how apropoe – on poe’s law and the wasting of irony on the internet

Es­ti­mated reading time is 12 min­utes.

I AM A PRACTICING IRONIST. Need­less to say, I have run up against a few ob­sta­cles trying to use it ef­fec­tively on the internet, es­pe­cially on Face­book. I usu­ally use irony as a rhetor­ical de­vice when I want to make a point about someone’s ex­tremely ir­ra­tional or just plain stupid comment—a rather common occurrence.

When I want that person to know that I be­lieve he is in­cor­rect but I want the chal­lenge soft­ened by a wee bit (bite?) of humor. And, as all Face­bookers know, there are a whole hel­luva lot of people on Face­book who post first, think later!

Ac­tu­ally, it is doubtful that they think ever. 1

If the person gets the irony, great! It’s a clue that they know how to use their brain for some­thing other than as a sponge for soaking up rightwingnut demagoguery.

I don’t in­tend this to be one of my po­lit­ical rant-pieces, but al­most without ex­cep­tion, the people who do not get irony are the so-called conservatives.

Poe’s Law states that par­o­dies of ex­treme views will be mis­taken by some readers for sin­cere ex­pres­sions of the par­o­died views.

Also al­most without ex­cep­tion, the readers who do get irony on the In­ternet (and usu­ally else­where) are the so-called librulls.

A dear friend of mine—and a life­long Re­pub­lican (al­though I haven’t given up hope of con­verting her, even if on her deathbed)—who I shall mys­te­ri­ously call Jaygee, sug­gested that the In­ternet needs a new type­face just to in­di­cate irony and sarcasm!

I thought this a great idea, ex­cept that there are so many type­faces al­ready that are ugly or ab­surd or pre­ten­tious or just dumb that I doubt that such a thing could ever happen.

In­stead of a stylish new font face (Iro­netica con­densed? Sarc sans?), we have the rather childish (if ad­mit­tedly some­what ef­fec­tive) emoticons.


PoeEdgarAllen portrait copy

The Poe’s Law you will read about here has ab­solutely nothing to do with one of Amer­i­ca’s greatest writers, Edgar Allan Poe. That Poe sin­gle­hand­edly saved di­rector Roger Corman from a life and ca­reer of medi­oc­rity by writing sto­ries for three movies that lifted Corman out of the hell-hole of Hol­ly­wood dreck: House Of Usher (1960), The Pit And The Pen­dulum (1961), and The Raven (1963).

Italians, Irish, and Irony

I was mo­ti­vated to do this piece be­cause I posted some not-so-subtle irony on an­other per­son’s Face­book page yes­terday. The person posted what I found to be an ir­ra­tional rant:

This morning on the news, Obama wants to let more Syrian refugees into the states. For all you bleeding hearts out there, why don’t you let them live with you, hang out in your base­ment or shed, and borrow your Home Depot card. Are you re­ally that f*ckin’ stupid? Or just as cor­rupt as Obama?”(Various gram­mat­ical boners corrected.)

It struck me as ironic and funny that the person had three sur­names (mar­riage?) from three dif­ferent na­tion­al­i­ties, one of which is Italian. So I com­mented, “Frankly, I think we should have drawn the line with the Eye­talyans and the Ey­e­rish in the 19th cen­tury, but it’s too late now.” 2

No winking or smirking emoticons.

Just words.

While I have yet to hear from the poster, I did have a couple of po­lite chit-chats with readers about my in­ten­tion. One was Italian: he wasn’t cer­tain as to whether or not I was some weird anti-Italian bigot.

We ended up chat­ting. I in­vited him over here to read and com­ment. He warned me that he was into dis­course and not ar­guing. I replied with a clever bit of bogus al­gebra: “ar­gu­ment – (un­con­trolled) anger = dis­course.” To which he agreed.

The friend who read my post emailed me and in­quired as to my aware­ness of Poe’s Law. Never heard of it, so I looked it up. (Of course.) I was cu­rious: what­ever could old Edgar Allan have to do with the world­wide web.


Poe header 500 crop Raven

Poe’s Law on the Internet

In 2005, a thread on the Chris­tian Fo­rums web­site was one of the end­less de­bates re­garding cre­ationism. Ap­par­ently, many of the ar­gu­ments were par­o­dies of cre­ationist claims, a target too easily par­o­died for many people with a bent for wicked humor.

