Wrestling With ‘/s’

I’ve just learned a new bit of shorthand for internet communication: /s. As a fiction writer and nosy person generally, I like to read the comments that follow particularly controversial articles and opinion pieces in the news. When I started noticing the “/s” following a number of these comments, I looked it up. Apparently “/s,” or the sarcasm switch, began with the XML closing tag </sarcasm>, always used after the statement so as to trick the reader before admitting the “joke.”  Other terms and marks have prevailed, both recently and in earlier eras —

the percontation point or reversed question mark
<< (sarcasm, look left)
:/ (crooked smile)
LOLZ (laugh out loud with sarcasm)
SNH (sarcasm noted here)
Fe (the symbol for iron, denoting irony)

But “/s” is the one that caught my eye and got me thinking, both about sarcasm and about our need to signal it.

While I haven’t found hard evidence that people are using more sarcasm these days, my lived experience is echoed by experts like the neuropsychologist Katherine Rankin, who told Smithsonian magazine that “our culture in particular is permeated with sarcasm.” When it comes to personal relationships, studies show that sarcasm is largely a “male thing,” which may be why I’ve never been fond of it, much as I think I appreciate, say, dramatic or situational irony. Sarcasm is associated with aggression, but it seems to me also (perhaps not coincidentally) that it is associated with feeling disempowered. That is, when neither a logical argument nor a truly witty remark seems available to a speaker, they will fall back on sarcasm, on puncturing whatever their interlocutor is saying rather than engaging with or refuting it. (One study, interestingly, revealed women as self-consciously using sarcasm to vent frustration, whereas men use it for “humorous aggression.”) And if there’s one thing a lot of people on both the left and the right are feeling these days, it’s denigration.

When it comes to internet discourse, the issues with which sarcasm tangles interpersonally may recede in favor of the self-protective or aggressive tactics of group allegiance. One researcher found that sarcasm use soars when people are communicating in an anonymous computer chat room as opposed to face to face. And of course, that’s where we mostly find ourselves in comment threads, Twitter threads, and sites like Reddit, which comprises nothing but posts and comments. Reddit, in fact, is the source for the recently compiled “Large Self-Annotated Corpus for Sarcasm,” because users of the site so often employ “/s” at the end of their comments. That study, whose theoretical constructs are way above my pay grade, weighted “positive” and “negative” n-grams according to the strength of their indication that the comment is sarcastic, since without context and an understanding of sarcasm generally, comments lacking the “/s” indicator could be misread, particularly by a nonhuman “reader.” Terms weighted most heavily toward sarcasm included obviously, clearly, so fun, and totally; terms weighted most toward nonsarcasm included :), lmao, and :( . (Positive n-grams, the authors note, “are more important for linear classification of sarcasm.”) In other words, you can hardly use a word like obviously in an internet comment and be perceived as sincere.

And yet. That we are using an indicator like “/s” to denote sarcasm suggests that to human as well as machine readers, sarcasm is no longer obvious on its face. I first noticed the term in a long thread wherein a dozen or more respondents vilified the original commenter before someone weighed in with “Didn’t you guys see the ‘/s’ at the end of OP’s comment?” If sarcasm has become ubiquitous and yet we’re still unable to recognize it, I suspect it’s because statements made sarcastically by someone at one end of the political spectrum could easily be read as sincere by someone at the other end. To wit:

Roy Moore loves children because he is a man of God.

That Al Franken is such a funny clown.

Vladimir Putin would never lower his honor by interfering in another country’s election.

But Democrats never play dirty politics.

Since sarcasm, like irony, is meant to point out absurdity, it’s a little frightening to think that one group’s absurdity is another group’s plain truth. Just a couple of days ago, I ran across a thread in The Washington Post that read, in part:

WP comments

Now, the fourth commenter, “the-b-side,” is incorrect in calling the original post satire. Although, like sarcasm, satire can sting, satire is a genre, not a tone or type of statement. But his “hope” that the post was meant sarcastically points up the difference between the first and second response to “davken.” The first, lol, seems to accept that davken is being sarcastic; the second seems to criticize davken for opining nonsense. The “satire” that the-b-side offers feels like sarcasm for the first three sentences, which mock the position of someone who would support a child predator over a Democrat; but the next two sentences seem sincerely to lash out at hypocritical “Nazis.” Neither of these responses makes sense if the-b-side thinks he is addressing a sarcastic liberal commenter; rather, they serve as mockery and criticism of people who have sincerely expressed views not far removed from davken’s post.

Reading through threads like this one, I begin to see the usefulness of what the sarcasm-corpus aggregators call sarcasm detection systems. If, in this era of manufactured “news” and ferocious tribal allegiances, sarcasm is on the rise, I’d like to know it when I see it. Until such time as those systems are developed, though, I’m grateful for the /s. I still don’t like sarcasm — call me Ms. Sincerity — but I can’t steer clear of it if I can’t even be sure it’s there.

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