Twitter Wit

Social media activity is frequently condemned by commentators for fostering an ‘instrumental mode of grasping the world as a collection of objects for control, consumption and accumulation’ (Schwarz 85) thus engendering an exploitative attitude to creativity and sociability. For Ori Schwartz for instance, ‘this exploitation of the present’ leads to ‘the constant search for valuable moments and events’ (84). It is this understanding of social media use as estrangement that explains Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai’s account of comedy as ‘an overarching tone of late capitalist sociability’, particularly evident in spaces such as Twitter, where ‘the demand for play and fun as good and necessary is everywhere inflecting what was once called alienation’ (237). Arguably, it is largely the transformation of lived experience into comedy (jokes, funny stories, or just irony) that makes it commodifiable.

In a recent article Richard Godwin notes the anxiety about internet use, but, in agreement with sociolinguist Gretchen McCulloch’s new book Because Internet: Understanding How Language Is Changing (Harvill Secker), he emphasises instead ‘the sheer range of textual innovation and expression that you can find on Tumblr or Twitter or even TikTok’, and applauds the linguistic agility of many social media users in eliciting ‘emotional responses with their writing’. Pondering that ‘distracted, defensive, eternally archived personhood that the internet seems to be creating’, Godwin is interested in one particular tranche, a ‘cutely depressed, archly overwhelmed, kill-me-now mode’ (he cites Darcie Wilder and Melissa Broder as exemplars) that has become something of a genre on Twitter. Being funny, or at least ironic, is crucial to its success.

While concerns about this demand for comedy are valid – and there’s little doubt it can be defensive, even dissociative, as well as instrumental – Godwin is right in arguing that we must also celebrate the results. I think ‘wit’ might be an important concept here: one which potentially shifts the dynamics of the discussion. What happens when we consider the communal expression on Tumblr or Twitter as constituting a moment of unparalleled collective wit? We associate the word with Restoration rakes and Oscar Wilde – glamorous figures in a remote past, but it is just as relevant today. Terry Eagleton’s excellent discussion of the concept in his recent book, Humour, perpetuates its association with ‘the English gentleman’ (with Wilde as ‘an ambitious outsider’ (128), but his analysis is equally useful in analysing more contemporary forms. (It is striking just how gendered Eagleton’s assumptions are, given Godwin’s suggestion that it is young women who are ‘among the most adept users of internet English’).  Eagleton writes: ‘[t]he wit or dandy aestheticises his life along with his language, lending it the point and polish of a classical tag, and as such is never entirely off-duty. He can never be heard to ask for the salt without couching his request in epigrammatic form (131).’ While the affective performances (the ‘emo’ quality of the ‘cutely depressed, archly overwhelmed, kill-me-now mode’) on social media is often very different to the insouciant posture and ‘permanent mild amusement’ evoked by Eagleton (131), it remains the case that the aestheticization and the craft he describes are key characteristics of many of today’s social media users. Our preoccupation with diagnosing and pathologizing our contemporary moment tends to obscure any correspondence with the cultural productions of the past, burnished as they are with the venerability and glamour of history.

Works cited:

Berlant, Lauren and Sianne Ngai, ‘Comedy Has Issues’. Comedy, an issue, special issue of Critical Inquiry, vol.43, no.2, 2017, pp.233-249. University of Chicago Press Journals,

Eagleton, Terry. Humour. New Haven: Yale, 2019.

Godwin, Richard, ‘How the internet is changing language as we know it (ikr lol)’, The Guardian, Fri 11 Oct 2019,

Schwarz, Ori, ‘The New Hunter-gatherers: Making Human Interaction Productive in the Network Society’, Theory, Culture & Society. 29. 2, 2012, pp.78-98

© Emma Sullivan 2019.

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