“CAPSLOCK IS CRUISE CONTROL FOR COOL!!1ONE1!”: Performed Badness on the Internet

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?

Question CatTake, 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?

    Irony Spelling Man
    Notice how ornate this dude’s face is even though his body is cartoonishly badly drawn? Also, textual irony, lots of it.
  • 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.

9 thoughts on ““CAPSLOCK IS CRUISE CONTROL FOR COOL!!1ONE1!”: Performed Badness on the Internet”

  1. One, I think fun, source you could check out that’s about “Internet Linguistics” is this: http://the-toast.net/2013/11/20/yes-you-can-even/2/ It talks about this language more as a dialect that encourages flexibility in the written word – the “badness” becoming the most accurate and expressive way of writing. (And it’s funny.)

    I have to get back to grading papers at the moment, but will likely be back after tomorrow night to reply with actual thoughts.

  2. Michael,

    I love this project. I’m immediately reminded of the interest of both critical theorists and ESL teachers in “rotten” or “broken” English. You might run some searches with both terms.

    In terms of writing strategy, I think you might want to focus your work on the style of a particular meme—cats, doge, maybe even the use of all-caps. However much you narrow the focus, I think you’ll have plenty of examples of the deliberate use of “bad” English.

    As for format, figure our your materials and your question—we’ll get to that later.

    Full speed ahead!


    1. Oddly enough, I hadn’t thought much about the ESL “rotten” English thing, even though a lot of my pre-UD training was for teaching English as a language–it’s just now occurring to me how related these things might be, given critical theorists’ love of finding innovative problem-solving techniques buried within in ESL students’ apparent “badness.”

      My own ongoing professional soapbox runs that critical approach to texts in general (“all texts are literary [valuable] texts, there are no bad texts, only misread/mis-genred ones”), and I find the versatile manifestations of ALL CAPS to be one of the oldest and most interesting of the “badnesses” that play with what it means to be bad/deliberately bad.

  3. Michael,

    I’m really excited to see what you come up with. As Joe pointed out, I think there is a lot of interesting work you can do with scholarship on ESL writing. I’m not sure whether or not you’re familiar with comp research, but comppile.org is a good place to start.

    I do think you’ll have to worry about scale, but only because there is SO much badness on the internet. And although I don’t have a clarifying term for your use of “badness,” I do think figuring that out will help you get at the material that is most pertinent to your argument.

  4. Michael,

    Just floating some associations out here, but when I think of internet “bad discourse,” I am reminded of the “baby voices” that people occasionally use in human interaction. For me, the kind of “bad discourse” you’re discussing is tied into ideas of “new-ness” or maybe even “newb-ness” (lol), which is also tied into ideas of childishness or a kind of nostalgic playfulness.

    I have absolutely no evidence to back any of that up with but those are the kind of associations I have. Then again, the “bad discourse” of the internet IS a part of my childhood so maybe I’m reading my own history with it into the language.

  5. Michael–

    Considering many of our previous conversations, I am not at all surprised that you are taking this route–and I think it will be excellent. Like Caitlin, I’m sending you to The Toast with an additional article about “Doge” specifically: http://the-toast.net/2014/02/06/linguist-explains-grammar-doge-wow/. I still find this meme rather perplexing, mainly because, as the article points out, it has its own internalized grammar that does not really point to any external referent except its own “badness” and a few summary words.

    As of now, my main question for you is this: it seems like you are interested in memes particularly (though you do of course mention other iterations of “badness” on the internet), so is it too much of a stretch to start distinguishing “genres” (I know, fraught term, I’m sorry) of “badness”? In other words, is the deliberate “badness” of a Doge or LOLCat meme a different type than something like the deliberately bad blogs you mentioned? And, how, if at all, do these instances of performed badness relate to what can only be assumed to be genuinely bad online writing (like the infamous Harry Potter fanfic “My Immortal”–http://myimmortalrehost2.webs.com/ for the uninitiated)?

  6. “My Immortal”…one of these days I need to fit that into the “there are no bad texts” paradigm I carry around. Somehow.

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