There’s a highly useful text here about the intersection of grammar and cultural progression, but it’s obscured behind wishy-washy self-contradiction.
ClickHole is a website owned by The Onion that’s designed to satirize clickbait sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed. Its tagline— “Because all content deserves to go viral” —is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose, but ClickHole is nonetheless saved by absurdist quizzes like “Are You in a Cult or an Off-Broadway Production of ‘Jersey Boys’?”
Of course, the problem with satire is that it can sometimes veer too close to reality. Sam Parker of The Guardian noted shortly after its launch that ClickHole’s “aims have started to look a little muddied” and wondered if the site is “a satire of clickbait, or good satire done as clickbait?” With BuzzFeed in particular he argued, “Part of the problem with making fun of [it] is that the site is already extremely self-aware as it is.” To wit: a recent quiz on BuzzFeed claimed “If You Can Score 10/12 on This Quiz about Random Facts, You’re a Genius,” and one of the questions asks what country Rihanna is from. That’s pretty silly and self-aware, and also pretty hard to make fun of.
The same is (mostly) true of a style manual borne from BuzzFeed, A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age. Written by the site’s global copy chief Emmy J. Favilla, AWWW is as much a textbook on English usage and mechanics, albeit sometimes satirically so, as it is a recent historical work that traces the evolution of language in the internet era.
Among handy information found in the book is a section on slang phrases that come from the internet (like “all the things” and “I can’t even”), an argument for the direct address comma in the modern age (i.e. “Let’s eat children” vs “Let’s eat, children”) and, in typical BF fashion, 42 different ways to express e-laughter and their respective meanings. And, because Favilla knows her audience, the book is peppered with humorous asides, as when she describes “her’s” as “so painful to type that I need to take a quick walk to center myself again. BRB. Okay, back!” Her writing style allows this to be a breezy read, and rightly so.
Where Favilla gets into trouble is when she blurs the line between satire and straight-faced writing, and between taking a position versus not taking one. Favilla wonders in the introduction how anyone can “in good conscience create blanket rules for something as fluid, as personal, and alive as language.” She adds, “Nearly everything about the way words are strung together is open to interpretation,” and therefore to declare “a sentence structure ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is a move that’s often subjective.” Yet, she proceeds to use those very “blanket rules” to govern how she wrote an entire book.
Throughout AWWW, she argues that a writer should “follow your heart” (or some variation) when it comes to usage while also maintaining certainties in some areas. For example, a section of the chapter called “How Social Media Has Changed the Game” discusses the terms for adding and subtracting friends on Facebook. Of the latter she declares, “And yes, it’s unfriending rather than defriending or de-friending [because that is] what people actually say,” but then walks it back with the next sentence: “(But, hey, if you say defriending, then use that instead: What do I care?)”. Favilla spends a large chunk of the book carefully balancing on an ouroboros-shaped fence between “This is a free country” and “Since it’s what Merriam-Webster advises,” sometimes within the same chapter, and even the same page. To assert without being assertive is an odd position to take, even for BuzzFeed.
Whether this is more of that self-awareness Parker observed is difficult to say. It’d make AWWW’s Möbius-strip-logic easier to swallow if it were—that much is clear—because there’s a highly useful text here about the intersection of grammar and cultural progression, but it’s obscured behind wishy-washy self-contradiction. Ultimately, it seems that Favilla wants her book to be both a guide and a satire to guides. However, because there’s no real position staked out due to muddied waters, the book reads less as satire than a lack of focus. You can’t take one step forward followed by one step back and then call that satirizing progress. What really happened was simply that you didn’t move, either yourself or your audience.