Searching Something Awful: Gleaning Meaning from Leetspeak

David S. Heineman
25 min readJan 7, 2022

Late last year, I learned that Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka, the creator of the website Something Awful, committed suicide at the age of 45. His death followed a series of legal troubles that, by most accounts, resulted from his own abusive actions towards many of those closest to him.

In the early 2000s, Something Awful was my introduction to both the kind of internet-based comedy that would eventually become known as “meme culture” and also to the kinds of message board-based discourses that would become synonymous with some of the darker corners of sites like 4chan. Many of the Something Awful forum members, who referred to themselves as “goons,” built their community around a stylized kind of “edgy” humor that, at the time, was valued by its membership as a sort of subversive retort to the unwelcome intrusion of more “politically correct” norms onto the increasingly accessible, commercialized, and diversely populated internet. Today, I can’t help but think of those SA forums when our contemporary champions of “edgelord” humor rail against “cancel culture” and work tirelessly to protect their “right” to offend others without fear of consequence.

In any case, by the time I started working on my PhD in Communication Studies at the University of Iowa in 2003, I was sufficiently fascinated by the Something Awful website to think it was a good subject for a critical analysis essay. What follows in the rest of this post is that essay, which I presented at the National Communication Association Conference in Chicago in 2004 (my first trip to the conference). The essay is very much the work of someone just beginning to think seriously about language and rhetorical theory…when I read it today I think it is full of interesting but under-cooked ideas. I never did much with the essay after the conference as I quickly moved on to other topics, though this paper likely influenced my eventual dissertation work on hacktivism. In any case, in light of current events, I think that some of what is here is still interesting enough to share with the wider internet. Please forgive the ridiculous original title.

TITLE: “Searching Something Awful: 9134|\|1|\|9 |\/|34|\|1|\|9 PhR0|\/| 13375P34k” [1]

ABSTRACT: Using the website SomethingAwful.com as a text, this essay explores the nuances of internet subculture. After describing the breadth of content available on the site, this essay explains the “discourse of the geek” and its ties to a specialized form of language known as leetspeak. Leetspeak, initially linked to the hacker community, carries with it historical baggage of hierarchy, technology, and satire. The essay argues that the malleable nature of languages and images on the internet point towards a postmodern aesthetic that helps to contextualize any sense of meaning on a website. Borrowing from the work of Calvin Schrag and Kenneth Burke, the content of SomethingAwful is critiqued. The essay argues that Schrag’s “temporalized economy of discourse” is best represented and studied through a hypertextual discourse such as a website; the web is a place where the self is simultaneously self-identifying and adapting its discourse to adhere to a subculture’s rapid rule changes. Through Burke, leetspeak is considered as a terministic screen and photoshopped images are considered as examples of perspective by incongruity. Next, focusing on the abusive, scatological nature of the site’s discourse, political ramifications of the website are pursued. Consequently, the rise of internet-based “geek subculture” is paralleled with Habermas’ discussion of the revolt against Bourgeois society, and the argument is made that the site might best be studied as a public sphere. Finally, suggestions for further research in the areas of 1) technology and agency 2) methodology for highly temporal discourses and 3) cross-cultural studies of internet culture are proposed.

Arguably, engaging in rhetorical scholarship that focuses in on aspects of culture that have not been previously studied by the field can be equally as rewarding as it is frustrating. Often a theorist that intends to bring a “toolkit” of rhetorical analysis to bear on these projects will find that the tools provided are inadequate for either interpreting the discourses at play or for evaluating questions of meaning as fruitfully as originally hoped. After analyzing the discourses offered in this present essay, I believe that this phenomenon has occurred in my current research. Though the field often privileges the practice of textual analysis (a “text” here is broadly construed) to aid us in both creating and working through theory, equally important has been the vein of research where both the selection of text and the questions raised by the researcher move beyond established methods of past rhetorical inquiry. I would like to think that this essay lie somewhere in the middle of these two camps — it is an attempt to produce writing that relies on the work of established rhetorical theorists in an effort to ask new questions of both meaning and methodology.

