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Are We Living in an Age of Irony?

are-we-living-in-an-age-of-irony

Personal experience is a questionable thing, since by its very definition it is personal. Your own experience is not that of others, and the life you live is in its own way, unique. Investigating something like irony only doubles down on this: it is a phenomenon which is intrinsically linked with the rise of the internet as the cultural juggernaut and hegemon of our society, And yet even while it does of course reflect offline events, the internet is in a sense divorced from offline experience - witness the demarcation of "real" life to talk about the offline realm, separating online and offline "worlds" into dramatically different, and distinct, spheres. Not only is the internet divorced from "real life," but it is a fractured, Byzantine network. Where do you start in looking when one attempts to look at the culture of the internet. Is it networks like Facebook? Twitter? Instagram? Youtube? Whatsapp? Reddit? 4chan? Tumblr? Tik Tok? There are such a vast number of different sites, with different demographics, cultures, and etiquettes. Facebook is far more different from an imageboard such as 4chan, for most Facebook users at least, than it is from the offline world. To draw a general trend from this is hard.

But nevertheless I am convinced that there is a real change which has taken place in society which has shifted us, due to the presence of the internet, to one which is much more based on irony as a tool of social commentary, humor, and conversation, than it ever was before. This is not an eternal nor unchanging development, and technological and organizational changes are accelerating which very well may reverse the trends which led to this state of affairs. Different communities meet this at different rates, and some, such as 4chan, will always be à part from the rest of the internet, dramatically different from the vernacular, popular, mass-movement experience found elsewhere. But there is a more pronounced degree of irony on all of them compared to the offline world.

What is it about the internet and particularly the internet of sites like 4chan (although also found in communities on Youtube or Reddit), that makes them bastions of irony? The greatest element is anonymity. This is the key, central, mechanism of imageboards, although one can choose the same experience to a more limited, more difficultly attainable; degree, elsewhere. There is an inherent separation of a person on a site such as 4chan from the offline presence. Your name, unless purposefully altered and chosen, is simple - Anonymous. Your posts have no continuance. There is no way to assume, unless if you purposefully make it clear, that you are a poster who has written elsewhere. There is, above all else, no way to determine one status or offline persona - you can be anyone, from anywhere. Inherently, one's identity is delinked from whatever it is offline: one is only what one has to contribute to posting and the board, only one's complete anonymity.

Linked to this is the community which is formed - although community is perhaps the wrong word. Community originally was a term to denote a group of people living in a specific place. Thus a village is a community. A neighborhood is a community. Even the workers of a factory can be a community. Unlike these physically present communities, the online community is in no way linked to a geographic basis, and the community which develops has to generate its methods of excluding, including, and defining its members in entirely different ways - and most often doesn't. Sites like 4chan are marked by a combination of "old" users, the hardened veterans, and the drifting masses of new members, who have not been fully acculturated. The internet itself went through this back in 1993, the "Endless September," of Usenet. The sheer quantity of information, the rapid shifting of styles, the eternal impermanence of users - it creates a definite sense of unreality. And what trends do exist and are driven by acculturation only accelerate this: users have an incentive, to become accepted, to dive deeper and deeper into the divergent culture popular on imageboards, There is no mechanism to reign in the constant flight for the more bizarre, the more exceptional, the more purposefully estranged culture here - which purposefully separates itself from the "normies" found elsewhere, and which delights in flouting the rules of polite society. And as this develops, as meaning and conventionally understood rules become more and more divorced from what is common, irony has to develop to fill the void - because without regular standards and conventional structures, irony, which rejects them all and undermines everything, is the only available option.

Just as important is that online, the sheer amount of information available is incredibly incomprehensible. Things move extremely quickly and if you try to embrace it all, you get a degree of sensory overload: brain studies have shown that people who are online have lower scores for attention span, and more tendency to just click, managing the sheer amount of material in front of them by zooming through it. Related to this is that since you can never be completely sure of yourself, since things change so much, any really purposeful or sincere statement which is made on the broader internet can be attacked by a huge host of people or mercilessly shot down. The most attractive feature of irony is that it cannot be attacked. Irony itself makes fun of itself: it is not a constructive declaration, it is a deconstruction of something else.

Irony and Sarcasm

A careful distinction to make is the difference between sarcasm and irony. Both are heavily linked, and in many respects similar: humor based on distinguishing between reality and an alternative version of it, both relying on context, can be mistaken or not understood, and hinge on a contradiction between themselves and reality, and most often a contradiction in reality itself - be it for humor or argument.

But the distinction is present in that irony creates a different positionality for its wielder, while sarcasm is a form of objectivity, where the position of the person who is sarcastic still remains him. Consider the 2000 E-Trade advertisement during the superbowl, where they simple had a monkey and two men in a garage playing drums and clapping their hands, asking the watching how they would waste 2,000,000 dollars - a use of irony, a thoroughly bizarre situation. Sarcasm would have been pure self-flagellation, declaring the advertisement bad, but irony creates a bizarre scenario itself, requiring the positionality of creating an alternate world, and relying upon the contradiction of a company promoting good investment simultaneously flaunting itself seemingly wasting its money - but with the knowledge on the part of the watcher that it is in fact, highly effective. There is certainly sarcasm present online, plenty of self-flagellation and attacks, but the sense of detachment from everything else is the most important element.

