois of an idiot-savant ‘author’ named Carles. It can be read as nihilistic, searingly critical or just sort of ROFL.”

I certainly agreed at the time and was sufficiently inspired by Hipster Runoff’s approach to write a blog called “Hipster Runoff Exegesis” in my downtime at work, where I would heavy-handedly deploy critical theory to decode the true meaning of Carles’s posts as they appeared. It may seem like this Hipster Runoff post is about witch house, but actually it is about the abject — that sort of thing. My idea was to have the unstable irony work in the opposite direction: Where Carles used the emergent memetic-discourse style of social media to satirize the myopic preoccupations of privileged white people (and profit by them), I would use the privileged, jargon-heavy discourse of academia to give the satire a further spin. I didn’t think too much about what I was trying to do or its implications; it just felt funny to me and gave me something to do besides scroll through Twitter at my desk. But it wasn’t clear even in my own mind whether I was mocking or celebrating the theoretical concepts I would arbitrarily draw on, or how I expected anyone to receive it. I just tried to write with momentum.

In retrospect, I think my approach — cryptic ad hoc theorizing as a serial stunt performance — was similar to how QAnon describes itself in a quote cited in Ethan Zuckerman’s recent essay about “radically participatory conspiracy”: “The QAnon Anonymous team considers QAnon to be ‘an improvisational game’ where the players compete, ‘looking for an interpretation that will go viral within the QAnon community.’” In my game, I’m pretty sure I was playing solitaire, but the idea was sort of the same: Write outlandish interpretations of events to entertain an imagined community of insiders. And if outsiders thought it was in earnest, so much the more hilarious.

None of that seems funny anymore. Trolling’s delineation of insiders and outsiders easily translated into a Schmittian demarcation of friends and enemies; unstable irony turned out to be less an avant-garde experiment in ambiguity and destabilized interpretive context and more a cloak of plausible denial for bigots. Preposterous theories circulated at scale could become ordinary propaganda, galvanizing a certain proportion of readers who were not in on the “joke” and goading them into reactionary violence.

In a short essay in Social Media + Society for its “Something I No Longer Believe” series, Whitney Phillips, a media studies scholar who has written extensively about trolling, describes her disillusionment with “internet culture” — i.e. the “internet Awesome” heralded in the 2010 MIT conference — and her sense of culpability for stoking the “fires of exclusionary laughter.” It is something to reread that Times piece about the ROFL Con, where “taking memes seriously” meant giving them a wider airing and legitimacy, and was not mainly a matter of acknowledging their capacity for inflicting harm. “ROFL, after all, is not a seductive theory about what enlightened things democratized culture may one day produce; it is a pervasive fact on the ground,” Walker wrote then. What seemed to have gone unrecognized was the fact that just because meme culture was participatory didn’t mean that it was or would ever be “democratized culture.” Rather, memes were an incipient form of capitalist culture; Walker points out that many at the conference were marketers and entrepreneurs. And it turned out that capitalist culture (as ever) trends away from democratization toward zero-sum attitudes toward attention and inclusion. Later in the article, Walker talks to 4chan founder Christopher Poole, who back then was a rising thinkfluencer on TED talk circuit: “As awful as /b/ can be, its lawless-seeming atmosphere has ‘fostered creativity,’ Poole insists; sometimes it’s when people are hidden away, unconcerned about their reputation or social identity, that they ‘say and do very interesting things.'” Yes, “interesting” is one way of putting it.

Phillips criticizes her own nostalgia for a time when memes supposedly weren’t racist and divisive but were just funny — a time that never actually existed. Memes were never innocent; they were always bellicose. Even in 2010, Walker cites Kenyatta Cheese, of Know Your Meme, as referring to “those unfluent in ROFL (or ‘our culture,’ as he called it) as ‘civilians.'” It was all right on the surface: Walker details how a viral video about a black man getting beat up by a white man on a bus became fodder for the full panoply of “irreverent” memes in all the then-current formulas. He notes that “the ‘for the lulz’ attitude can be more broadly thought of as a rationale for the idea that everything is worth making fun of, nothing should be taken seriously, not even a guy getting punched in the face until he bleeds.” It  speaks to Phillips’s point now that this observation leads not to a outright condemnation of the lulz mentality but to researcher Gabrielle Coleman’s framing of it then as a modern form of the folkloric trickster. Trolls then seemed more like hackers than fascists (which is not suggest those categories are in any way exclusive); their antagonistic humor was sometimes framed as subversive, pointed against a relatable enemy — corporations, conventional society, intellectual property holders, etc. — and the more disturbing forms of trolling were seen as extreme exceptions that somehow proved the rule.

Walker concludes by tentatively suggesting that maybe “what egalitarian cultural production really looks like” confronts us with unpleasant truths about the “hive mind’s id,” which gets closer to what feels more obvious now but still basically frames trolling as a learning experience meant for the people laughing and not those being laughed at. When I first read the piece, I could easily abstract away from the violence being discussed to consider what memes suggested about the media or the identity practices of people like me. Phillips describes “participants in these early internet culture spaces (which included but were not limited to “classic” subcultural trolling)” as “overwhelmingly white, middle class, and felt comfortable enough in their subject positions to respond to the world with a blanket ‘lol.’” That more or less describes me: I was free to make my own uninterpretable jokes because of my particular subject position, which could only contribute to reinforcing its hegemony, whether I thought I was or not. “Internet/meme culture … aligned with and reproduced the norms of whiteness, maleness, middle-classness, and the various tech/geek interests stereotypically associated with middle-class white dudes,” Phillips argues. “This was a particular culture of a particular demographic, who universalized their experiences on the internet as the internet, and their memes as what memes were.” This culture’s “distinctive esthetic — one that hinges on irony, remix, and absurd juxtaposition — has in many ways fused with mainstream popular culture,” she claims, bringing with it the normative standpoint of white maleness as well as the combative ethos of trolling and cruelty as sport.

As Phillips notes, defining “fun” this way has raised the cost of social participation for those targeted by derogatory and offensive memes; it also shifted “free speech” from a liberal ideal about the circulation of ideas to the right to silence others with rhetorical intimidation tactics. “Fun and funny and apparently harmless things have a way of obscuring weapons that privileged people cannot see, because they do not have to see them,” Phillips writes. Something similar can be said about surveillance technology — FaceApp can seem “fun” if you imagine that facial recognition is working to protect you and make your life more convenient, and that privacy is something that only people with something to hide worry about. Ring doorbells might seem like they are for “security” if you can’t imagine anyone using them to exclude or harass you. They are “weapons that privileged people can’t see” because they are too busy wielding them.

But I’d like to think it is an open question whether inscrutable irony can be used to “punch up” or whether satire can do more than comfort the cynical in their apathy. Nothing makes me roll my eyes harder than arguments for a “new sincerity” (which collapses anyway into camp or unstable irony, as in this post by Jesse Thorn that ostensibly champions it). Images like this seem to me self-refuting:

Okay, headband bro: please lecture me about being genuine. The “new sincerity” seems like empty wellness rhetoric in which disgruntled critics demand that other people be their “authentic selves” — a fundamentally impossible task that more than anything else ends up helping companies sell “authentic” goods and experiences and social media platforms harvest more labor from users strenuously posting to prove their integrity.

But it may be that deploying irony to afflict the comfortable, challenge power, stoke counterhegemonic resistance, or build solidarity among out groups are niche uses that have no safe place on platforms driven by the pursuit of scale and incentivized by metrics. Hipster Runoff presented itself as “a blog worth blogging about,” a joke about virality for its own sake. But that joke cuts both ways: Things can’t go ironically viral; they just go viral, and for ever more opportunistic reasons as they get bigger.

Irony depends on having some sense of the rhetorical situation you are participating in, but scalable platforms are about finding growth opportunities in adapting any content to any viable purpose, regardless of the original intention. The platforms’ feedback loops do not produce ironic recommendations. The links they forge and the audiences they build and the connections they make are driven entirely by a cold, positive logic of producing “engagement” in people who are by and large too disengaged to think all that hard about their own choices, let alone develop an ironic distance or satirical edge to them. Any contribution to that system for distributing content is an endorsement of that rationale of engagement at any cost, at anyone’s expense.