Where tech aligns

Nonsense, Nontent, and Nontroversy

Nonsense is serious business for social media.

I. The Bleeding Edge of Irony 

“There are two equal and eternal ways of looking at this twilight world of ours,” G.K. Chesteron wrote in his essay “A Defense of Nonsense,” “we may see it as the twilight of evening or the twilight of morning.” There is no twilight on Twitter. The laboratory lights of what Philip Agre calls the  “always-on world” has flattened the aspectual affects (and affectual aspects) of conversation. In his introduction to Frame Analysis, Bennet M. Berger writes of how Erving Goffman came to the act of speaking face-to-face as “one the last refuges of warmth in a bureaucratic winter.” Contra the seasonal metaphor, however, the final steps toward the bureaucratization of conversation have not taken place under the cover of darkness, but rather in broad daylight; born witness – to steal a line from J. G. Ballard’s Cocaine Nights – by “a billion balconies facing the sun.” 

On digital platte forms – the Middle French for “plateau” or “raised level surface” – the shade of the olive trees under which Plato practiced the Socratic method has become backlit and backfilled by the “memory-erasing white architecture” (stealing from Ballard again) of Google’s PageRank, Facebook’s EdgeRank, and Twitter’s anonymous software. By data mining the via media, Big Tech has left no stone unturned: a whitewashing of shadow, which has wreaked havoc on the human perception of depth.

In recent years, media scholar Nicholas Holm has noted that a “comic disposition” has become an emergent feature of online discourse, whereby the sustained exposure to deadpan humour has primed readers to “the joke,” even when there is no joke to get. It is “commedification” of the public sphere that Árpád Szakolczai has lamented, while Milan Kundera has lauded: “Comedy isn’t here simply to stay docilely in the drawer allotted to comedies, farces and entertainments, where ‘serious spirits’ would confine it.” 

Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, the Russian linguist Valentin Volosinov famously divided language into two stylistic poles: the “monologic” style, which is associated with the language of the ruling classes, and the “dialogic” style, which is “full of voices of other people, full of reported speech. The dialogic style infiltrates boundaries and blurs established genres.” Twitter has become a monology of dialogues, blurring established genres to such a degree that the differences between the monologic and dialogic style are no longer visible to the naked eye. Irony and its discontents have not gone anywhere, however, but everywhere. Twitter has flattened Irony’s Edge, but failed to stop the bleeding. 

Part II. Nonsense and Metcalfe’s Law

In Solzhenitsyn-esque fashion, the line between sense and nonsense has run through the heart of Twitter since the very beginning. The name is an amalgam of “twitch” and “jitter”: a pair of nonverbal behaviors, whose synaptic firing emanates from deep within the limbic system (from limbus, the Latin for “border” or “margin”). In 2009, the marketing firm Pear Analytic conducted a study of Twitter, whose conclusion found that tweets were “40% babble.” It was a new kind of business model, which Mark Simon of Ad Age magazine struggled to make sense of: “The amazing thing is that enough people out there think this mindless stream of ephemera (‘I’m eating a tangerine,’ ‘I’m waiting for a plane,’ ‘I want a Big Mac’) is interesting enough to serve as the basis for a viable advertising platform.” For Twitter, nonsense has always been a serious business.

On a digital platform where “content is not king,” however, the currency of conversation was destined to tend toward hyperinflation – specifically, to maximize and monetize the  network effects of Metcalfe’s Law: a law of social networking, which states that while the cost of a network grows linearly with the number of connections, the value of a network grows proportionally to the square of the number of users. In 2009, Twitter changed its prompt from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?”: a change that, according to linguist David Crystal, “signified a move from an ego to a reporting machine.” The reason, as stated by CEO Jack Dorsey: Twitter did rather well during disasters and elections. 

Midway through 2009, Tony La Russa sued Twitter over a parody account of the then-manager of the St. Louis Cardinals – legal action that prompted the platform to roll out the now (in)famous blue check of account verification. The fact that the bio read “Parodies are fun for everyone” was not enough to save the account. No longer the meeting place of what Dorsey had once celebrated as “inconsequential information,” Twitter had taken a turn for the empirical; the formal; the literal.

Part III. Nontent and Poe’s Law

Onstage in 1964, amidst the court readings of his comedy routines, comedian Lenny Bruce lamented the irrevocable loss of translation: “And the irony is, I have to go to court and defend his act!” . [Insert overused McLuhan quote here]. In the 1950s, Albert Mehrabian found that the conveyance of meaning was seven percent verbal (semantics, syntax, pragmatics), thirty-eight percent vocal (intonation, inflection, interjection) and fifty-five percent nonverbal (body language, eye contact, facial expression). On Twitter, the conveyance of meaning falls well below the seven percent mark, for pragmatics relies on the tacitness and tactfulness of context, largely absent in the online – to say nothing of the presence of bad actors. 

In a 2014 article for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson foreshadowed the “death of the homepage”: a mass migration from the front to the side doors of social media. Liberating, sure, but without institutional or generic guardrails, users are often left with no option to engage in acts of conjecture: filling in the holes and gaps with feats of interpretation and, oftentimes, imagination. “One can read most pages of the daily newspaper at a great rate, while watching a baseball game on TV,” writes Wayne C. Booth. “It is the virtue of irony –  perhaps its supreme moral justification – that it wakes men by punishing them for sleep.” 

