Poe’s Law

Only a few months ago, I had never heard of Poe’s Law. Now it’s a rare day in which it doesn’t crop up several times. Invocations of the Zeitgeist are inherently improbable, but if there were to be a persuasive illustration of the phenomenon, it would be something like this.

According to the succinct Wikipedia entry (already linked), Poe’s Law is less than a decade old. Among it’s precursors, also relatively recent, a 2001 Usenet comment by Alan Morgan most closely anticipates it: “Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook.” In other words, between a sincere intellectual position and its satirization, no secure distinction can be made. (There is nothing about this thesis that restricts it to ‘extreme’ opinion, although that is how it is usually understood.)

The latest opportunity for raising this topic is, of course, @Salondotcom. (There’s an entertaining interview with the pranksters behind it here.) The offense of this account, which led to it being suspended by Twitter last week, was clear beyond any reasonable doubt. Quite simply, it was nearly indistinguishable from the original, a fact that has itself been explicitly noted (and tweeted about) innumerable times. Parody Salon slugs, so ludicrously over-the-top that they had @Salondotcom readers in stitches, were funny precisely because they were such plausible mimics of Salon‘s own. Readers were laughing through @Salondotcom, at Salon. This is almost certainly why the account was suspended.

Without wandering too deeply into the realm of speculation, it’s worth noting this:

Poe’s Law is ultimately indistinguishable from another recent, rapidly popularized rhetorical concept: the Ideological Turing Test. An intellectual criticism can be said to understand its foe if it is able to reproduce it with adequate fidelity. The ITT is therefore a cultural procedure for winnowing-out straw-man arguments and other misrepresentations. If you cannot imitate the enemy case, you cannot be considered to have engaged it seriously.

Evidently, Poe’s Law can be construed as a filter of the same kind. Satire is effective to exactly the extent it can be confused with the satirized. (This can be taken in comparatively serious directions.)

What Poe’s Law tells us, is that antagonism is irreducible to argumentation. It is thus inherently anti-dialectical (and thus tacitly secessionist). There can be perfect understanding of what the enemy is saying, without even the slightest degree of approach to consensus. In other words, there are discrepancies entirely indissoluble in discussion.

Cutting satire does not reconstruct a cognitive position in order to make it laughable. Instead, it re-states such a position, as faithfully as possible, within the register of laughter — which is to say: hostility. It asserts a dissensus that no process of reconciliation can ameliorate. Our ‘disagreement’ is not the sign of a missing conversation. It is the call for a coming split.

ADDED: Even Newsweek notices “… there was a problem: Few could tell the difference between @SalonDotCom and the real thing.”

ADDED: So two Edgar Allan Poe twitterbots started following me

ADDED: Agree, Amplify, and Accelerate

July 18, 2014admin 19 Comments »
FILED UNDER :Humor , Media

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19 Responses to this entry

  • RorschachRomanov Says:

    Bertrand Russell, who, as we know had warmed to the young Wittgenstein, recognizing an uncanny brilliance in the Austrian lad, tells the story of witnessing Mr. Wittgenstein fervently pacing back and forth, everything in his body language signifying distress:

    ‘What troubles you, logic or your sins?’ the old Englishman asked.


    What better illustration that “antagonism is irreducible to argumentation.”


    Posted on July 18th, 2014 at 3:49 pm Reply | Quote
  • RorschachRomanov Says:

    Discursivity reaches a terminus, evidentialism is subject to infinite regression, communication itself presupposes a shared “blik,” that serves as communicatory possibility condition…separatism becomes increasingly desirable. As I’ve seen said, “don’t hate, separate.”

    Or, let us dispense, my foul brother of the Cathedral, with the pleasantries and just go to war already!


    admin Reply:

    “Do you expect me to talk?”
    “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”


    Posted on July 18th, 2014 at 4:06 pm Reply | Quote
  • VXXC Says:

    “If you cannot imitate the enemy case, you cannot be considered to have engaged it seriously.”


    My Femur and me got problems with that, pardner.



    admin Reply:

    That level of ape conflict is perfectly mimetic — so what’s the problem?


    Posted on July 18th, 2014 at 5:44 pm Reply | Quote
  • scientism Says:

    I think it’s a mistake to think that there can be any understanding of what the enemy is saying. Poe’s Law is due to the fact that it’s often enough to emulate the enemy’s style, precisely because most positions are not factually incorrect, but rather nonsensical. You can learn to speak feminist or postmodernist because it’s gibberish. Feminists and postmodernists themselves learn to speak this way by learning to speak in an analogous way, just as the satirist does, because there’s no other way to learn to speak this way. You’re a feminist (or a liberal or a progressive) when you say the right words, not when you make the right arguments.

    What can be done, as Wittgenstein says, is to move from unobvious to obvious nonsense. In this way, there’s some scope for rehabilitation, although, as with the addict, you have to want to change.


    Posted on July 18th, 2014 at 6:13 pm Reply | Quote
  • Poe’s Law | Reaction Times Says:

    […] Source: Outside In […]

    Posted on July 18th, 2014 at 7:05 pm Reply | Quote
  • Handle Says:

    The dogmatist or absolutist is unreasonable by definition. What seems like a position on the left is merely a pit stop on the way to unbalanced absurdity because no countervailing values or limiting principles are admitted. Instead, the merely temporarily failure to reach all the way to the end and the final logical implications of their principles is due to the mere expediency of the current maximum rate at which the Overton window can shift. The ultimate Austerian unprincipled exception is simply the delay waiting for any particular window to catch up.