Ap­par­ently, some readers of the thread took the humor as fur­ther ir­ra­tional ar­gu­ments for cre­ationism. That is, they took the par­o­dies at face value without reading the ironic or hu­morous intent.

Someone named Nathan Poe posted a com­ment that I as­sume was a parody and ended his post with a winky.

An­other reader replied to Poe, “Good thing you in­cluded the winky. Oth­er­wise, people might think you are serious.”

Poe then en­tered the Pan­theon of Minor In­ternet Deities by re­plying, “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.”

From that humble origin came Poe’s Law. Ba­si­cally, without a clear in­di­cator of the au­thor’s in­tent, many if not most par­o­dies of ex­treme views will be mis­taken by some readers for sin­cere ex­pres­sions of the par­o­died views. Here is a more formal sounding ver­sion from Ra­tional Wiki:

“Without a clear in­di­ca­tion of the au­thor’s in­tent, it is dif­fi­cult or im­pos­sible to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween an ex­pres­sion of sin­cere ex­tremism and a parody of extremism.

It is an ob­ser­va­tion that it’s dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­sible, to dis­tin­guish be­tween par­o­dies of fun­da­men­talism or other ex­treme views and their gen­uine pro­po­nents since they both seem equally insane.” 

So, Poe’s Law was not ap­plic­able to my Face­book ex­pe­ri­ences today but it cer­tainly cap­tured my attention . . .


ArthurCClarke photo 800

British writer Arthur C. Clarke gave us three ‘laws’ re­garding re­cur­ring themes (cliches) in science-fiction. The third law (below) has been adapted re­peat­edly for other areas of use, such as the ubiq­ui­tous and gen­er­ally re­viled ‘trolls’ on the Internet.

Prehistory of Poe’s Law

Poe’s Law was not the first such ob­ser­va­tion re­garding the in­ability of some of us-all-of-the-time and all-of-us-some-of-the-time to dis­cern the com­menter’s intentions.

 In 1983, Jerry Schwarz noted on the an­ti­quated Usenet: “Avoid sar­casm and face­tious re­marks. Without the voice in­flec­tion and body lan­guage of per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, these are easily mis­in­ter­preted. A side­ways smile [our winky above] has be­come widely ac­cepted on the net as an in­di­ca­tion that ‘I’m only kid­ding.’ If you submit a satiric item without this symbol, no matter how ob­vious the satire is to you, do not be sur­prised if people take it seriously.”

 In 2001, Alan Morgan took Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd Law, a well-known maxim for science-fiction writers, and cre­ated a ‘law’ for the In­ternet: Clarke’s “Any suf­fi­ciently ad­vanced tech­nology is in­dis­tin­guish­able from magic” be­came Mor­gan’s “Any suf­fi­ciently ad­vanced troll is in­dis­tin­guish­able from a gen­uine kook.” 3

I ac­knowl­edge that this is not an area of my ex­per­tise. Much of the text making up “Poe’s Law of In­ternet in­ten­tion” and “A pre­his­tory of In­ternet law” above was rather lib­er­ally adapted from Wikipedia.

Most of the text that fol­lows (“Ex­pan­sion of the con­cept” through “Poe’s Paradox”) is an edited abridg­ment of the entry on the Ra­tional Wiki website—which is much better or­ga­nized, written, and edited than stan­dard Wikipedia entries.

Any changes I made aside from ju­di­cious pruning is en­closed in brackets ( [ ] ). This lengthy sec­tion is also in­dented, to fur­ther set it off from my own words.


BigBangTheory comic book store 1000 crop

Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj visit Stu­art’s comic book store to feed their in­fan­tile ob­ses­sion with comic books (The Big Bang Theory). They are ad­mit­tedly far more rounded human be­ings: they have jobs, so­cial lives, and—gasp!—wives and girl­friends! I know this has little to do with Poe’s Law, but the ex­tremes of fan­boyism are men­tioned in the Ra­tional Wiki piece (below) and I still love comic books of the pre-fanboy-takeover era.

Expansion of Poe’s Law

Orig­i­nally, Poe’s Law specif­i­cally ad­dressed someone mis­taking a parody of fun­da­men­talism for the real thing—that if someone made a sar­castic com­ment stating that evo­lu­tion was a hoax be­cause “birds don’t give birth to mon­keys,” then there was a high prob­a­bility that at least one person would miss the joke and ex­plain (in all se­ri­ous­ness) how the poster was an idiot.

