Dear Crispy Chicken,

You write:

If we want a universe where we have an understanding of the technologies of manipulation, the way to do it is to make a public science of the social games people play. In 2020 this has become an especially sensitive topic, as people’s words are increasingly weaponized against them in culture wars.

So let’s take a quick look at a recent game I came across on Twitter—a game that’s both social and linguistic and requires a lot of context to grok its “meanings.” The interaction was deleted, and I don’t have saved records of the exchange, so I’ll have to approximate or fabricate some details or the exact wording of exchanges. Roughly,

  1. The Twitter user @OP tweeted out, “Okay, I’ll bite. What is NumPy?”
  2. A second Twitter user (we’ll call him @infodumper) wrote a long explanation of what NumPy is.
  3. @OP then screencapped @infodumper’s responses, followed by a popular meme reading “Love to be a woman in STEM. Love to be a part of it someday.”
  4. Other users piled in with replies to this last tweet, effectively shaming the @OP until
  5. A few hours later, @OP deleted the tweet.

No doubt, as an outsider to STEM fields, I’m missing some relevant context, but I’ll unpack what I can:

  1. NumPy is a very well-known Python library, one of the most used in STEM work.
  2. There is a fairly well-circulated meme or joke format, which has surfaced relatively recent and is still far from ubiquitous online, in which a user asks, “Okay, I’ll bite, what is X?,” where X is an incredibly well-known person or thing, e.g. “Who is J.K. Rowling?” and “What is Delaware?”
  3. There is significant cultural discourse around the phenomenon called “mansplaining,” understood as an interaction (typically in the workplace) in which a man condescendingly explains something to a woman who is (canonically) equally or more knowledgeable about the subject matter at hand. This is taken to reflect the way that women are not (at least as frequently as men) taken seriously experts in their fields, a problem reputed to be more acute in fields like tech and science.
  4. There is significant discourse around the way that “mansplaining” has been diluted as a critique or label. Where once it strictly identified only situations in which less-qualified or knowledgeable men condescendingly explained a phenomenon to more-qualified or knowledgeable women, it is often used to describe any situation in which a man explains (typically at length) something to a woman that she is not interested in, or is moderately knowledgeable about, or even to a question that was solicited but in such a way that provides too much information (an “infodump”).
  5. There is an ongoing discourse around “women in tech” and “women in STEM,” as well as gender dynamics in workplace culture (primarily around hostile environments for women created by or for men).
  6. There is an ongoing discourse around neurodiversity, and “neurodiversity shaming,” in which a (often but not always) man on the autism spectrum is shamed for missing subtle social context or clues.
  7. Infodumping is a classical autistic behavior.
  8. There is a larger discourse about the rise and ethics of “cancel culture,” or public shaming, especially on platforms like Twitter. One of the central conflicts is over whether the shamed men are being appropriately punished for their unethical behavior, or else whether the shaming is over-aggressive, attention-seeking, and/or vindictive. As a result, there are meaningful stakes in either attempting to curb or presenting solidarity with a public shaming.
  9. @OP is a young woman in STEM, whose bio reads “I like pathogens, popgen, and python. actually applying to PhD programs. my roommate is a bearded dragon. she/her, #BiInSci.”

I think we now have the necessary parts to understand the gist of the exchange—a summary of how the “game” went down. First, that the original @OP tweet was meant ironically, and as a joke, using the syntactic conventions of the format (“Okay, I’ll bite”) to signal its irony to her followers. What might the goal of this tweet have been? We’ve discussed previously how talk is “merely” a form of action, with sweeping affordances, which is to say that it’s a neutral tool to achieving many ends or agendas. While we might say that all action, or all talk, is “ultimately” in the service of some monistic telos like error minimization (Friston) or reproduction (Darwin) or pleasure (“wireheading” reward functions), there are many more immediate, intermediating ends that on a more “human” plane, comprised of everyday goals and desires, which are more important to attend to (in part because they have higher explanatory power as theories).