One “place” where this type of writing can often be generated is in research that approaches a self-defined “subculture.” These subcultures are wide ranging; they include everything from militia groups to sadomasochism enthusiasts to Star Wars fanatics. These groups often “marginalize” themselves; individuals will function within traditional roles provided by the larger society, but will take time to separate out from the broader culture and identify themselves with a subculture. Members of a subculture often live “separate lives” and maintain multiple identities. The methods and levels of identification within a subculture will usually vary depending on the interest of an individual and the expectations placed on them by a subculture. What is interesting for a rhetorician trying to understand how meaning varies from culture to culture, or how a discourse functions within a particular context, is the wealth of materials that these subcultures now provide. The internet has provided almost every group a form of agency — agency to explain their rules, beliefs, or guidelines for joining. These groups have also often provided individuals an opportunity to post daily journals, photos, songs, videos, and graphics in an attempt to express their individuality and/or loyalty to a subculture (or set of subcultures).

Something Awful is a website that is representative of just such a subculture. The site is intended as a humor website, and certainly some of the content would have a broad appeal to many individuals. Where the website is unique, however, is in its biting commentary on many internet subcultures. In this essay, I will provide a rhetorical analysis that explains how the website situates itself in cyberspace, suggests how it provides sense of meaning and form of identity for its readers, and explore how discourses circulate and function in an internet subculture. To do this, I will focus on three areas of discourse that are representative of the site’s many pages of content: the privileging of “leetspeak” (a language that exists almost exclusively on the internet and in written form) over other forms of conversation in public forums, the discourses of superiority (supremacy?) that are prominent on the daily “main page,” and the use of doctored images to provide commentary on other cultures. It should be noted that SomethingAwful is not the internet subculture, it functions primarily as a subculture founded on providing a critique of many internet subcultures. It’s tagline, “the internet makes you stupid,” speaks to this tendency.

Something Awful’s “Awful” Content

It may be useful for the reader to understand my own connection with SomethingAwful.com. I have been a daily internet user for almost ten years. A colleague of mine informed me in the spring of 2001 that they had found a funny collection of images on a website, and suggested I check it out. Following this suggestion, I went to the SomethingAwful.com — and many of the visual jokes resonated with me. Within a month or two I had gone through several years of the site’s archives, both looking at the pictures as well as reading other content on the site. I still currently check the site for updates about four times a week. My method of “coming to SomethingAwful” is not an uncommon phenomenon; most people will discuss their exposure to websites that do not have “real life” counterparts (e.g. cnn.com, sears.com) as a result of word of mouth, clicking interesting links, or accidentally stumbling onto these sites through search engines or other means. As far as I have been able to tell, SomethingAwful.com does not engage in any form of self-advertising.

SomethingAwful is updated daily by a staff of about five writers who take turns posting a main article, a description of new content on the site, and an “awful link of the day”. Clicking on the “awful link of the day” will usually take the reader to a personal webpage, an organization’s website, or a “meeting place” for various subcultures. This link is always deemed as a site poorly designed, poorly written, frightening in its content, disturbing in its ideology, or various combinations of all four categories of “awfulness.” The daily articles cover a wide range of topics, the most recent titles for these entries include “Violence, Racism, and Oppression,” “Thursday Night Holy War!,” “Hearts of Spandex: An Internet Writer’s Apocalypse (Part 2 of 2),” “Gary Leon Ridgeway is a Shitty Serial Killer,” “Trinity and Neo Die in the New Matrix,” “Life Lessons: Tards are People Too,” and “What A Goddamn Lousy Veteran’s Day.” The types of material covered in these articles parallels the other content areas on the website. These content areas include two weekly “doctored images” galleries- “Photoshop Phriday” and “Comedy Goldmine”, a “Movie Reviews” section (with a focus on really bad B-movies), “The Horrors of Porn” (with a focus on really bad B-porno movies), “Legal Threats” (documenting supposed action taken by awful link of the day “victims”), “Game Reviews” (current PC video games), “Hentai Reviews” (reviews Japanese animated porn), “ROM pit” (reviews bad games for old videogame platforms), Weekend Web (showcases the “awfulness” of various internet messageboards) and “Cliff Yablonksi Hates You” (supposedly an old guy who finds and then viciously criticizes pictures of people that are put up on personal websites). There are other areas on the site as well, some updated more frequently than others.

Perhaps the best way to identify the site as a location of subculture is through the SA Forums. These are messageboards that individuals pay a subscription fee to join, though anyone (member or not) can read what is posted there (I am not a member). The discussion on these boards covers a wide range of interests, though the majority of threads speak to internet subcultures and to video games. The first thing one may notice on these messageboards is the prevalence of an unconventional mode of typing, leetspeak.

