Remember that time Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize? #NotTheOnion
— Jon Henke (@JonHenke) June 10, 2013
“This Is Not The Onion” is a seemingly innocuous phrase that strikes such loathing into my heart that after I read it I want to punch a wall until I feel okay again. Even if you stop reading after this paragraph, please internalize at least this much: Stop. Comparing. Everything. To the fucking Onion.
As long as you’re a sentient being and you’ve been on the Internet in the last year, you probably don’t need to be clued in to what I’m over-complaining about. But just in case, here are a few recent-vintage examples of the odious phenomenon in question:
In Politico’s Playbook, Mike Allen prefaced a story about the lack of warning signs surrounding Dzhokhar Tsarnaev this way: “Not the Onion: College Friends Saw No Hint Of Trouble.” (Hilarious stuff, Mike!) There’s an entire Subreddit devoted to stories that are “not the Onion.” (Sample headlines: “GOP Congressman Uses Bible to Justify Punishing the Poor”; “Amanda Bynes in negotiations for a rap deal.”) Even the New York Times dropped it in an article about Cathie Black recently; Jim Dwyer wrote that unearthed correspondence between mayoral aides trying to salvage the tenure of Bloomberg’s erstwhile superintendent “read as it might have been lifted from The Onion, the satirical newspaper.”
Where “not the Onion” truly thrives, though, is on Twitter, where hackneyed phrases go to die a slow, repetitive death.
First of all, let’s get this key fact out of the way: none of the stories in question ever sound anything at all like The Onion, which, after all these years, remains unimpeachably hilarious — often imitated, never very well.
But “not the Onion” isn’t just about not being The Onion. It’s indicative of a larger problem we face as a society, which falls, in its level of seriousness, somewhere between “there are too many good TV shows now” and “irreversible climate change.” That problem is a dulling sameness of phraseology, a glib shorthand that has bloomed everywhere, but especially online, and especially on social media. If you hang around Twitter long enough, you’ll become alternately inured to and irritated by the grinding repetitiveness of a few stock phrases, which come at you like a Greek chorus of unoriginality. While much has been made of Twitter groupthink — the tendency to inflate the importance of your chosen hive-mind’s opinion at the expense of what the Real World actually thinks — just as pernicious is Twitter groupspeak: everyone tweeting the same goddamn horrible stupid empty phrases over and over again.
Two distinct types of cliche are currently poisoning our Twitter discourse. The first is all about exaggeration: blowing up the significance of the item you’re sharing with the world to unreasonable proportions. “Not the Onion” fits snugly into this box: “Check out this wacky story!” you’re telling your follower. “It’s so crazy!!” (Spoiler alert: It’s not so crazy. Christ, I just dropped “spoiler alert.” That might actually be worse than “not the Onion.”)
If you see something mildly surprising and want to let everyone else know that you’re surprised, the Twitter-groupspeak way to react is “Wow,” “Whoa,” or its gratingly misspelled offspring, “Woah.” (All of these usages popped up, like clockwork, as I was checking Twitter to avoid writing this article. A new variant is the simple “Oh,” preceding an objectionable retweet.)
Whoa. This smart helmet monitors cyclists’ vitals slate.me/10FB6nj
— Slate (@Slate) May 29, 2013
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) May 29, 2013
— OK! Magazine (@OK_Magazine) June 11, 2013
Spot a story that’s of interest to you and probably a few of your followers? Why not label it the dreaded “must-read”?
— Salon.com (@Salon) May 29, 2013
— TIME.com (@TIME) May 28, 2013
— Jeff Zeleny (@jeffzeleny) May 28, 2013
Look, there are wonderful things published on the Internet every day. But must-read? Is anything really a must-read other than, say, a stop sign? Maybe “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold”? No, probably not even that.
Perhaps most egregiously—if you want to label someone an irritant, just call them a “troll.” As Slate’s Farhad Manjoo has astutely observed, that word’s definition has slowly devolved from “an online troublemaker whose specific intent is to create havoc” to “someone on the Internet who disagrees with me,” or “someone who is merely seeking attention.” On Twitter, the word pops up roughly once every three seconds. It has spawned a new mini-catchphrase, “Now he/she’s just trolling us,” which means “Before, this person was being obnoxious, but now, they have stooped to the level of actual malignancy.” Like trolling itself, the phrase doesn’t actually mean much of anything.
he’s just trolling us now, right? is this burnt sienna? twitpic.com/cthjo5
— Bomani Jones (@bomani_jones) May 27, 2013
What is the purpose of all this amplification? For news organizations—and many of these examples come to you by way of their social media editors—it makes some sense; play up your headline, get some social media love. For individuals, it’s a little more complex. Certainly we’ve all become accustomed to overzealous call-to-action headlines everywhere (“This Skateboarding Fail WILL Make You Cry With Laughter”). Following that lead, we’re also willing to promise to entertain our followers and solidify our own important in the social media pecking order. These tics are often a way of imparting urgency to followers: to get the message across that your Twitter feed is important, essential, worth paying attention to—and, by the by, so are you.
