Someday, a few centuries from now, anthropologists and linguists will be scouring data maps of frequent word usage on sites like Facebook. No doubt they will uncover many baffling phenomena – for instance, the trend toward image-based representation evident in emoticons, replacing ‘E’ with 3, and alternating capital and lower-case letters for what they’ll assume is aesthetic effect. And regarding this particular moment of the early ‘00s, they may pick out three key words to define our generation:
These words pervade the conversation of my peers, like any other faddish slang, but they suggest something larger about the age into which we’re transitioning: one in which the technologically-exposed simultaneously inhabit the tangible world and the web world.
The first word of the three whose ubiquity I noticed was “random.” I found myself saying it while trying to explain things in class, and realized that I was using it broadly and imprecisely. Why? Because all around me, my peers were constantly using it that way, too – “That’s so random!” in response to a friend saying “I ran into Jeff the other day!” Was it, in fact, random? Perhaps it wasn’t ordained by fate, but, you know, Jeff probably had a reason to be in the same place as you; I doubt it was an unconscious or aimless accident that he ended up there. The OED helpfully notes that this more general use of “random” isn’t so new (their example, to my delight: “Pretty random fiesta” from Clueless, 1994). Still, in the age of the Wikipedia vortex (you know, you start with “phenomenology,” end up at “stab-in-the-back-legend,” and wonder how you got there so quickly), it’s easy to overlook the underlying links among things and think, “how random!” – because you’re moving so damn fast from one thing to the other that there’s no time to logically bridge the gaps.
So, anyway, how was running into Jeff? “Really awkward….” “Awkward” still means “clumsy,” “unfavorable for one’s purpose,” and “embarrassing,” as in older OED definitions, but its relevance is now paramount. Why was it awkward? “Well, I had just spent thirty minutes stalking him on Facebook the other day, but I still had to ask him if he was dating anyone.” Social interaction after Facebook is irreparably divided; we can find out more than ever about a person before talking to him, but certain social codes still preclude our acknowledgment of this intimate awareness in person. Speaking of stalking, that brings us to “creepy,” and its cringe-worthy variant “to creep.” Strangers accidentally lurking in the back of photos are “creeping”; people making faces in photos in general are “creepy”; “creeping” is also a synonym for “stalking.” The latter two verbs are oddly self-aware admissions of the strange, somewhat socially-taboo way to use time that Facebook allows.
A recent New York Times review of “The Hangover Part II” aptly noted the trend toward the “jokeless comedy.” Adam Sternbergh discusses the move away from scripted, joke- or punch line-based comedy, and toward comedy embedded in, essentially, awkwardness. Judd Appatow movies, mockumentaries, and the post-laugh track era all reflect this. They take uncomfortable pauses, discordant outbursts, and general social ineptitude as the foundation of humor. And that’s not always a bad thing: I love Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation, and I appreciate the nuances and comedic timing that underlie well-executed versions of this phenomenon.
The thing is, awkwardness is funny, because it’s just painful unless you laugh at it. Comedy is complex, and this comedy is quite astute. We perversely like creepiness; memes of guys with unsettling mustaches are funny (hell, creepy mustaches themselves are now “real-world” trendy). Randomness is exciting; it’s comforting to accept the randomness of the world. Still, it’s hard to ignore the way these comedic and linguistic trends have paralleled the move into an internet-ubiquitous age, and scarily easy to imagine a world in which face-to-face interaction will always be deemed “awkward,” “random,” or “creepy.”