The Badness Catalog is a hybrid digital essay and ongoing project (more on that in “Affordances”). The project argues, in essence, that writing on the internet, and particularly writing that at first appears to be “bad” (unconventional, grammatically erroneous, et cetera) is actually performing serious discursive work, and often takes on a deeper, symbolic meaning than its obvious features. In short, The Badness Catalog argues that meme-phrases (things like “I can’t even”) point to deeper meanings, often unique to life on the internet. Instead of reading them as degenerate writing performances (basically, instead of disciplining them as bad performances), we might read them as deliberate rhetorical or discursive choices, indicating a specific phenomenon or signaling membership in an online community. The Catalog takes a serious, but often humorous, look at these phrases and tries to illustrate how they can be used.
In my head, I began with my impatience for “Grammar Nazis” on the internet–particularly when those lexical fascists are so fixated on a prescriptivist use of the language that they ignore that new meaning is made in “mistakes” (also, incidentally, I was frustrated by how frequently incorrect the Grammar Nazis were). So I rallied to the defense of these “bad” phrases, because in using several of them, I began to realize they serve an important function–they often describe phenomena that are the result of life on the internet, like “I can’t even”‘s breathlessly dorky enthusiasm, or the flat, perhaps sardonic tonality expressed by a lack of punctuation in certain contexts. I drafted a brief manifesto (originally entitled “The Mission”) and began writing posts. I didn’t necessarily want people to read this in a linear fashion, especially since I fully intend on adding new posts frequently, compiling a sort of menagerie of internet phrases and the phenomena they signify.
In a strange way, I knew the politics of the mission before I really had people or scholars in mind. The site acts as a sort of public pedagogy–a resistance to prescriptivist grammarians and those who imagine a literacy crisis. It took quite a bit of soul-and-hard drive searching before I traced the genealogy of my sentiments back to an interaction between Min-Zhan Lu and a bunch of other comp/rhet scholars and my cultural-studies/postcolonial training, and so I re-wrote my mission statement (now the “Why Do This?” page) to be the scholarly manifesto of my project. The “What Is This?” page is the general population explanation, the PR release–the “Why Do This” page is the scholarly heart of the matter.
Incidentally, I coined what I thought was a new term, “multiliteracy,” but it turns out other scholars beat me to it–and thankfully, they meant almost exactly the same thing I did.
Affordances and Constraints:
Because I’m not exactly a pro at web design, I had to settle for a pre-made WordPress theme–and it’s a wonderful theme, but it imposes a bit of a linear structure on a nonlinear idea. Ultimately, I had to make certain affordance choices in order to present The Catalog as something that continues on–it’s not a one-off WordPress site, but an ongoing project. This meant that I had to really emphasize the new content, which meant moving the manifesto off the front page, since repeat readers don’t need to see that every time. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to hide it from new visitors–hence my constant anxiety about “Why Do This?”, which got moved, renamed, and rewritten half a dozen times, with infinite thanks to the Woodchucks for reading it more than once.
Right now, the biggest constraint I have is organizing my project according to the theme WordPress gives me, which means there’s a way of thinking built in to the site. I’m big on multiliteracy, and so that made me “have a sad,” to quote the LOLcat.
Not to mention the fact that I can’t change the font size. I kid you not.
What this form was wonderful with doing was treating and maintaining images–the format is .gif friendly, displays header images on posts without those images having to be in the post, and there’s not a lot of aggressive graphic design interfering with the presentation of the images. Embedding html elements gets a little wobbly, but WordPress and the theme I chose clings happily to practically anything visual. The form also allows a banner menu, footer elements (for categories) and categorical reorganization–meaning the reader can screen posts by category easily, helping with the whole nonlinear thing.