Or maybe, Twitter is just full of really, truly enthusiastic people. (That would explain why roughly 77% of users label themselves as an “enthusiast” of something or other in their profiles.)
Most other Twitter clichés fit into another, less noticeable but equally irritating category: the hoary, unfunny catchphrase. These are played-out expressions seemingly meant to telegraph to the reader that the writer is a humorous person who understands jokes. (Though they’re most certainly not jokes themselves.) Like “not The Onion,” they aren’t specific to Twitter. They thrive there though, acting act as a sort of original-thought substitute, a way of saying something without actually saying something.
Take the phrase “I see what you did there.” It’s a standard way of acknowledging someone else’s cleverness that’s been around forever. It’s long been big on Twitter.
Or “stay classy,” which, nine years after it appeared in Anchorman, seems to show no signs of letting up as the default thing to say when a person or entity has disgusted you. (Anchorman 2 returns this holiday season, so, prepare.)
Or “well-played, sir” (a personal least-favorite of mine), which is usually a too-cute way of saying “you did something clever.”
Or that thing where people start tweets with “that thing where.” Or “shots fired.” Or “I can’t even with this” or “Too soon.” Or “serious question” to preface an obviously serious question. “Or apparently __ is a thing.” Or “pro tip.” Or “this is why we can’t have nice things.” Or “derp,” which recently ran into a much-deserved backlash. Or…well, I could go on for a while here.
(Oh: the latest craze, for some reason, is to begin your tweet with “in which,” as if you were a character in a 19th-century novel and this was one of your whimsical chapter headings. In Which this trend needs to stop now.)
In which, we learn “qeadzcwrsfxv1331” is an easy password to crack.arstechnica.com/security/2013/…
— NYT Bits Blog (@nytimesbits) May 28, 2013
In which Courtney Love offers advice to Amanda Bynes: bit.ly/1aw56Xd
— Jezebel (@Jezebel) May 28, 2013
In Which We Learn That The CIA Was Instrumental In Breaking The Swiss Bank Secrecy Code zerohedge.com/news/2013-06-0…
— zerohedge (@zerohedge) June 9, 2013
What the phrases all have in common is their flatness. They feign cleverness, but, as with their real-world cousins—like the sarcastic “Really??”—they have become so trite as to be rendered filler. Each is the eighth song on a Chumbawamba album.
It’s kind of like modern TV commercials. Since “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the British version of “The Office” made awkward-silence comedy broadly popular, roughly 60% of ads feature three beats of silence that go where the joke used to be. If I were going to pitch a commercial now, it’d be a guy walking into a room, and he’s holding a bag of Fritos or whatever, and then a guy in a Batman costume crashes through the ceiling and they stare at each other for ten seconds like “Whaaaat just happened??” THAT’S NOT A PUNCHLINE. But I think the ad people would go for it, because it has all the outward appearances of “comedy.”
And I think “comedy” is what this is all about. As Salon’s Alex Pareene wrote last November, Twitter has become a sort of Improv for the masses, where everyone has to prove their joke bona fides, even if there’s nothing particularly funny to say. A choice stock phrase allows you to do that without really exposing yourself, but it’s certainly not vital or interesting. While conversational puffery has no doubt been a scourge since the dawn of language, Twitter’s endless stream of opinions makes it particularly hard to take.
In the end, all these tics, no matter how silly, come at a cost. They amplify Twitter’s verbal echo chamber, and they also make everything feel, for lack of a better word, lamer. Far be it from me to subscribe to the “Twitter is ruining everything” crowd. And I don’t sign on with the “Twitter has been ruined” folks. Those pieces are tiresome and wrong. Twitter remains great in fundamental ways. But squelching the clamor to turn everything into a quasi-joke will help preserve the things that are fun about it ,and striking rotten groupthink habits from your writing—yes, even your tweet-writing—will serve you and—more importantly, me—best. Just try to remember the fundamentals: it’s probably not a must-read, it doesn’t sound like The Onion, and it’s not trolling. Woah.
Benjamin Hart is a front-page editor at The Huffington Post. Despite everything, he’d like it if you followed him on Twitter.