What is Poe’s Law?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesThere are two different Poe’s Law — both named after different individuals named Poe. While one unwritten law refers to poetry; the other refers to parody. Let’s begin our discussion with the first Poe’s Law named after Edgar Allan Poe, the famous American short-story writer who explored madness and the macabre. In the context of literature, Poe’s Law establishes the proper length of a poem. We learn about this in John Middleton Murry’s book titled Pencillings (1923), a collection of short essays on life and literature. In the essay “The Problem of Size,” Murry writes: “The other day I listened to a famous French poet lecturing on the ideas of Edgar Allan Poe… [One] of Poe’s ideas… has had a very remarkable influence upon the development of modern French poetry. I mean his theory that the unit of poetry must be fixed by the readers capacity of attention, and that the limits of a poem must accord with the limits of a single movement of intellectual apprehension and emotional exaltation. A long poem, said Poe, was really only a sequence of short ones; and it would be a good thing (he thought) if it did not pretend to be anything else.”

The other Poe’s Law, was introduced more recently; It is considered one of a handful of unwritten laws of the internet, that describes common patterns of communication found in chat rooms and comments sections. As the story goes, on August 10, 2005 Nathan Poe, an agnostic, was debating a creationist on the website Christian Forums on the the topic of “big contradictions in the evolution theory.” He used a heavy dose of sarcasm in an argument and punctuated with the winking face emoji to reinforce the sarcasm. Someone responded to Poe’s comment by writing: “Good thing you included the wink. Otherwise people might think you are serious.” It was that comment that inspired Poe to create Poe’s Law, which he defined as: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article.” Expressed another way, if you write a sarcastic post without the winking emoji, people will take it seriously. Today, Poe’s Law is more broadly applied to any extreme view — not just creationism — that is expressed on the internet. The editors of Dictionary.com add: “The point [of Poe’s Law] is that fundamentalist or dogmatic views can become so extreme, despite their acceptance, that even parodies of this views are unmistakable for the real thing, to the point that extremists may accidentally embrace a parody as truth.” Yikes!

Through this eponymous law, Poe confirmed what so many people have already surmised over the years: it is very difficult to effectively convey sarcasm, irony, facetious remarks, and certain kind of humor via email or text because the reader is lacking critical non-verbal cues (like body language, facial expressions, and voice intonation) that convey the actual or intended meaning. Poe’s Law made it into the informal English lexicon in 2006 when it was published in the Urban Dictionary. Poe’s Law, however, is not limited to online conversation — it has become mainstream in the discussion of culture and politics. In an article in WIRED magazine, staff writer Emma Grey Ellis observes: “People talking about ‘spin in the era of Trump’ and ‘post truth’ don’t talk about politics in terms of Poe’s Law,” [Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Internet Culture] says. “But it’s there, whenever you’re not sure if you should be mad or just roll your eyes.” It’s as present in Julian Assange stoking the Seth Rich conspiracy or Kellyanne Conway’s ‘kidding’ about telling people to buy Ivanka Trump’s clothing as it is in YouTuber PewDiePie’s attempts to justify racism as satire.”

Related to Poe’s Law is Poe’s Corollary which states that a person’s actual expressed views are so extreme that another person misinterprets those views as a parody.

As we have all learned in the past four years,  in the Trumpian world Truth has been eroded to the point that we have “alternative facts” and Rudy Giuliani’s unforgettable statement: “the truth isn’t truth.” All of this insanity, of course, adds another obstacle to clear communication on the internet. As Rupert Taylor observes in his essay “Poe’s Law and Internet Satire” on TurboFuture: “Sometimes, everything gets so tangled up that you don’t know if you’re seeing Poe’s Law in action, a parody of Poe’s Law, or both at the same time.” God help us.

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Read related posts: Godwin’s Law
The Unwritten Rules of the Internet

Unwritten Rules of Life
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For further reading: https://www.dictionary.com/e/slang/poes-law