Still, your post gives us a good clue as to one of the primary functions of Twitter-talk: to “find the strongest network of bonds within [a] community we can”; “to cultivate the in-group… and enforce [its boundaries].” (Cultivation and rejection are one and the same in my mind: boundaries ensure the integrity of the internal structure.) @OP’s persona and Twitter identity is largely anchored on being a bisexual woman in tech (i.e. doubly marginalized), and accordingly, her follower base looks very similar. It seems possible her joke was not merely a formal extension of the structure of the joke (into a domain that she and her followers know well, or feel personally connected to), but also that it provides subtle commentary on the “women in tech” discourse (assumed inexpertise, even mansplaining).

The second @OP tweet, which included the screen captures of @infodumper, ended with a meme captioned “I love being a woman in STEM. Love to be a part of it someday” (a meme format taken from the American sitcom The Office). The “mansplaining” discourse is doing heavy lifting as the background context by which her screen-caps can be made sense of: in some sense, they implicitly accuse (or classify) the explaining user’s behavior as “mansplaining,” one of the many obstacles that women in tech are faced with, which lead them (again ironically) to proclaim a “love” for it. Again, this kind of performative communication helps affirm a community (women in tech) through a reference to a common enemy (the men, patriarchy), and is communicated in a manner mildly illegible to outsiders. (This “shibboleth” thesis is the flipside of the “leveraging shared ground for communicative efficiency” thesis.)

So why did the second Tweet and its screen-caps end up deleted? We can look to its replies, which accuse her of “neurodivergence shaming,” and include many of her followers, who themselves identify as being women in tech (or Python users) who themselves missed the irony of her original tweet. The sentiment was that the original joke was not obviously or widely recognizable as irony. Second, there was a concern that the public shaming might be “overkill,” or worse, that it bullied or discriminated against someone who was potentially neurodivergent. Third, it seemed there was a general consensus that the initial explanation had seemed helpful and given in goodfaith, rather than condescending—that it was not mansplaining, and the attempt at shaming the behavior felt vindictive, as if a “social game” or trick had been played. (In this case, one user supplied a name for this game, “bait and switch.”) Thus, the very in-group which @OP had been attempting to cultivate here rejects the attempt as violating their values, which ostensibly include charity or kindness, especially to those who (may be, or are speculated to be) neurodivergent.

All this goes some way to illustrating a point you make in closing that post, that

Status and power are essential elements of every conversation, and they inevitably determine the stances of interlocutors… It is status that determines whether a joke is funny because it should be taken sarcastically or literally. It is power that determines what a person is willing to say and therefore the information entropy of their response.

A quick sidenote that this is foundational to Bourdieu’s view of language, and you might get something out of reading Language & Symbolic Power. Bourdieu writes in a shorter, 1986 lecture “Social Space and Symbolic Power”:

I have in mind what I call strategies of condescension, those strategies by which agents who occupy a higher position in one of the hierarchies of objective space symbolically deny the social distance between themselves and others, a distance which does not thereby cease to exist, thus reaping the profits of the recognition granted to a purely symbolic denegation of distance (“she is unaffected,” “he is not highbrow” or “stand-offish,” etc).

But more importantly, the entire basis for this interaction is perceived power. The identification of underdog status, or persecution, of both “women in tech” and “the neurodivergent.” The ethical acceptability “punching up,” i.e. mocking or shaming someone who is perceived to be more powerful, and the ethical unacceptability of “punching down,” e.g. shaming someone who is neurodivergent and therefore socially “marginalized.” The way that @OP attempted to mobilize followers (as their “leader”?) in order to reaffirm the power dynamics she (and ostensibly her followers) perceive in the culture, that is, a subjective or psychological schema of social relations in which they are oppressed. And it is, just as importantly, an attempt to reclaim power, by galvanizing a group of allies to “get back at” the offending user, or else identify (“call out”) violators of certain in-group social norms.