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Joshua Malbin Straight: An Orthographical Fable

The Straight Line concept arose from an interminable discussion on posting and commenting etiquette on one of the big political blogs. On several occasions recently a congressman had ventured to have his staff write posts in his name, the comments had gotten heated, and the politician had been attacked with ads that quoted the most incendiary of these. None of the blog’s members thought they should have to censor themselves. Yanking quotes out of context and presenting them as exemplars of the whole movement was simply one of the tricks the other side was known to use. What galled some of them was that many of the worst quotes had been meant facetiously, and the ads pretended otherwise. User BlueEagle42 suggested adding a recommendation to the site’s commenting guidelines that all users clearly designate their sarcasm with something like the <snark> tag. This idea was roundly disdained by many other users, who said that insisting all jokes carry signs was the height of humorlessness. Fine, wrote commenter WunBunHun, what if we flip the idea on its head? What if we create a tag writers can use when they do want to be read in good faith?

The symbol chosen was the vertical line (|), a keyboard symbol otherwise little used in normal writing. Not all users adopted it. It was optional, and many felt that if they


Joshua Malbin used it sometimes, leaving it out would telegraph their jokes just as badly as the original idea. But most took to it fast. Within a few months two-thirds of the site’s writers were inserting it into their straight posts and comments. Many of these writers cross-posted their work to other sites or their personal blogs, so it was already beginning to spread all over the blogosphere, from political sites to ones devoted to sports, TV, cooking, and travel. It proved especially popular on Twitter and Facebook, where forced concision had always made gauging irony a challenge for literally-inclined readers. Since many major news organizations now hired bloggers—or writers who’d begun as bloggers—it even appeared on more mainstream sites.

Over the next couple of years, the Straight Line gradually conquered the rest of the internet—which effectively meant it conquered writing as a whole, since that’s where most of the world’s writing now lived. It could be found in everything from emails to television transcripts. Some objected to the Straight Line on aesthetic or grammatical grounds, likening it to such abominations as the use of quotation marks for emphasis. Others resisted it because they didn’t want to be held to a standard of absolute seriousness, and recognized that if they used it at all they could never drop it. But none of these objections stopped the Straight Line, anymore than they’d eliminated grocer’s quotation marks. No, it was teenagers who ultimately killed it. Here was this thing adults had created to convey total sincerity—an irresistible target. How could a kid resist texting |So hottt!|


Joshua Malbin about the fat greasy bearded guy who clearly was not, or |Cant come out. Must think hard about my future.|? There is no way to pinpoint the start of this countertrend. In all likelihood it arose many times, as multiple wiseasses came up with the idea independently. But at some point it became clear that in high schools across America it was being used pretty much exclusively for sarcasm, and eventually ironists of all ages followed. Effectively this put the Web back where it had started: each reader had to judge whether writing was sincere or not based on the context and the author. |Some thought this was a shame. To me it was a small liberation. It had become impossible to write evasive, noncommittal replies to high school friends who looked me up on Facebook and wanted to meet for lunch, or to flirt with bad puns and gentle double entendre on If I didn’t use the Straight Line the old friend or the woman with the hot profile picture was suspicious, and if I did use it they were much likelier to think me an out-and-out liar, an idiot, or both. Maybe irony really does open the door to immorality, as tightasses have claimed ever since Socrates. But language is a human construct that bends to human needs, honest needs and dishonest ones, straight and crooked uses. For every literal reader who loved the Straight Line during its short life, there was a writer like me who chafed at it.|

Or: “Irony is … the first and most abstract qualification of subjectivity.” Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony