For my project, I’m thinking about the prevalence of deliberate or (sometimes) ironic badness in discourse on the internet. By badness, I don’t mean being bad (like the cool kids in high school bad), but instead, the deliberate use of the appearance of rhetorical or cultural nonliteracy—things like deliberately transposing “your” and “you’re,” writing in all caps, spelling things idiosyncratically, “cartoonish” drawing techniques, and misidentifying cultural icons.
Importantly, I want to examine this broadly-defined internet-cultural practice in terms of its uses to signify things other than mockery of the “nonliterate.” There are rhetorical functions, and cultural meanings, assigned to these practices above and beyond their original signification of being a novice at internet communication—being a n00b or “bad at internets.” Many of these practices obviously started as internet users mocking novice users by imitation, but the practices have since moved beyond that easy sign-signifier relationship into something more mythicized or abstract, coming to carry meanings well beyond simply “badness.”
Anyone who’s been in a class with me (or within earshot in the office) knows my academic interest in “bad” texts, and this grows out of that interest. Why does the culture of the internet take up these rhetorical errors and reprocess them to mean something else? What does it mean that “badness” has become a necessary and influential rhetorical practice? What trends to we see in what the badness is supposed to express?
Why, in other words, would we be bad on purpose?
Take, as an example, the LOLCat meme—why do they spell poorly? Why do they rely on an archaic digital technology–WordArt and MSPaint—to the point where it becomes deliberately labor intensive (and later necessitates special software to emulate the limitations of the older stuff)? What are they expressing that can’t be expressed by other means? How does performed nonliteracy express internet-cultural literacy?
There are, of course, other examples—the Doge meme, using ALL CAPS WITHOUT PUNCTUATION TO SIGNIFY LIKE SUPER IRONY YOU GUYS, the “ALL THE [things]” meme and its strange artistic style. Why and how do these (intentionally) poor performances of internet composition express deeper meaning?
This is obviously far too big a project for 2000 words, but it’s an experiment (and a “why?” question), so I don’t think the objective is really to arrive at a set answer, but instead to examine ways of reading which don’t immediately assume “badness” is a marker of nonliteracy or a non-significant message (i.e. noise). There’s actually some scholarly work being done on this topic in other areas (traditionally ignored texts and literatures, for example), so there are some existing frameworks I can bring to the investigation, just to see how they work with the internet.
Bullet Point Version:
- Texts: Cat Memes, Other Memes, Famous Webcomics, a handful of Big Blogs (the ones that resemble traditional media in their readership patterns). There’s no shortage of materials to choose from.
- Key Question: Why is “bad discourse” on the internet used to express things other than nonliteracy? How do these things become imbued with secondary meanings and rhetorical functions?
- Format: I imagine a WordPress article, fairly traditional, in the genre widely used by Cracked.com (in a comic fashion)—an argument, with several examples, accompanied by images or short Youtube clips close reading those examples. Close reading “live” (i.e. in the Youtube clip) and in the text surrounding it permit compressed, digestible, and visually-reinforced conclusions suitable for fast, internet-style reading.
In a weird way, this is an argument that operates using traditional scholarly modes, so I’m not quite sure about the format. It’s in a gray area between a one-off essay and an ongoing project, so I’m not sure if it needs a WordPress to itself, or if it might just live as a web article. Thoughts? As my other blogs posts indicate, I still frequently struggle with scale.
I’m also struggling with a good term for “badness” that gets at what I’m talking about.
This argument also strays across a comp/rhet, historical, and cultural studies series of frameworks in a way that I anticipate might be hard to organize. Furthermore, as far as I know, it’s fairly difficult to trace the provenance of rhetorical practices on the internet, given the volume (and huge gaps) in history-keeping or archiving.