Tag Archives: badness

The Badness Catalog

TBC Screenshot
Click This Image to Go There!


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.

My face when I couldn't change the font size.
My face when I couldn’t change the font size.

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.

URL: http://badnesscatalog.wordpress.com/

The Badness Catalog: Digital Essay Draft 1

Yo Woodchucks!

The Badness Catalog is basically live. (Click it to view.)

TBC Draft Screenshot


While you can read all about the project on the About page (general population) and The Mission page (academic audience), I’ve distilled the salient points here:

This site examines the way a key series of apparent “literacy errors”—errors of established language or custom practices—take on a new life on the internet. Instead of being failures of linguistic proficiency,  these apparent errors in digital discourse take on a metonymic role: they become stand-ins for other ideas altogether, the original apparent error erased and repurposed for new meaning. These “bad” practices—viewed in meatspace as mistakes—become markers of proficiency on the web.

The site focuses on those practices where the experienced writer knows that these behaviors are in violation of traditional literate convention, and uses these “bad” practices to signify in a new discourse community. The focus of this project is to elucidate how this “badness” signifies both meaning and membership: in the words of Michele Zappavigna (thanks Callie!) in Discourse of Twitter and Social Media, how this badness is both ideational and interpersonal, searchable (in that it reaches out to other instances of itself to create new meaning) and indicative of community.

There are basically two major arguments going on here:

  1. “badness” is more often an indication of an unwillingness (or unpreparedness) to read a text. In other words, badness on the internet  is not always the result of a mistake, but sometimes a marker of something other than expected being said.
  2. the process by which apparently bad textual performance is actually expressing something else is not new or unique to the internet. Communication depends on a panoply of external cues  and modes (multimodality) to make it legible–it’s simply that the internet has developed, as all cultural sites do, new cues and modes to suit its needs.


In its current state, the framework and scaffolding of the site are complete (the Readings page, notably, is empty as I haven’t yet compiled all my secondary material in one place). About 60% of the evidence/case studies/entries are fully posted at this point–the project will ultimately be longer than 2000 words and will likely not “end” with 685, as I have about a dozen catalog entries of various length planned. By the final submission deadline I plan to have about 10 entries. So keep in mind that while the site’s idea is complete, the project is ongoing and not all the “categories” have been filled out. In short, you could read it in its current state and probably get a very clear idea about the point–but I am going to add more stuff. The posts that exist right now should give you a good idea of what I’m doing–and I wanted to check in before I post more, in case something central isn’t working.


The tone is hard to capture here–I’m trying to do intellectual work, but I’m also not trying to crush the thing under the weight of complex prose, except where setup has made that viable. So really, there are three major areas of feedback I’d value:

  • are the entries answering the call I set out, as evidence that badness on the internet is often signficant/signifying? 
  • is the website organized in an easy, but nonlinear fashion? 
  • does it cite sources effectively? There aren’t many, but the affordances of the website make citation a tricky business.

A smaller, more specific question is: should I continue to put a sort of academic-style mission statement as the lead thing in the “The Mission” menu category? Right now it’s “hidden” in the master category itself–meaning you have to click on the words rather than click on an item in the drop-down menu. Should this be more prominent?

“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.