If you need me to explain the title of this piece, you are probably unaware of much of the language used by a segment of the internet population. Speakers of this language would recognize that “1337” can be translated as “leet.” In translation, the “1” is an “L”, the “3”s are “E”s, and the “7” is a “T.” “Leet” is a shortened form of the word “elite”; understanding the complexities of this example is ultimately key in understanding the ideology, identity, and hierarchy of this culture.

The roots of this language are unclear, though early hackers (1960s) would probably be the first to have developed their own language that was based on manipulation of the English language through technical terms and jargon. The Jargon File, now in version 4.4.6, supports this suggestion (http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/). The modern incarnation of this manipulating language is based largely on a combination of historical and modern programming languages, the language patterns seen in chat rooms and instant messaging, and a lexicon stemming from science fiction work. The language often has a heavy sense of sarcasm and satire to it, (e.g. phrases like “LOL3rz!!11!,” a hybrid of traditional leetspeak and the language of a “12 year old AOL user”) though it is sometime taken seriously and as a safe way to communicate that is undecipherable by “the man,” parents, or file-sharers.

Though numerous “translators” exist for this language, the ability to use it frequently, correctly, and effectively is representative of one’s knowledge and skill within their chosen internet community. Since the idea of leetspeak has itself become subject of satire, smart and skillful users will often present their messages in a form that demonstrates cognizance of this development. A sentence such as “1 @|\/| @ 1337 4@X0r (I am a leet hacker)” would be laughed at, whereas a sentence such as “d00d 1 iz @ 31337-@zz h@Xor!1! (dude, I am a eleet-ass hacker)” shows a higher degree of sophistication in its ability to “play” with the language. Though the differences in content of these two examples are minimal, it is a language that is constantly developing and thus is hard to pin down in terms of “acceptable” vs. “non-acceptable” usage. This is theoretically a result of the nature of a language that has such a close relationship with technology. The language itself, whether used “properly” or “improperly”, is ultimately functional for the user as a way of elevating or reifying their own position in a particular internet culture. It is a language that separates from the whole, and orders the particular. I will return to the discussion of this “malleable” nature of language in the SA forums later in this essay.

That each subculture has a unique language is a phenomenon not lost on the writers on SA. They poke fun at the discourses of “Furries” (people who feel they relate best to animals and dress up in animal costumes, often with erotic intentions), “Goths” (individuals who express themselves through gothic imagery, read gothic novels, listen to “industrial” music, research vampires, etc.), “Camwhores” (people who run personal webcam websites, categorized by SA as often voyeuristic and egotistical), and various religious cults/sects. The following tirade, taken from the July 11th, 2003 front page update, sums up the general attitude of the website towards most internet subcultures, it is typical of the stereotypically adolescent male ideology pervading a majority of SomethingAwful:

I would be remiss if I didn’t vent my overarching hostility for the drooling masses of “Internet Enabled Fetishists” out there. You know who you are you sick mother fuckers. You’re the furries, the inflationists, the amputations fetishists, and the genital mutilation addicts. You are the people who would have lived a normal life before the Internet. Some of you might have had the first itch of your fetish but you would have suppressed it because you could never find anyone who shares your fetish and encourages you to blossom into a full grown sicko. But for many it isn’t even just a pathetic counter culture enabler for their disgusting fetishes and lifestyles, it’s flypaper for any lonely nerd who wants to belong to a clique. So they have to wear a panda suit with a cock-sheath, at least they feel accepted when some sweaty fifty year old man in a wolf costume has them clumsily bent over a couch. IT’S ALL GOOD BRO!”

While entries like this make it is easy to see the website as a location of hate speech, the authors are careful to target any and every creed, orientation, race, etc. in their satire. In this way, the website is similar to a television show like South Park or Beavis and Butt-head, or a magazine like Mad or Cracked. It is divergent from these examples, though, in that the primary focus of ridicule is not popular culture, but subculture.