    Hence Poe’s Law is merely the strategy of temporal acceleration – making the kind of claim that seems absurd now by anticipating what won’t seem absurd in the future. The ultimate point is to show that there is simply no end to the extremity in how far the subjects of one’s satire can and will take their agenda and activism because of that lack of limiting principle, and it is funny because it is a truth everybody already knows on some level.

    Notice also that a humor strategy that works by creating absurdity by anticipating a slightly more extreme future will tend naturally to target those on the left. This is why The Onion targets progressives more often than one would otherwise predict, and also why people have to relay certain news articles with a “Not From The Onion” disclaimer – which just occurs in the rate instance when the reporter’s microscope actually captures an instance of the ratchet in operation. It’s supposed to be spooky, but instead it turns out that it’s funny.


    Posted on July 18th, 2014 at 10:43 pm Reply | Quote
  • Akaky Akakievich Says:

    One would have thought that any ‘Poe’s Law’ of trolling would be a reference to Edgar Allan Poe, the grandaddy of trolls with his Balloon Hoax? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Balloon-Hoax

    Just sayin’.


    Antisthenes Reply:

    I actually thought it was until I saw this and looked up the actual origin of the term.


    Posted on July 18th, 2014 at 11:17 pm Reply | Quote
  • peppermint Says:

    did Vox Day write this one?


    Posted on July 19th, 2014 at 1:36 am Reply | Quote
  • E. Antony Gray (@RiverC) Says:

    Dunno, having known many extremists and fundamentalists, I would have to disagree that their position is unreasonable. It may be that a lot of people parrot the position without considering it, and the axioms assumed result in casual absurdities, Such people are unreasonable. And it is also true that unreasonable positions exist, but this is not the test for it.

    If you can discover their axioms and reason from them, you will get their positions (Slate Star Codex is remarkably good at this.) Sometimes you can’t; that’s true unreason. Since it is much easier to rationalize axioms than to correct them, people will often cling to poorly performing axioms. It is also the case that reality is sometimes more subtle than you think, and abandoning an axiom when things get difficult is no particular virtue.

    Poe’s law relies on not that the positions are unreasonable, but that people are using the positions as signals – Poe’s law works by hacking the signal. This is similar to people wearing a uniform similar to another’s – the casual observer may be fooled by the similarity, but the very dedicated recon will discern the difference. The reason why Poe’s law is effective is that people are glossing positions for emotional reasons, and signaling support for them. When the attack signal is spotted, they only identify its rudimentary form, i.e. ‘does it signal support for X?’ and pass it along or believe it based on that.

    I personally do not think that Poe’s law is limited at all to extremism, it is simply that the author of the law had trouble discerning real from fake signals in positions very different from his own. But Poe’s law is only effective with extremism because it attacks by overloading the signal. It is hard to overload the signal of moderation, since the effectiveness of the attack is that it gets people to ‘admit’ to positions that are, in reality, horrible, because they cannot discern the fake signal. The person to whom the position is extreme is not really the target, but the target is primarily the person to whom the position is NOT extreme.

    I do not trust anyone who admits to using such techniques in a non-jocular fashion, for obvious reasons.


    E. Antony Gray (@RiverC) Reply:

    To continue (thinking by writing) the hope here is that you will push the extremist to the point that they pass on a signal that marks them as an enemy. So while the moderate sees feminists being pro-abortion as okay, he won’t see feminists wanting to abort all male children in the womb as okay. Thus what I’ll call ‘Gray’s Addendum to Poe’s Law’ is as follows:

    Poe’s law results in blowback when persons who pass on the parodic position cannot discern its falsehood, but those in the majority / in power can.

    The second addendum is as follows:

    Poe’s law results in schism when the position is so extreme as to mark them as an enemy.


    Posted on July 19th, 2014 at 3:31 am Reply | Quote
  • Antisthenes Says:

    “Nanoaggressions: Science reveals structural oppression too small for human eyes”



    Posted on July 19th, 2014 at 12:16 pm Reply | Quote
  • Xoth Says:

    Had the Sokal affair happened on Twitter, Sokal’s account would have been the one suspended.


    Posted on July 19th, 2014 at 5:54 pm Reply | Quote
  • Big Bill Says:

    Marc Antony (with markups):

    Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
    I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
    The evil that men do lives after them;
    The good is oft interred with their bones;
    So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
    Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
    If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
    And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
    Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest, —
    For Brutus is an honorable man;
    So are they all, all honorable men, —
    Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
    He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
    But Brutus says he was ambitious;
    And Brutus is an honorable man.


    Posted on July 19th, 2014 at 11:04 pm Reply | Quote
  • Big Bill Says:

    @Big Bill

    Sorry,. It ate my (sarc)(/sarc) markups. But you get the drift.


    Posted on July 19th, 2014 at 11:06 pm Reply | Quote
  • Lightning Round – 2013/07/23 | Free Northerner Says:

    […] and accelerate. Related: Accelerate the ratchet. Related: Agree and amplify science. Related: Poe’s law and Salon. Related: Using electronic […]

    Posted on July 23rd, 2014 at 5:02 am Reply | Quote
  • Outside in - Involvements with reality » Blog Archive » AAA … Says:

    […] Lightning Round – 2013/07/23 | Free Northerner on Poe’s Law […]

    Posted on July 23rd, 2014 at 5:12 am Reply | Quote

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