In Good Faith
The culture of the clapback has been around for far longer than social media. It’s the snappy one liner that turns an argument, the callout for hypocrisy or manipulation that makes it clear to passerby the other guy is a fool. It goes back far enough that it’s written into myth! For example: it is rumored that Diogenes barged into the philosopher Plato’s lecture with a plucked chicken, shouting “Behold! A Man!”, after Plato defined a human as a featherless biped. That could be considered a clapback.
Plato and Diogenes knew each other pretty well, and Plato’s students knew of Diogenes well enough to know he was a nuisance, albeit a funny one. He was a philosopher, but he was also mostly just some guy, and by poking holes in the way Plato and others were attempting to define the world, he was forcing them to come up with better answers to these questions of meaning. His approach fundamentally altered theirs, and they were forced to consider ‘what is Diogenes going to say about the thing I’m saying?’ when pondering before sharing their ideas.
How Does That Work Out Online?
The spiritual identity of the clapback has not actually changed that much since Roman times. What has changed is the way we talk to each other in general. Social media makes reaching for clapbacks about a person’s background significantly easier than it was even ten or twenty years ago, and what people are calling clapbacks are becoming less like what Diogenes was doing to Plato and more like… doxxing, and/or bullying, especially now that the average Instagram user is much worse about data privacy than they were even five years ago. As a result, people online who think they’re making a clapback are given a huge arsenal of information to hurt the poster with, and end up overstepping a snappy comeback well into cyberbullying.
These two things have not combined well at all!
TikTok is a shining example of this poor mix. It’s filled with kids, teens, and young adults who don’t think twice about edgy jokes and also don’t think about their posting history. In a world where clapback videos go viral on the app, it is inevitable that some of the people trying desperately to get internet famous off of the philosophy are going to completely miss the point. Instead of calling out hypocrisy, or forcing people to think through what they’re saying before they say it, they just point at something unrelated and say ‘haha, blue hair. Opinion Irrelevant’. It’s usually done to negative comments, but there’s a spectrum to how negative a comment is, and some don’t deserve what they get back in response. Especially since it’s so hard to tell when someone is actually saying something seriously, or if they’re just trying to be sarcastic and failed. There is a view- and like-based incentive to read things wrong and overreact. While commenting on a mental illness a troll has written in their bio stops them from commenting, so would blocking them.
One example: a user on TikTok made a video of a teen’s profile where a dove emoji and the phrase ‘fly high [name]’ were visible in their bio. That’s generally recognized online as a memorial for a dead loved one. That user made the video to make fun of the kid for daring to comment anything even slightly mean when they had a memorial on their profile. Another one came from ‘person A’ posting a video of themselves, and ‘person B’ leaving a vaguely impolite comment about their hair, not the subject of the video but certainly visible enough in it to comment on. Person A then proceeded to dig through a full year of Instagram photos to find a single image in which self-harm scars were barely visible in order to mock person B… for making a hair joke.
That is an insane thing to do! Worse, since neither of these were obvious grabs, it’s not even really a clapback. It’s just being mean.
Is There Room For Better Clapbacks on Social Media?
The thing about clapbacks is that they’re usually funny for most of the parties involved, even the person getting it. Someone has said something dumb or lacking self-awareness, and someone else points it out. The humor is in finding an obvious contradiction, not just saying something mean in return! For maximum effect, it has to actually be related. Diogenes storming in with a chicken, calling it a man using Plato’s criteria, is funny. Commenting on a dead relative being dead? Not really, once the shock wears off. Clapping back on someone for commenting on your hair when you both have goofy hairstyles? That’s funny. Digging through a year of photos for a 15 second response video? A lot of work for basically no real payoff.