It was during such moment of sleepiness, however, trolling through the comments section of Christian Forums, that Nathan Poe formulated one of most notorious laws of cyberspace: “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.” In 2012, The Onion garnered worldwide attention when Chinese media ran with a satirical article declaring North Korea’s Kim Jong-un the “sexiest man alive.” On the same landmass, meanwhile, despite the bannerhead that reads “Fake News You Can Trust,” The Babylon Bee has been repeatedly fact-checked by Snopes, Reuters, and others. When Snopes flagged-as-false a Bee article entitled “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News Before Publication,” the fact-checking outlet itself ran aground of nonsense.

Part IV. Nontroversy and Gresham’s Law

Though named after sixteenth-century financier Sir Thomas Gresham, who was the first to record the practice of “clipping” silver coins and passing them off at the same value, nineteenth-century economist Henry Dunning Macleod was the first to formulate Gresham’s Law: good money drives out bad. In short, whenever two types of currency circulate – gold and cash, for example –  people tend to hoard the gold (a currency of greater intrinsic value) and spend the cash (a currency of greater extrinsic utility). Soon after, thanks to network effects, only the bad money remains in circulation. “In our ironic twentieth-century version of Gresham’s law, information tends to drive knowledge out of circulation,” writes Daniel J. Boorstin. “The oldest, the established, the cumulative, is displaced by the most recent, the most problematic.” Throughout history, signal cost has served as a means of ensuring honesty. On Twitter, however, the cost of signaling falls to zero. Though Jeffrey Alexander and Bernhard Giesen have written about the “performative turn” in social science, social media have turned this science into an art form. 

In October of 2015, shortly after the casting of John Boyega (a British actor of Nigerian descent) in the forthcoming Star Wars sequel, #BoycottStarWarsVII began circulating on Twitter. Within hours, the boycott had become the top trend on Twitter, reaching the news desks of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. There was only one problem: the racist “movement” actually comprised of less than a dozen users. A few years later, #Operation O-KKK would explode as another controversy rooted in nothingness, which rose from the lows of 4chan to the heights of the the United States Senate. By loading an everyday symbol with racist undertones – one can twist the OK gesture into the WP of “white power” – a small troupe of trolls had, far too easily and effectively, run nonsense through the sense-making machinery of civil society, like diesel through a petrol engine.

Sirpa Leppänen and her colleagues have unpacked the phenomenon of entextualization, the sum of a pair of sequential processes: decontextualization – taking discourse material out of its context – and recontextualization – integrating and modifying this material so that it fits in a new context. On the likes of Twitter, context is not only liable to collapse, but liable to be collapsed. “There are issues with Twitter as a data provision machine,” writes media theorist Richard Rogers. “Twitter was conceived (by Dorsey and associates) as ephemeral.” On Twitter, nonsense and negativity bias do not pair well, for nonliteral language requires an element of good faith – especially when staring down the barrel of the network defects of social media. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: “A single joyless person is enough to create constant discouragement and cloudy skies for an entire household.” 

On Twitter, unfortunately, a good offense is often the best defense. “A mountain-climbing syndrome rules us,” Boorstin continues, pointing to the fact that when the choice is between climbing a mountain of information or reverting to the mean (in every sense of word), Gresham’s Law dictates that the latter will prevail. “Big nations consider themselves the masters of history and thus cannot but take history, and themselves, seriously. A small nation does not see history as its property and has a right not to take it seriously,” writes Kundera, speaking at the 1967 Czechoslovak Writers’ Congress – a few decades before the world-collapsing effects of Webs 1.0 and 2.0. On Twitter, thanks to the nonlinear dynamics of virality, even small accounts have become wrapped up in the bondage of seriousness. For even if one does not take oneself seriously, others can.

 Part V. The Blunt Force of Twitter

“Television used to point beyond itself,” wrote David Foster Wallace in 1993, lamenting the fact that legacy media and audiences had lost faith in one another. “A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.” In the twentieth century, audiences have come to view the new mediascape through canine eyes: head atilt, gaze unwavering, unwilling to be fooled thrice. “If a community or an entire society enters liminality, it is likely that imitative processes will suddenly escalate,” Szakolczai continues, touching upon the same mimetic tendency. “Everybody looks to ‘others’ for guidance.” When interpretative flexibility comes full circle, horseshoeing at the sender and receiver end, the various modes and modalities of discourse – personal, political, financial, comedic, ironic, idiotic, etc. cetera – all collapse under the weight of formalized informality (and vice versa). Something akin to an Andersonian end of theory occurs – an end of genre.

At this point, the Marxian concept of false consciousness (“they do not know what they are doing”) takes a Žižekian turn for cynical irony (“they know very well what they are doing, yet they can do nothing else”). To quote Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Twitter becomes the semantic playground of the “conformist majority, fully aware that the law of the powerful is bad, but bending to it because there’s nothing else to do.”

Unseriousness is not failed seriousness, however, no more than leisure is failed work. The funny pages, comedy clubs, late-night television. For much of the twentieth century, the line between sense and nonsense was clearly defined. Etymologically, alibi comes from the Latin amalgam of alius and ibi, which roughly translates as “someplace else.” Every society has created a space for the extramundane, where the benefit of the doubt is given, where deniability is plausible, where the letter of the law meets the spirit. 

By flooding the nooks and crannies of communication with white light, Twitter has collapsed content, category, and context onto a single plane: a unidimensionalization of discourse, to borrow the ugly phrasing of Felix Guattari, which has blurred the line between the bad logician, whose sense makes no sense, and the good comedian, whose nonsense makes sense. There are, however, many worlds of difference between the two, as Chesterton wrote:

So long as we regard a tree as an obvious thing, naturally and reasonably created for a giraffe to eat, we cannot properly wonder at it. It is when we consider it as a prodigious wave of the living soil sprawling up to the skies for no reason in particular that we take off our hats.

Lots more where that came from.