Arguably, the site does provide a sense of superiority for individuals who do not belong to or understand any of these other (ridiculed) subcultures. Though able to poke fun at themselves, members frequently will allude to the technological savvy and general intelligence of “SA Goons” (a name by which members identify themselves) over other internet subcultures. This phenomenon is not unique to internet subculture. The discourses of subcultures are often politically confrontational and counter-cultural, they will often argue for solidarity resulting from either their obscurity or their reflexivity of larger cultural dilemmas. For SomethingAwful, much of this solidarity is evident in what I will call the “discourse of the geek.” This discourse includes frequent references to and discussions of popular science fiction and fantasy books/films/games (Final Fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons, Quake, Lord of The Rings, The Matrix, Starcraft, Star Wars, Babylon 5, etc.). The “discourse of the geek” is predominantly located (in the real world) in white, suburban, technology-saturated publics. When Something Awful puts up images of their contributors or audience, they frequently portray them both as pimply, greasy, un-fashionable16–25 year old white males who spend lots of times in “virtual” worlds and have struggles dealing with their own sexuality. Where the site differs from most modern portrayals of this “nerd,” is that it revels in this image. It lifts it up in celebration and satire simultaneously. SA brings these nerds to empowerment through their actions in much the same way that a woman may come to empowerment through the reading of feminist texts. Though the analogy here is crude, it illustrates the sense of imposed (constructed?) “marginalization” that the average audience member for SA has experienced.

The SA Goons compete with one another in weekly contests (for glory) to have their doctored images highlighted in the community’s weekly “Comedy Goldmine” and “Photoshop Friday” features. These features have recently included themes ranging from (clockwise below) “Uday and Qusay Hussein: What are they Doing Now?,” “Civil War Era Chicanery,” “Nazi Jamboree,” and “Remake Movies for Internet Subcultures”. Below is a sample of the images found in these weekly features:

Sample “Photoshop Phriday” images.

These images often focus on current events, and serve to bring together popular culture with recent tragedies. The “disrespectful” nature of the images is expected — even applauded — it is the confrontational element of the visual image which makes this particular subculture feel it can leave an impression on any potential viewer.

13375P34k, 5<hr@9, & 8ur|❤[2]

In an effort to better approach the question of “what does this all mean?”, it may be useful to more closely consider the form of language that is “leetspeak”. The use of leetspeak is certainly not limited to SomethingAwful’s website. A search of Google’s Usenet archive lists over 23,000 hits for “leet”, and a search of their websites lists over 1,300 hits for “leetspeak”. Though tracing its historical roots are difficult, The Jargon File seems to point to its roots in early computer hacking and programming. Though the public fears hackers, many on the web revere them. Hacking culture, valorized recently through film in The Matrix trilogy and for years in various internet forums, is representative of the highest form of technological skill, a sort of mastery over computers. Hackers are presented (and often present themselves) as mysterious, devious, and secretive. They have potential to crash corporations, steal identities, and destroy computers. Simply put, hackers are perceived by many to have absolute power on the internet, and many are envious of this position.

That early forms of leetspeak originated from the hacking community is significant. It did not take long for many to catch on to the not-so-mysterious codes of communication used by hackers. Internet users who would browse hacking messageboards and who would co-exist in the hacking community began to use this language themselves, as a way to identify with a set of ideologies as well as to show others “outside” of hacking that they too shared part of the power that came with the position of being a hacker. While this sharing of leetspeak spread, it probably manifested itself most often in online gaming. Significantly, in first person shooter games (e.g. Doom, Doom II, Quake) players would often work leetspeak into their online name. You would literally be killed (“fragged”) not by someone named “Slayer” but by a mysterious “514y3r”. Arguably, the theme of domination and power over other internet user that is associated with leetspeak reached its climax in the early to mid 1990s, in internet gaming communities. Thereafter, leetspeak was seen in nearly the proliferation it is currently — it is used in instant messaging, email signatures, and messageboard posts.

