A Critical Analysis Of The Literal Web Crowd: The Tools You Need To Survive In A Humorous World

We’ve been whining about the “literal web” problem for years now. Someone says something funny, albeit in an ironic or sarcastic way. A percentage of the masses think the joke is great. Another percentage get it but don’t think it’s funny. The rest take the statements absolutely literally and go nuts. Hilarity ensues.

If you come across a statement or a conversation that seems odd at first, like really dumb things are being talked about like they’re brilliant ideas, your first reaction will be to write something like “I can’t believe you would actually think that,…” with the “…” usually containing a derogatory term like douche, douchebag, asshole, etc.

Now if you do that and check back on your comment later you may see subsequent commenters saying something like “woosh.” Often that commenter is me. The message is that whatever you were commenting on went way over your head, wooshing your hair back as it did so, leaving you with no idea what’s going on.

Sarcasm, irony and other lovely verbal gymnastical tools and trick are what make our language beautiful. You are not stating what you think directly. But you are stating it directly because most people understand you. What you mean is just usually the opposite of what you’ve said. Or perhaps it has an even more nuanced meaning.

It’s important that more people come to understand, and even appreciate, these situations when they come up.

It is hard for some people. Like the people who tend to believe April Fools stories, they are the kind of people I’m talking about. They aren’t inherently bad people, they just need to work on their humor muscle and develop it. Once they do, they’ll enjoy a much fuller and complete online life. Check out this paragraph from Wikipedia on understanding sarcasm:

Understanding the subtlety of this usage requires second-order interpretation of the speaker’s intentions. This sophisticated understanding can be lacking in some people with certain forms of brain damage, dementia and autism, and this perception has been located by MRI in the right parahippocampal gyrus.

Basically if you have brain damage you may be out of the race entirely, and no one’s going to be calling you a jerk for that. Also, people who are too smart, in certain ways, go more of the Rain Man route. They have trouble picking up social cues and can’t distinguish between jokes and serious statements. That leaves the rest of us, which is most of us. Most of what’s left are speaking English as a second language and have trouble understanding irony and sarcasm until they’ve lived here a long while. Native speakers from outside of the U.S., like Brits, Irish and Canadians, tend to identify irony at world record breaking speeds. These guys invented the language behind the language. We just picked it up and made it ours.

In fact, in London, among certain crowds with very expensive accents, it is nearly impossible to understand exactly what someone means. Who they are, who you are, their relationship to you and other factors must be analyzed real time as a sort of filter that spits out what’s really going on. Amazingly, compliments are never quite that once you’ve rooted to the second or third-order interpretation of the language that rich Brits speak.

But back to us. We see this all the time in comments, where someone just doesn’t get what’s going on but butts in anyway with an outraged statement of some sort.

NASA Loves Cocaine, Has No Humor

Take Paul Carr’s recent article on his new email footer: “Fuck the environment. Print this email immediately. And then burn it.”

A commenter (who works at NASA) chimed in saying “This is a joke, right?”

Oh, the nuances there. Paul is joking, but not in the way you think. Like me, he is really annoyed by people telling him that he’s an earth hater if he prints the email. He’s annoyed by the smugness of the people sending those emails. And so he wrote.

I pondered my response to NASA, as it was clearly a “whoosh” moment. But really, nothing could be better than simply asking her if she was high right now, and linking to this.

It was apropos of nothing. But a round of chuckles went around the office (we all take breaks to watch the comments on Paul Carr’s posts because they are world class entertaining).

Kevin Rose Lassos In A Wandering Literal Webber

But back to the Literal Web. It struck again over the weekend. On Friday I noted Kevin Rose’s resignation from Digg and his intention to close a small round of funding for his new startup. What was that new startup going to do? We all asked.

ryan000 (a former Digg developer) tweeted : “@kevinrose 3 words: “B2B e-commerce solutions”

[Aside] – many of you will clearly understand that ryan000 was joking. Because the big B2B ecommerce plays rose like giants in the 90s bubble only to come crashing down when actual usage didn’t exist, in a sort of fraudulent way. See Ariba and Commerce One for examples of what ryan000 is suggesting Kevin does next.

It’s obvious to most of us that he was kidding around.

And then Kevin tweeted back “@ryan000 shhhhhhh keep that quiet! ;).” And the Literal Web mob took over.

That last message from Kevin is literally saying ryan000 is correct and in the know, but he has to keep it quiet. Seriously, this is important stuff, ryan000.

But that isn’t what it was really saying. Listen close, you Literal Webbers. Kevin is responding sarcastically, saying the opposite of what he means, because it’s kind of funny to think of him taking on a multi-billion dollar market in a space he has no idea what’s going on and where massive companies blew billions of dollars and failed. That just wouldn’t be playing to Kevin’s strengths. His strengths include sitting in front of a camera drinking beer, and partying with movie celebrities. He also has a good eye for product, we hear. Consumer facing social media stuff, that is.

So, no revival of Commerce One for Kevin. But a reader writes in with a scoop that the tweets confirm that Rose is doing a B2B e-commerce solution.”


Dear Tech Crunch,

While searching through Kevin Rose’s tweets I fought this, direct confirmation of his new startup a Business to Business eCommerce Site. See the screenshot below.

So, yeah, he’s part of the literal web club, he thought he made a real find and he diligently sent it over to us. I love him for that. But love can be hard, and I want to make sure he grows from this experience. In the future he may get the humor and just tweet a smiley face back at Kevin. That shows he’s in the know, and gets the decade old startup disaster reference. LOL!

Oh, Canada!

I’ll leave you with one last personal example. Last year I disparaged an entire nation in a post about how we will never have a TechCrunch Canada, and that frankly I’d prefer if Canadians didn’t even visit our main site out of politeness (they just aren’t wanted here). A storm of rage erupted in the comments and on Twitter.

A couple of days later, while the Literal Web mob was still running around with their shirts off breaking shit, I tweeted to calm people down.

Ok. Anyone who’s taking my Canada post seriously has failed the literal web test. You are no longer allowed on the Internet.

But they didn’t realize I’d tricked them. New rage erupted asking how dare I threaten to kick them off the internet, or mocking me for being unable to carry out my literal threat.

I backed off of that one to go on with the rest of my life. But a week later I was in it again, this time suggesting the Canadian Mounties were out to get me, possibly trying to usurp my journalistic freedom by throwing me in some frozen, dark Canadian prison. That’s when mainstream Canadian media (they are so cute) got involved.

They pointed out that a lot of the eegits were actually Americans telling me I was being insensitive. As for Canadians, they either thought it was funny or just couldn’t be bothered to read it.

In the end this is what you need to take away. Read a little slower. Try to see the subtle changes in tone (hard in print I know, but not impossible) to understand that there is a second or third layer of communication going on. If you only see the first layer, and respond like a doofus, people are going to ignore you. You’ll have much more fun on the Internet if people aren’t ignoring you. So either develop a sense of humor, or revert to snark (humor for the unwashed masses) like so many others do, or become brilliant and create content above all this nonsense. Any of those are fine. Just, please, don’t be the guy leaving comments with others saying “woosh!” right after. You do not want to be that guy.