How­ever, the usage of the law has grown, and now the term Poe is ap­plied to al­most any parody on the In­ternet. Es­sen­tially, Poe’s Law has de­vel­oped to in­clude three sim­ilar but dis­tinct concepts:

1.  The orig­inal idea that at least one person will mis­take parody post­ings for sin­cere beliefs.

2.  That no­body will be able to dis­tin­guish many in­stances of parody posts from the real thing.

3.  That anyone not al­ready in the grip of fun­da­men­talist ideas will mis­take sin­cere ex­pres­sions of fun­da­men­talism for parody.

Not only can Poe’s Law apply to ex­treme fun­da­men­talism, but it can also apply to ex­treme lib­er­alism, fan­boyism, char­i­ta­ble­ness, en­vi­ron­men­talism, or even love.

The most likely reason for this ex­pan­sion is the ten­dency for people to “call Poe’s Law” on any fun­da­men­talist rant even be­fore someone has re­sponded negatively.

The ac­tual canon­ical de­f­i­n­i­tion has not changed to en­com­pass the ex­panded usage, and a true Poe’s Law fun­da­men­talist could ob­ject to its usage be­yond the orig­inal con­cept. 4

On the other hand, the ob­jec­tion it­self could be a parody.


Poe header 500 crop

Poe is also a noun

Poe as a noun has be­come al­most as ubiq­ui­tous as Poe’s Law it­self. In this con­text, a Poe refers to a person, post, or news story that could cause Poe’s Law to be in­voked. In most cases, this is specif­i­cally in the sense of posts and people who are taken as le­git­i­mate but are prob­ably parodies.

Hence a typ­ical phrase would be “it’s a Poe, guys, don’t be so stupid” when [an ex­tremely ra­tional] link is posted. A sim­ilar use is “I hope this is a Poe” to refer to the des­perate hope that hu­manity isn’t quite as stupid as [the com­ment that] someone has just read.

The main corol­lary of Poe’s Law refers to the op­po­site phe­nom­enon, where a fun­da­men­talist sounds so un­be­liev­able that ra­tional people will hon­estly think the fun­da­men­talist is pre­senting a parody of his be­liefs. The Poe’s Law Corol­lary reads:

“It is im­pos­sible for an act of fun­da­men­talism to be made that someone won’t mis­take for a parody.”

This corol­lary comes into play es­pe­cially when the ra­tional person has al­ready learned and ex­pe­ri­enced Poe’s Law, pre­dis­posing them to think that any ex­treme view is prob­ably parody.

Then there is the Poe Paradox, a fur­ther corol­lary to Poe’s Law that re­sults from an un­healthy level of para­noia. It states that:

“In any fun­da­men­talist group, a paradox ex­ists where any new person (or idea) suf­fi­ciently fun­da­men­talist to be ac­cepted by the group is likely to be so ridicu­lous that they risk being re­jected as a par­o­dist (or parody).”


Poe Catch22 cartoon 1000

This per­fect il­lus­tra­tion is by Ter­rence Now­icki Jr for the This Is His­toric Times web­site (2009). This is a play on the ex­pla­na­tion that Doc Da­neeka gives Yos­sarian in the book (below). Sayeth the artist: “This started out as a car­toon on the cur­rent health­care de­bate and kind of mu­tated into a com­ment on health insurance.

Poe’s Law Paradox as catch-22

I started an ar­ticle sev­eral years ago on the Ten Books That Best Cap­tures the Zeit­geist of “The Six­ties” and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was the first title on my list. While people who didn’t live then may be con­fused as to why so many of us old farts bliss out when­ever this book is men­tioned. After all, it’s about bomber crews in World War II!

Yes, but the theme of the book is the per­ver­sion and in­sanity of war and cap­i­talism and the ne­ces­sity of de­fying au­thority and bul­lies every­where if you want to die with your soul on! Here is the per­ti­nent ex­cerpt from the book:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which spec­i­fied that a con­cern for one’s own safety in the face of dan­gers that were real and im­me­diate was the process of a ra­tional mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded.

All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more mis­sions. Orr would be crazy to fly more mis­sions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them.

