Tuesday, June 11th, 2013
53

Woah! It's Lame Twitter


"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.)

Spot a story that’s of interest to you and probably a few of your followers? Why not label it the dreaded "must-read"?

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.

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.)

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.

53 Comments / Post A Comment

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

"Like trolling itself, the phrase doesn’t actually mean much of anything." Trolling doesn't mean anything. Huh. Tell me again where you work?

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@dntsqzthchrmn Worldwide Sideboob Enterprises, Inc.

libmas (#231)

@dntsqzthchrmn Careful. He's got three grafs on "Huh." that he's been saving up for a special occasion.

lbf (#2,343)

You guys! I want to cram so many verbal tics into my comment right now 2: Electric Boogaloo. #heyladies

petey (#8,666)

Must Read has a friend called 'if you read/watch one thing today'. Better or worse? Less common?

This article could have just been "Everything you post on Twitter is annoying as shit."

(Follow me on Twitter you guys. ;))

I am actually fine with this article but everyone is guilty of at least one of those things.

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@antarctica starts here And the problem is, those things represent a kind of vernacular without which, given the 140 character constraint, everything on Twitter would sound like the most banal press release ever.

ericdeamer (#945)

@antarctica starts here I did the "not the Onion" thing this morning but I thought it truly was appropriate and was a headline that very specifically sounded like an Onion-style satirical headline, an NYT headline that read something like "Debate over secrecy will be difficult due to secrecy."

You sound like a very tired and overworked person. Have a beer and take the rest of the week off.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Ciarán Mc Mahon@twitter So, are you saying that "have a beer and take the rest of the week off" can't be used interchangeably with "well played, sir"? Do tell. It's almost as fascinating as learning how bees communicate.

VC (#244,673)

@Niko Bellic you think learning how bees communicate is not fascinating? are you for real or trolling?

This article is way too long.

nonvolleyball (#9,329)

@Gary Michael Porter I know, right? by like 8,953 characters.

Peter Feld (#79)

Great piece but short on institutional memory in places… "In which we" is the semi-ironically overused headline device of This Recording, which for some reason everyone on Tumblr decided to expropriate for themselves circa 2008-9 and it became a terrible cliche. It died out for a while. If it's cropped up suddenly on Twitter now it's because the nostalgia loops keep getting shorter.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

@Peter Feld That's pretty silly to think that everyone copied This Recording. Many people have used it semi-ironically over the years as a play on Victorian-era titling conventions. The one that I always think of when using it was Winnie-the-Pooh. But sure, yeah, This Recording, whatever.

Peter Feld (#79)

@petejayhawk I didn't mean to say it started with them – they were (are) being ironically Victorian to be sure. But I think the digital explosion of the term had a lot to do with their popularity on early Tumblr and incessant use of it.

ericdeamer (#945)

I get where you're coming from: we really should just all kill ourselves so all forms of human communication and interaction would just end. That way, we'd never have to worry if our style of online communication was clever and original enough to impress a dude who works for HuffPo. #smarttake #shotsfired #iseewhatyoudidthere #slatepitches #derp #trollsohard #facepalm

barnhouse (#1,326)

"Woah" is much more common in UK usage. (UK Received Pronunciation required the aspirated "wh", so it made sense not so long ago.)

lbf (#2,343)

@barnhouse Woah is me!

LondonLee (#922)

@lbf I'm a Brit and I've never said Woah/Whoa in my life. "Well, fuck me sideways" or "I'll go to the foot of our stairs" are more common expressions of surprise. Too many characters though, maybe?

Michael Roston (#3,418)

Where are the examples from the Huffington Post's Twitter feeds?

shostakobitch (#1,692)

I am tired of lazily communicating via dry farts, but wet farts are too much work!

Eric Spiegelman (#3,968)

Guys, what's with this trend of people answering the phone with "Hello?" It's like so overplayed.

@Eric Spiegelman Ironic "yello" FTW.

laurel (#4,035)

Couldn't this have been a slide show?

libmas (#231)

@laurel It's a listicle with commentary.

libmas (#231)

@laurel It's a listicle with commentary.

zaws (#244,658)

Well, sure, all snowclones will eventually become annoying if only by mere overuse, but also keep in mind that 10 years ago we ha

Mr. B (#10,093)

Glad to see putting periods between. Every. Word. For emphasis! Is still alive and well though.

Smitros (#5,315)

Tom Lehrer obviated the need for #NotTheOnion when he gave up parody after Henry Kissinger won teh Nobel Peace Prize.

@Smitros Urbane myth.

Mike Brown (#6,549)

I feel like this article is missing something.

Woah! It's Lame Twitter

jolie (#16)

Matt Cherette, Amy Sohn and Benjamin Hart walk into a bar …

GilbertPinson (#244,671)

"I don't sign on with the "Twitter has been ruined" folks."

That line pretty much negated your entire article. Do you really think you'll reach enough people (or that the people who read this will even care enough) to change the way they post on Twitter?

No one is forcing you to timewaste on Twitter in the first place. If you're really that sick of it, quit bitching. Just sign off and go read some Quora for more intelligent online discourse.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

For years, many Internet venues were plagued by people who thought the acme of discourse was the clever one-liner, theirs, of course, being not only clever, but wickedly, lethally clever. Most of these people were (and are) evidently not very bright. Twitter arose to give them a place to go and leave other more intelligent people alone to carry on real conversations, fights, trollings, etc. It's a great thing and we should all be grateful someone invented it.

Sean Curry (#3,481)

I would have read this, but I couldn't figure out how many reasons why you were sick of lame twitter, so I skipped it.

adidas (#14,359)

THIS. Just, this. (Kidding!)

hockeymom (#143)

Eh. I make so many legit, bad decisions during the day, I can't worry about twitter phraseology.

dado (#102)

#notjimanchower

lbf (#2,343)

@dado Now that you mention it, it has been a long time since you rapped at us.

Aatom (#74)

Well, that escalated quickly.

The Future is Here (#10,633)

I do think using "spoiler alert" as an of-the-moment idiom sort of retains a certain respectibility, as long as it's used with some irony, for example, to answer a rhetorical question with sarcastic emphasis: "Are people on Reddit as funny as they think they are? (Spoiler Alert: Nope.)"

anegativenancy (#244,694)

So you're bemoaning a lack of originality on a site that #encourages #rampant #hashtag #use #likeitsgoingoutofstyle? #ruserious #seriously #comeonnow

Sarcasm aside, if you're taking issue with something that is a consequence of the central features of Twitter, maybe it would be better to not be on Twitter?

nutmegger (#178,987)

Chumbawamba is maybe not the band you think they are?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chumbawamba

gussie (#244,711)

Well shut me up. As they say.

"I see what you did there" does not acknowledge cleverness, it acknowledges too-clever-by-half-ness.

dethbird (#244,773)

Oh man im totally guilty of turning everything into a quasi joke. But this is very true. I have an auto-filter for that kind of "hype" phraseology. Especially like on youtube. Most epic blah blah blah. I also hate "wait for it" – that one I hate in actual humans talking to each other.

jonnybeegoode (#244,775)

the problem with your article benjamin is when you mention "twitter discourse." unfortunately, you are wasting your time trying to pretend like twitter "discourse" is important at all; no one looks up to it as an inherently sophisticated/scholarly outlet of language.

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