Posted on September 20, 2022 in Technology

Tone Tags – the Result of Constant Bad-Faith Readings

The internet’s a tough, cynical place. You may have heard of Poe’s Law, which states that parody and the thing the parody is parodying may be indistinguishable from one another, or maybe you’ve just been on the receiving end of a scathing Twitter retweeter who mistakenly assumed you were being sarcastic instead of genuine. Most human languages use some sort of tonal change to indicate things like mood and whether something is a question – even American sign language encourages the use of facial expression and exaggerated movements to convey intense emotion. Text, however, is pretty limited. You have word choice, punctuation, and occasionally the ability to italicize or bold or change the color of words to get a different message across. But you can’t do it everywhere, and you can’t trust that the other side of the screen will read it as you intended. Going ALL CAPS TO INDICATE EXCITEMENT!! Can also be read as aggression or indicate shock.

Tone tags are one possible solution to this hurtle! Tone tags are tags that indicate tone, usually included at the end of a sentence. Some common ones are /pos (positive tone intended) /hj (half-joking tone intended) /j (joking tone intended) /gen (genuine tone intended) and more. Instead of having to phrase something especially carefully so it doesn’t come across as sarcastic (or couldn’t possibly be read that way) you can simply attach a /pos to the end and know that if they misread it after that, that’s on them, not you. They’re not exactly common yet, and are sometimes considered a bit cringey (not being able to distinguish tone can be a symptom of social awkwardness or isolation IRL) but they’re at worst harmless fluff.  

So why are they getting popular?

Shooting The Messenger

 I witnessed an exchange in a Tumblr post where one user asked “So how exactly is [X] considered [Y]?” Another user, notably not the creator of the post, gave an explanation: “[X] could be considered [Y] for [these reasons], I think.” The first user then responded “Well, [X.a] and [X.b] come together to make [Z], not [Y] in the US, so again how exactly is [X] considered [Y].” The second responder had to clarify that they were just giving the same explanation they’d seen online, not that they were pushing [X] = [Y], and apologized. The exchange ended there.

The first user, in the process of defending their thesis that X and Y were not alike, accidentally came across as though they were snapping at the second person for giving this response, even though I’m sure that if this conversation had happened in real life they wouldn’t have responded in the same way. The phrasing could be neutral, but asking for more info the way they did (assuming that’s what they were doing) came across pretty harsh.

Unfortunately, shooting the messenger like this online is pretty common! The second responder wasn’t the one pushing [X]=[Y], but they were the one who responded and answered the question in its most literal interpretation. The problem is that the question itself was partially rhetorical because the first user knows what the answer ‘should’ be – which was “X actually DOESN’T equal Y” (although they may have also been asking for more clarification on how X could possibly equal Y and the second person just didn’t know what to tell them without writing an essay covering every possible corner of that problem), but many rhetorical questions just look like regular questions without the additional context of a normal social interaction. They ask, someone answers in good faith based on what others have said about the subject, they respond to it as if it wasn’t in good faith at all because it was missing information or wasn’t providing anything new.

Tone tags could be worth using here if only so neither side feels like they’re suddenly playing defense.

Asking Questions Accusatorily

Trolls have a nasty habit of asking questions that seem innocuous but are designed to eventually lead to an argument. Unfortunately, the point of those questions is that they’re plausibly deniable – maybe the person asking really didn’t know what or why something happened. For example: a question like “so why is your dog still wearing his correction collar in the house?” online can either be a real question asked with the intent to gain knowledge, or an attempt to pick a fight where the poster has to defend themselves against a stranger’s worst assumption. If this were real life, you’d almost certainly know immediately what that question was meant to do, but in an online environment where the other party is just some anonymous commentator you’ve never seen before, it’s impossible to tell until you’re already in the weeds of an argument! Tone tags here could prevent a lot of back-and-forth.

Semi-Intentional Misreading

There’s a joke online that tells you to load up on apples and pike them outside your house because it will keep doctors away. The joke here, of course, is based off the misunderstanding that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” not because it’s a healthy thing to eat, but because doctors are afraid of or hate apples. This is funny! When it happens in an online argument and someone reaches for the poorest-faith interpretation of what you said, it’s… less funny. Especially in a close setting like a Discord chat, where you’re having to guess if this person is actually stupid enough to think you were criticizing X when you said Z was your favorite, or if they somehow never heard that people are allowed, individually, to pick a favorite, and your favorite overrides theirs. Yikes.

Jokes Are Just Funny Insults

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if someone was joking or if they were deliberately trying to be insulting. Some people even take advantage of this to become Schrodinger’s Douchebag, where the response to their joke determines whether or not they were joking with intent to insult or not. However, there are some amount of people who write a joke out, didn’t re-read it with an especially critical eye, and then posted. People online then mistakenly assume they were trying to pull a Schrodinger when they instead just didn’t fully think the joke through. Maybe they made a joke about an internet celebrity assuming that nobody outside their small circle of Twitter mutuals would ever see it. Maybe they made a joke that relied on sarcasm, but what they wrote wasn’t recognizable as sarcasm to less discerning audiences. Being able to tag what tone you meant to convey with a statement (half joking, joking, sarcasm, etc.) can save some agony if strangers have even a slight chance of misinterpreting your words in a misguided attempt to get some interaction or attention. Of course, it won’t stop all of them, but it may stop a dogpile started by yanking the joke out of context if the initial poster can point to a tag and say, definitively, that they meant it as a joke from the start. Not after they started getting mean retweets about it.

Actual Utility

There are cases where these just don’t work out. Of course a troll is never going to mark a comment as /trolling, and a certain subset of people are always going to interpret their own actions in the best possible light – so a question like “are you aware you’re literally killing the planet when you do [X]? /gen” is almost certainly still going to appear because they do think they’re being genuine and they do think they’re using the tag correctly despite the inflammatory phrasing.

The main problem is that these tags assume good faith! The best communication strategies decrease noise and increase the efficiency of message transmission, and these can only do that if everyone understands them and agrees to use them correctly. While these tags will work for well-regulated, well-moderated communities on the internet, I don’t think they would survive if applied to Twitter as a whole. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth using, it just means that they can’t be used everywhere – some online communities are finding they have a lot of utility already.