If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yos­sarian was moved very deeply by the ab­solute sim­plicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a re­spectful whistle.” 5

The term catch-22 has since en­tered the Eng­lish lan­guage, re­fer­ring to a type of un­solv­able logic puzzle some­times called a double-bind. Ac­cording to Heller’s novel, people who were crazy were not obliged to fly ad­di­tional bombing mis­sions over enemy tar­gets. But anyone who ap­plied to stop flying be­cause they claimed to be crazy was showing a ra­tional con­cern for their safety, and was there­fore sane.” 6


TommyLeeJones newspaper 1000

For a photo of the per­fect raised eye­brow, I went in search of Spock. Then I found this one of Tommy Lee Jones, and well, ladies and gents, this one says, “Was that apropoe?” just fine, thank you.

Round-up and conclusions

Well, the smar­ty­pants writer side of me wants to con­tinue using irony (and in­nu­endo and al­lu­sion, but that’s an­other story) freely, without give­away emoti­cons. But what’s the point if the point is never made be­cause the person the irony is in­tended for is ap­par­ently in­ca­pable of un­der­standing irony. Or even ap­pre­ci­ating irony when it’s explained?

The only plus of going on the way I have is that it makes meeting the readers who get it and ei­ther laugh with me or chal­lenge me and then laugh that much more enjoyable.

But using emoti­cons would clear up po­ten­tial con­fu­sion and clarify ex­actly what I hope to com­mu­ni­cate. De­ci­sions, de­ci­sions, and, oh, woe is me.

I have also used the rhetor­ical ques­tion with ir­ra­tional people; it works about as well as irony on the In­ternet. But if you re­ally want to piss them off, send them a link to a site full of facts that dis­prove their hate-filled belief!

Coining a new word

From apropos (“at an ap­pro­priate time; op­por­tune”) I have coined apropoe to re­place the need to say “I call Poe’s Law,” which sounds rather fan­boyish. In­stead, one may raise an eye­brow, roll one’s eyes, and then drolly drop, “How ut­terly apropoe . . .”

Poe’s Law states that par­o­dies of ex­treme views will be mis­taken by some readers for sin­cere ex­pres­sions of the par­o­died views. Click To Tweet 

Poe header copy

HEADER IMAGE: There are many fine il­lus­tra­tions for Poe’s “The Raven” on the In­ternet. I found this one for an ar­ticle ti­tled “Edgar Allan Poe pub­lished The Raven 170 years ago today” by Avishay Artsy on the Which Way LA? web­site. It is per­fect as a header for this ar­ticle. Alas, I could not find the artist’s name.





1   Will someone please alert me when Internet-with-a-capital-‘I’ be­comes a gener­i­cally Internet-with-a-small-‘i’?

2   Of course that is my at­tempt at humor: mis­spelling Italian and Irish. The poster had at least one Italian sur­name while my family is mostly Irish, de­spite the weird last name. So, knowing that—which the poster could not—any slighting was self-deprecating (and iron­ical) (of curse).

3   A troll is a person who sows dis­cord on the In­ternet by starting ar­gu­ments or up­set­ting people by posting com­ments in an on­line com­mu­nity with the de­lib­erate in­tent of an­gering others and dis­rupting normal on-topic dis­cus­sion for their own amusement.

4   The author(s) that I am using here used the term fun­da­men­talism more loosely than I would. The stan­dard de­f­i­n­i­tion of the word ap­plies to a form of re­li­gious be­lief: “a move­ment in 20th cen­tury Protes­tantism em­pha­sizing the lit­er­ally in­ter­preted Bible as fun­da­mental to Chris­tian life and teaching.” It has be­come more generic and a second de­f­i­n­i­tion fol­lows on Merriam-Webster: “a move­ment or at­ti­tude stressing strict and lit­eral ad­her­ence to a set of basic principles.”

5   I blas­phe­mously took ed­i­to­rial lib­er­ties with Heller’s sa­cred text and broke the one big para­graph into three smaller ones. I did this for the sake of read­ability and am willing to do the nec­es­sary penance. (Once a Catholic . . .)

6   A double-bind is “an emo­tion­ally dis­tressing dilemma in com­mu­ni­ca­tion in which an in­di­vidual or group re­ceives two or more con­flicting mes­sages, with one mes­sage negating the other” (Wikipedia). And it is “a very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion that has no good so­lu­tion” (Merriam-Webster). And it is “a sit­u­a­tion in which a person is con­fronted with two ir­rec­on­cil­able de­mands or a choice be­tween two un­de­sir­able courses of ac­tion” (Google).



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