The masked wojak is the ultimate figure of irony: putting a mask on to hide one's real emotions, projecting a persona.

The masked wojak is the ultimate figure of irony: putting a mask on to hide one's real emotions, projecting a persona.

Memes

The best example of memes and irony is Wojak. Wojak is a meme involving a cartoon of a starkly drawn, originally sad or wistful looking man, which has evolved into a massive number of different emotions, figures, expressions, genders, races, and placing Wojak into different events. But one of the most fascinating examples of this is Wojak when he has a mask on - the most common one being a mask of serenity or smugness, over rage or sadness internally. Irony is a tool of being able to project insincere and disconnected emotions and thoughts that do not match up with real, sincere beliefs - and what is more so than an external mask which hides beneath it the actual feelings of someone? Variations on this are endless, sadness over smugness, smugness over sadness, rage over calmness, different political affiliations hiding beliefs beneath, heroism over weakness - all of them can be portrayed, and are deeply bound up in a culture or irony.

Important to this genre of meme is that they are anonymous: memes such as Wojak and Pepe occasionally morph into famous people, but the vast majority of the time they are glyphs conveying ideas, thoughts, emotions, rather individuals; Endlessly repeatable and modifiable, decentralized, they, like other cultural productions, are both a sign of the reader and the creator, producing a distance through their anonymity. Masks are the highest form of this.

Political-Social Impact

Other examples of irony and its expression come through ways in which the world is referred to - such as living in "timelines." "We're living in the best timeline," or "we're living in the worst timeline," or "truly the strangest timeline" - all of these are said about the world, with at the heart a disassociation from a universal, single, truth. Apparently, it was partially popularized by the television show Communities. Often, it is paired to the idea of living in a "clown world," the concept that the planet is so insane, and bizarre, that it must inherently be some sort of post-reality space, with even a deliberate manipulation of the world hinted at. Much of this it seems came of age in 2016, famously the year of Trump, when the internet truly burst out and changed the world, the year of irony reaching the non-internet planet, when the expressions of "meme warfare," "weaponized autism," and the beginning of the classification of memes as inherently political expressions (such as Pepe the Frog being identified as a far-right hate symbol by the Southern Poverty Law Center or 4chan's prank to make the OK symbol a supposed white-nationalist signaling device).

More insidious, and perfects ultimately more important, is the effect that living in a world of irony has upon its denizens themselves. For irony inherently disconnects its wielder from reality, and functions as a coping mechanism. Irony and sarcasm are inherently deconstructive in that they deny that the world as we know it is real, absolute - that it is all some sort of illusion, joke, creation, and that they have a detachment from it all, seeing it from the outside. This prevents one from admiring the actual beauty and little things of life within.

Consider again, 4chan, to whom I have referred again and again. 4chan's ironic jokes and pranks are excellent at deconstructing reality, but attempts at translating this into a positive and constructivist movement, even such things as simple as meeting in person, have never gone well - are laughed at actually. Irony tears down; but it also prevents one from building up.

Furthermore, irony means that to a certain extent, one has to see, accept, understand, even adopt, the world view that one uses irony to engage with. An example sticks in my mind: a couple of weeks before writing my initial thoughts, as of March 2021, Reddit had a new subreddit created "Superstraight," declared to be a new sexual identity - attraction only to people born and still within their original sex, without sexual attraction to transsexual people. Superstraight was ironic, for the users who created it a way to parody the rise of multiple genders and sexual identities by creating one whose principles would clearly be objectionable to the people who proposed gender identities, but which adopted all of the language and the logic that they themselves had used. But it also meant inherently that there were sexual identities, and multiple genders - in a sense, it implied acceptance of the logic that the people who created it might critique.

The worst element of all is however, that it implies a passivity and even a hopelessness. Irony is acceptance, the creation of alternate realities, obfuscation, indirectness, not positive, constructive, action. There is a reason why traditionally in the Anglo-Saxon tradition which is part of the broader Western canon, youth are told to speak directly, why our society values honesty, straightforwardness, clarity. Irony is the opposite: its descent from the internet today is tied up in the results of anonymity and the indirectness of conversation. Irony detracts from the directness that forms regular, effective, face to face communication, and replaces it with its own logic of insincerity - to the misfortune of those raised on it, who have in effect a culture shock with offline society.

Consider other examples of the devaluation of forward, straight, honest language. "Unironically" is a phrase often used online on sites ranging from Reddit to Twitter, and it announces a statement which is supposed to be truthful - although of course, it is not necessarily so, and can itself still be ironic, a double-blind circumstance of irony. But this means that any statement made is inherently ironic: it declares that irony is the default, rather than the exception, that unless indicated otherwise, everything is ironic. It can be easy to let this attitude infect one off the internet, so that simple complements or phrases are not taken at face value, but assumed to be ironic, even an attack. The cruel other side of convention based entirely on irony is that nothing can be assumed to be serious and real.