As a result of this proliferation, leetspeak quickly lost its status and initial impact as representative of being a hacker/ involved with hacker culture. Instead, leetspeak is now “made fun of” by “legitimate” hackers — hackers and early adopters of leetspeak often use leetspeak only to parody those who adopt the language after it has lost all of its initial meaning. The continuing cycle of leetspeak usage is dizzying. Arguably, today one’s use of leetspeak is a hallmark only of lots of time spent on the computer, often heavily engaged in the discourses of geek subcultures. The language, however, does carry all the baggage of past associations. This malleable nature of leetspeak is representative of the internet itself. Calvin Schrag in The Self After Postmodernity (1997) suggests that:

When we speak, we speak a language, and thus we always speak from a language, from a context of delivered significations. Words…live off the capital of language…and stimulate the economy of discourse as at once a creative achievement and a deliverance of meanings already uttered, at once event and system, at once an articulation of that which is new and representation of what is old…It is within this economy of discourse that self is called into being. (17)

Leetspeak, through the lens of Schrag , is intrinsically tied to notions of self. Not only is the baggage of past associations and meaning that language carries with it indicative of a history, it is constitutive of the speaking subject’s relationship to that history. Shcrag elaborates:

in this temporalized economy of discourse the self lives through a multiplicity of changing profiles and plurality of language games in which it holds court, but not without some sense of self-identity — some sense of being present to itself in its remembered past, its engaged present, and its projected future. (ibid.)

I would argue that this “temporalized economy of discourse” is best represented and studied through a hypertextual discourse such as a website. In an internet subculture, the self is simultaneously changing and identifying — adapting discourse to fit rapidly developing new technologies and moment by moment articulation of rules and constantly identifying with those new rules to maintain membership in the subculture.

As mentioned above, leetspeak also reflects on technological achievement. On SomethingAwful, there is an underlying affinity for the power of technology (exerted and realized through both language and through the visual image) to shape and reshape our realities. By importing technology onto discourses where the role of technology is not initially visible, the members of SomethingAwful provide insight into the pervasive role of technology in both the “virtual” and the “real” world. They also suggest an increasing blurring between these locational distinctions.

It is helpful to theorize leetspeak’s ability to expose “truisms” about culture (and subculture) through Kenneth Burke’s theories of the terministic screen. Burke, in Language as Symbolic Action, discusses “two kinds of terms: terms that put things together and terms that take things apart” (49). This “putting together” is seen in leetspeak’s blending of the English language with computer programming terms and a coded alphabet. Burke explains that “all terminologies must implicitly or explicitly embody choices between the principle of continuity and the principle of discontinuity” (50). Essentially, leetspeak exemplifies Burke’s discussion of a terministic screen that either divides or unites our representations of reality from other humans. The computer monitor is not the only significant screen in this internet subculture; an individual who observes the world (by reading) and communicates thought (by typing) through the terministic screen of leetspeak is always working through a lens of technology, through a symbolic screen (language) that is highly self-aware of its own influence on identity and meaning.

Burke also offers us a useful method to work through possible meanings of the visual images presented in SA’s “Photoshop Friday” and “Comedy Goldmine” — his discussion of perspective by incongruity. Working through an example of the image above, we can come to new perspectives of both the Telletubbies and the Nazis (e.g. “perhaps the telletubbies are Fascist- they do all look alike” or “perhaps the Nazis would be appealing to children in this way today to join the Hitler youth”). This is actually one of the great benefits of the malleability of photoshopped pictures. The resulting postmodern aesthetic provides not only a means of commenting on the world, but often a fresh perspective that leads to a new understanding of history/culture/texts altogether. To the extent that the perspectives offered on SomethingAwful can be attributed to and representative of a particular community is the focus of the next section of this essay.

The Internet Subculture as Public Sphere

Following the lead of Nancy Fraser’s “Rethinking The Public Sphere” (1993)[3], we may view SomethingAwful.com as a public sphere, one of many public spheres that make up a larger public. We can then approach questions of how this subculture develops. Here it may be useful to look at Jurgen Habermas’s (1962, trans. 1989) discussion on the rise of Bourgeois public sphere. If, for the sake of comparison, we can parallel the revolt against bourgeois culture with the revolt of “geekdom” against some conception of “popular culture”, then we may be able to understand what SA is attempting to do. The project to establish what any website is trying to do is potentially futile, but the antagonistic nature of the discourses on Something Awful provide an opportunity to consider the site as a form of rebellion. Similarly, the transformation of the Bourgeois public sphere is, in essence, a revolt. Habermas puts it this way:

The Bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people came together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. (27).

The revolt against bourgeois culture was a challenge to the wealthy, ruling nobles of the time. It was formed out of the emerging middle class, who collectively had more wealth and influence then the few nobles. The transformation from a group of disgruntled merchants to what Habermas deems “a developing critical sphere (24)” comes when there became a clear division between the authority and the general population.

