Know your algospeak?

Partly in response to the aggressive and sometimes arbitrary moderation methods of social media services – especially TikTok, a product of the hyper-censorious culture of China – a new form of internet dialect has developed: algospeak. Trying to avoid being swept up in crackdowns on Covid-19 misinformation, people talk of the “panoramic” or “pandemonium”; ducking censorship around sex and sexuality, they refer to “seggs” (sex), “cornucopia” (homophobia) and, most recently, “mascara” (a code word and set of metaphors for sex, relationships and assault).

In January, the actress Julia Fox – best known for her appearance in the Safdie Brothers’ 2019 movie Uncut Gems – found herself in the midst of a brief online row after she replied to a TikTok video that used the “mascara” code to discuss sexual assault, by writing:

“Idk why but I don’t feel bad for u lol.”

Fox had – not unreasonably – assumed the clip was literally about makeup. After the context was explained to her, she said: “I’m really showing my age right now, but I just was not on that side of TikTok. And I really thought this man was crying about mascara. The end, OK? I’m sorry.”

Fox is hardly “old” – she’s 33, six years younger than I am – but she stumbled over one of social media’s shifting shibboleths. In a world of endless scrolling, auto-playing videos, and insatiable hunger for new content, culture is fragmented and fast. New language and trends arrive and disappear with such speed it’s as if Darwin is leaning on the fast-forward button. Fluency in the new language and styles of online existence isn’t purely generational. It’s a question of how “extremely online” you are, another term that’s instantly understandable to, well, extremely online people but needs unpacking for others.

Trends come and go with such speed it’s as if Darwin is leaning on the FF button

“Extremely online” is a term that’s racing towards its tenth birthday – it came into common usage in about 2014 – and refers to someone closely engaged in online culture and for whom that engagement spills over into “real” life. The mentality is summed up by a tweet by the pseudonymous comedian Dril, which appears on the “extremely online” Wikipedia entry:

“who the fuck is scraeming ‘LOG OFF’ at my house. show yourself, coward, i will never log off.”

I find that line hilarious: its summary of a whole universe of behaviours, the use of deliberate misspellings and the common social media preference for writing all in lower case with capitals reserved for shouting. If you’re “extremely online”, I don’t need to unpick those eighteen words; if you’re not, several columns’ worth of explanation might not be enough.

A lot has been written over the years about social media silos, how we curate what we see online, and which opinions we encounter, but it goes beyond that. Shifting language and slang can mean even those with whom we nominally share a language and an overarching culture become baffling and inscrutable.

My wife recently showed a video, in which some parents joked around saying Gen Z slang, to my twelve-year-old stepdaughter. Most of the words were gibberish to her. Like me, she exists on a generational boundary; she’s almost part of Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2009) but tips over into the next generation that newspapers will soon obsess over: Gen Alpha (kids born since 2010). Generation labels are a product of and a tool for marketers but their repetition leads to a sense of identification. My wife is proudly Gen X; I’m reluctantly a “geriatric Millennial” (my Zimmer frame will have racing stripes).

I can translate a lot of new slang and unpick some new trends because I actively seek out explanations, watch the videos, and listen to the music, but it still outpaces me. When I encountered examples of a recent TikTok trend called corecore, which involves collaging together existing video clips and music to make a (usually nihilist) point about society or politics, I thought of Adam Curtis documentaries and the Japanese video artist Ryoji Ikeda.

However, many articles about the trend, such as one published by Mashable, were keen toargue that it represented “a genuine form of art by Gen-Z”. Kieran Press-Reynolds, who first wrote about corecore – the name is a riff on the long history of using the -core suffix to describe an aesthetic – explained:

“I find corecore interesting not because the edits are stylish or audiovisually innovative. They are so simple… What intrigues me is precisely the emptiness of the scene. The hashtag has racked up 30 million views in the few months that it’s been a TikTok phenomenon. But unlikemost previously popular -cores – think cottagecore, normcore, breakcore – corecore has no mission statement, no how-to video, not even a basic description of style…

“The rise of corecore makes me think about trend exhaustion, how people are losing faith in fad forecasting and glossy media trend pieces. Whether intentionally or by accident, corecore is an anti-trend… So what the hell is this thing that’s not even a subculture, nor a fully-fledged aesthetic, but is still in some way a community?”

Even to careful analysts and observers of online culture – which, at this point, is really just culture – it’s hard to pin down and dissect. Often when the media identifies a trend, it is already about to burn out, seen as old hat and played out by those who stoked the fires. As soon as you teach your tongue to tackle a shibboleth, a new password is set.

Mic Wright is a journalist based in London. He writes about technology, culture and politics

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Life, March 2023, Tech Talk

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