The Internet Without irony

Much of this article has focused on the rise of irony, stemming from the internet. This is based upon an essential idea: anonymity, which creates a distance between the offline and online persona of an individual, and in this gap there is the possibility for a person to become increasingly ironic. The internet of the 2000s, and to some extent the internet of today in certain parts, was favorable to this, since it assumed a disconnect between the offline world and the online world, one where there was a distinct separation and the two did not cross. The internet could be an escape for many, a refuge, a different world - but it was distinctly removed from "real life." This has been changing for a long time, with sites like Twitter or Facebook where one one's real identity is conversely shown online, and where the two no longer have their separation. A Twitter profile will flash a whole list of identities and a biography - and the assumption is, that these are real, the same as what is found offline.

The Future of Irony

Back a few decades ago - I recall it as the early 2000s - the term "netizen" was much in vogue. There was an ideal that there would emerge a culture on the internet that was much akin to what we would view as the ideal of engaged citizenship offline: that they would seek to make the world a better place through the internet, that they would use it for good, that they would learn and explore with the internet, that they would engage with other people in debates and discussions that would promote a vision of the internet akin to idealized democratic society debates. And certainly there are many elements of this online, but at the same time the internet is far more a place for fun, and much more taken over by commercial and economic applications than as a political project. These political sides exist of course, but most Americans use the internet as a way to get access to videos, to consume memes, to watch movies, to listen to music, etc. The internet is far more disengaged and focuses on irony and humor rather than as the serious political project that these people intended it as.

This isn't to lament that this didn't happen, but rather to point out that I don't think anyone realized just what the internet would become. I remember reading that there were ideas that the internet would end forever hate, racism, ignorance, etc. - all of these bad things would be gone, because with such a flood of information online everyone would become enlightened and good people. Of course, nothing of the sort occurred: in fact the internet quickly showed many of the trends from offline society, with its tendency to creating smaller, fragmented, divided groups of people (echo chambers), and these people reinforcing each other and being very unwilling to play into this end of history perfectionist ideal.

Instead of the end of history as an inevitable, peaceful, harmonious, ascent, where everyone would simply ascend to be good citizens, it became another site of contestation - far more than before in fact, as can be shown by the intense social cleavages online. There are the good, properly-thinking, polite, enlightened groups that you can find who say and do the correct things, the guardians of social order (think the people in Human Resources, internet forum moderators, the professional persona presented on LinkedIn, etc.), and they are not ironic in nearly the same degree: rather their job is to police culture and ensure its obedience to the line. They may of course be sarcastic, but as the upholders of the correct social ideology, they aren't ironic in the same sense. Irony is something that is associated with them: when you think of irony on the internet it is deep fried memes and discussion boards, not management and the righteous defenders of virtue and decency. Irony is rather alien here: look at "correct" humor sites like Reddit's often mocked /r/politicalhumor and while there is lots of sarcasm, there is little detachment and irony. This isn't to split irony vs. non-irony into a simple say, left-right or liberal-conservative line like exists in the United States, but rather into the idea of orthodoxy and anti-orthodoxy - orthodoxy to whatever the establishment is, and its discontents.

Despite the change of internet culture, I don't think it likely that irony will vanish. Irony will conversely become further compartmentalized, more divided, to match a society which itself is facing up to massive and increasing contradictions between its ideals and realities with growing internal divisions - much like the Soviet Union during the final years. In particular, our society is based upon the idea of equality, but has massive and growing gaps between individuals, places, and communities, ranging from wealth, to happiness, to income, to power, to security. Equal opportunity, but where some people, particularly the denizens of the rich, prosperous, and dynamic coastlands and cities, have massively better prospects than the urban poor, the rust belt, and the rural regions. It promises equality and dignity for all, but vast swathes of the population feel ignored and left behind. It declares democracy as the highest form of government, but citizens feel deeply divided and dismissive of their leadership and institutions. The promise of constantly increasing living standards and prosperity for all is answered with actively declining standards of living for much of the population, in the face of stagnant wages and rising costs of living. So long as these contradictions exist, those who oppose them, end up on the wrong side, feel marginalized by them will use irony as a principal tool of contestation. But irony will harden along the lines of identity, politics, belonging, those discarded by those with polite and respectable views, and used principally by the discontent. Sarcasm will be the common inheritance of all, but irony will become a selective affectation.

Of course, this will be very useful for contesting whatever the truth of the day is, but it will be far less so in terms of actually generating change and effective results. Irony is again, deconstructive, and it doesn't create anything new - only undermine the established narrative of something. The most ironic sites, like 4chan, have been extremely effective at countering the established ideals of society, but notably unsuccessful at producing a viable alternative.

Defeating Irony

If irony is poisonous, above all else for those who use it, how can it be defeated? This is a harder task than simply saying "don't be ironic," although this might be what it boils down to when most simply expressed. Take things literally, instead of assuming that they always have a hidden meaning in them. Act straightforwardly. Engage in the same world view as others rather than fleeing into detachment from it all. Be Instead of being ironic, there needs to be a sense of genuineness, and a constructive creation of what alternatives are to society. Irony is useful at tearing down, but at the same time projects must be created of what can be done instead.

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