This analogy falls down in several places, most notably, perhaps, in the realm of economics. Though the counter-culture element that is a part of the subcultural community of SomethingAwful is full of disgruntled merchants they are not the same as Habermas’ proletariat. They are not interested in a bartering of goods and services[4], but instead a bartering of cultural capital — it is some degree both recognition and influence that the culture seeks, though on its own terms.

Thinking of an internet subculture as one that necessarily connects with and borrows from other subcultures is a useful figuration for rhetorical research. If the power of identification, for members of SA, lie intrinsically within the interactivity of these other publics, then the rules of persuasion necessarily change. The notion of an audience is not “a public”, but instead many publics. There is no “universal audience”, but instead specific (“particular”) targets of communication[5].

Meaning and the Internet Subculture

The internet provides a unique medium of expression for subcultures who wish to articulate their sentiments towards other cultures. The web gives a subculture the ability to easily combine a written text with images, encourages the interaction of the audience and the author of a website, and blurs the boundaries of taste and legality. Because of this, many subcultures have grown and will continue to thrive in cyberspace. To understand the success of these discourses, we must discover how rhetoric functions to provide meaning to the participants in these subcultures.

The text on these sites is highly malleable. If, as Schrag (1992) suggests, postmodernity includes “despised logos” notions such as “indeterminacy and undecidability; plurality and paralogy; [and] the politics of power and desire” (10) then threads of postmodernist thinking is prevalent throughout much of the discourse seen on SomethingAwful.com. The “leetspeak,” a language that is constantly evolving from past forms, borrowing from other discourses for its lexicon, and changing the rules of usage, provides a site for the emergence of a subculture. The active and transformative nature of the language allows for a subculture to remain protected… outsiders are easily identified. Through utilizing language in this form, cultures are strengthened — one must remain engaged in the discussions of the culture to understand how to best participate in the culture. The nuances are important. In these ways, “leetspeak” functions in many of the same way and serves the same ends that a traditional language does, it just does it at an accelerated pace (thus hypertext).

The malleability of texts is important in considering how conversations work. On an internet messageboard, discourses are continual. There is no dead conversation, there is no forgotten utterance. Individuals can respond quickly to one another, or can spend weeks researching before posting their “piece” of a conversation. Since there is no concern for immediate physical repercussions, an individual in the subculture can basically say what they want. Markham (1998) reports that “Online, negotiating a simple detail…takes multiple messages at best, sometimes days or weeks” (65). This is why the discourses of superiority seen in many of the articles on SA might be deemed “safe” — they are not made in a traditional, non-cyber forum (e.g. a classroom or a mall courtyard). They are not directly (in person) presenting an antagonistic and arrogant “superiority” to the individuals or cultures over which they are “lording.” The rhetoric produced does not have to (though it often does) interact with many audiences; it is often intended for a subculture, by a subculture.

The use of visual images — the splicing together of pop culture, geek subculture, history, and current events (all cut and paste in Adobe Photoshop) — provides the subculture a unique form of creative expression. These expressions are highly self-aware. Not only do they reflect a fixation with the media, but they are critiqued by fellow “Goons” in terms of technical ability and ability to represent inside jokes. The constant connection to technical skill, and thus mastery of technology is seen again here — it is the tie that binds usage of language, feelings of superiority, and skill of expression.

Considering the post-modern aesthetic of this subculture, as well as the deliberately “secretive” nature of their discourse, I would argue here that the meaning of a subculture’s text is never known- nor is it meant to be. The notion of ideas or an ideology as being “concrete,” “relevant,” or “serious” is counter-intuitive to the formation and sustainability of an internet subculture. Instead, these cultures revel in the lack of meaning, in the obscurity of language, and in the subjectivity of culture. Perhaps meaning for the members of the sub-culture is limited only to membership in that culture. “Attacks” by SomethingAwful on other subcultures or on a broader public are not positioned as ways to actually harm, but as exercises to continually work through the satirical and critical nature of their evolving discourses.

BS0D (The Blue Screen of Death)

The title of this section is the term used for what appears on the computer monitor during a crash of the Microsoft Windows operating system. In many ways, I feel this is an appropriate metaphor for what happens at this point in the present research project. I wish to utilize this section as an attempt to recover several key elements of this essay that I feel slip through the cracks.

I suggested at the outset that this essay would situate itself as a paper to ask new questions of both meaning and methodology. Following the observations made above, I have many questions about the construction of meaning and identity in internet subcultures that extend beyond the scope of this essay. I also have questions regarding the methodology for reading a website such as SomethingAwful, a site that archives years of content and has thousands of pages of content. The questions below do not reflect concerns that are specific to SomethingAwful.com; most of them will require analysis across many websites to reach profitable conclusions. I will group these concerns around three potential areas for further consideration.

First, there is a strong connection between technology and power that has implications for both subjectivity and agency. It may be useful to read Donna Haraway’s discussion of the cyborg (1991), Rosi Braidotti’s take on biopower (through Foucault) and technologies that disembody (1994), and various authors who comment specifically on the development of the internet subject (e.g. Mitra [2001], Singh [2001], Markham [1998]. Agency needs to be theorized not just in terms of an individual (“how can I act in an internet subculture?”) but also in terms of groups (“how does an online subculture act?”). While I suggested that hackers occupy a place of special power and privilege on the web, this suggests a more hierarchical perspective than I think should be extended to the whole internet. Relationships of power in cyberspace need to be interrogated, as does the existence (or non-existence) of hierarchical structures.

Second, if we consider the internet to be a technology that is open to the analysis suggested by McLuhan (1964) or Postman (1992), there is a need to work through methodology of both research and criticism. In such a highly interactive medium, one that simultaneously frustrates/complicates our lives as well as makes it easier, we will need to develop an approach that allows us to simultaneously critique both the medium and a community of users. We will also need to consider the issue of evaluating a text that is based on an ever developing technology and thus occupies an inherently temporal existence. Leetspeak illustrates this phenomenon.

Finally, when studying the internet, we need to consider re-evaluating our cultural frames of analysis. Convenient social classifications such as “Western”, “Eastern”, “Democratic”, “Capitalistic”, etc. are problematic in a location where the phenomena of globalization is perhaps more evident than any other. We need to consider the cross-cultural dimensions of life on the internet. Specifically, it is interesting to consider where current frames of analysis (e.g. post-colonialism) may be reified or discredited by the discourses that circulate in online communities. How are questions of online uses of cultural narratives, social capital, and modernist science complicated by comparing divergent sites like SomethingAwful and Bangladesh-web.com/news/?

These questions may be beyond the scope of this paper, but they reflect the problems of a rhetorical analysis that come from studying internet subcultures. It will be exciting to see how the discipline responds to proliferation of new kinds of texts, how they will theorize hypertext through traditional rhetorical theory, and how scholarship might reflect the interactivity and reflexivity of its potential online objects of study.

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Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic subjects : embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory . New York : Columbia University Press, c1994.

Habermas, Jurgen. The structural transformation of the public sphere : an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c1989.

Haraway, Donna J. Simians, cyborgs, and women : the reinvention of nature. New York : Routledge, c1991.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the public sphere” in The phantom public sphere. Ed. Bruce Robbins. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1993.

Markham, Annette. Life online: researching real experience in virtual space. Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press, c1998.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding media : the extensions of man. New York :McGraw-Hill, 1965, c1964.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly : the surrender of culture to technology. New York: Knopf, c1992.

Schrag, Calvin. The resources of rationality : a response to the postmodern challenge. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c1992.

— — — — — The self after postmodernity. New Haven, [Conn.] ; London : Yale University Press, c1997.

SomethingAwful. 12/09/03. <http://www.somethingawful.com>

NOTES:

[1] Searching Something Awful: Gleaning Meaning From Leetspeak

[2] Leetspeak, Schrag, & Burke

[3] “I contend that, in stratified societies, arrangements that accommodate contestation among a plurality of competing publics better promote the ideal of participatory parity than does a single, comprehensive, overarching public sphere” (14).

[4] “Geeks” arguably have achieved the monetary goals that once stirred the proletariat to revolt against the bourgeois. Even in the wake of dot-com crashes, many businesses still pay lucratively for tech support and computer programmers.

[5] Perleman, C. The Realm of Rhetoric. University of Notre Dame Press. 1982.

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David S. Heineman

Professor & documentary filmmaker whose research and teaching focuses on rhetorical and critical theory, new media, and visual culture. | www.davidheineman.net