We read them every day in our Facebook feed. “I can’t right now,” my former student proclaims. “I don’t understand the decision-making process,” a colleague writes delphically one morning. A famous writer tops quips with an ominous “Bored. Waiting on 10 things.”
Stripped of context, these status messages befuddle and intrigue readers at the same time. We have had a word for this: “vaguebooking.”
Defined by Urban Dictionary in 2009 as an “intentionally vague Facebook status update that prompts friends to ask what's going on or is possibly a cry for help,” the vaguebook is perceived as the needy, less hip counterpart to the “subtweet,” in which someone is dissed anonymously on Twitter, and the “supertweet,” dubbed in a recent story in The Atlantic by Ian Boghost as a tweet “meaning to be clear to everyone, but to feign concealment from its target.” Boghost cites Azealia Banks’ sidelong tweet about “Igloo Australia” (i.e., Iggy Azalea) in the wake of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown killings as “the most famous supertweet.”
Vaguebooking’s reputation has has reached rock bottom in the past couple of months. Unlike “shade,” celebrated in the New York Times as “the art of the sidelong insult,” vaguebooking has been met with almost universal revulsion. Tech blogger Dave Parrack shot one of the first salvos a couple years ago with “What Is This Imbecilic Art of Vaguebooking?” in 2012, and the anti-vaguebook has only intensified. The Tumblr Vaguebook.org (its tagline reads, simply, “ugh”) showcases screenshots with such vague classics as “Sometimes it’s not what you expect, but it’s ok,” “Feeling irritated and annoyed by certain people,” and that old chestnut, “Sometimes you have to learn to just walk away when things are not healthy.”
But I am here to suggest that vaguebooking deserves a second look, not only as a valid way to communicate, but to keep our privacy. It’s already happening: Results from a study released this past March by the MRS Delphi Group revealed that teenagers, far from oversharing, now take an active role in safeguarding their privacy by “dirtying their data” with “social coding” such as in-jokes, false personal data or, yes, vaguebooking, all so their messages are understood only by their intended audience.
Perhaps because of its cryptographic approach to the airing of often raw emotion, vaguebooking practically begs ridicule. A recent video by the Above Average comedy network imagines a congressional hearing on “vague Facebook posts.” Committee members grill an iPhone-wielding witness, asking, “What’s the point?” and “Are the posts for just one person or for all of us?” The witness issues blank stares and vaguebooks answers into her phone: “I don’t want to talk about it,” “Don’t look back,” and “Quitting.” The representatives throw up their hands in frustration.
Salon Culture Editor Erin Keane told me over Facebook Messenger that she classifies vaguebooks as a “classic attention-getting device” and “the social media equivalent of pouting until someone asks, ‘What’s wrong?’”
But perhaps there's also a psychological benefit to vaguebooking. Vaguebooks can help navigate our need to take part in the social media circus through achieving blandness and provocation at the same time. Go on and screen-capture vaguebooks all day long: You can’t pin their meaning down. But that's not the point. Writing vaguebooks satisfies the need — some might say compulsion — to answer Facebook’s perennial question, “What’s on your mind?” with rage, sadness, frustration, anger, gratitude.
Indeed, I would suggest that hatred and ridicule of vaguebooking misses the point. We all struggle with our online personas, and in a digital world where each comment and like gets cached for future incrimination, it’s not just celebrities and politicians who live in fear of being called out. All of us would prefer not to land in a comment-war quagmire, or be taken to task by our significant other, or get fired from our job. For an idea of doomsday scenarios, look no further than Jon Ronson’s recent book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which tells the stories of Justine Sacco and Adria Richards, who after ill-advised, irreverent social media updates, were then dragged out into the digital public square. The “smartest way to survive” in a world where an irreverent joke to 300 friends can turn into an angry mob of 300 million, Ronson concludes, “is to be bland.”
I can offer two personal examples. This past April, after a day of frustrating meetings at work, I wrote, “I have to get better at this careerism thing.” If I had written what I really wanted to write, not only would my head have exploded, I would have alienated a lot of co-workers. Instead, my vaguebook was followed by encouraging messages from friends and family that smoothed down the rough edges of my mood. Did anyone know what I was talking about? Not a chance, and that was my intention. During the recent Freddie Gray Baltimore protests, which I supported, I posted a news story about mostly white University of Kentucky students who rioted after their team lost in the NCAA Tournament. This update dog-whistled to those who also felt there was a double standard in coverage but left enough ambiguity that some would walk away scratching their heads. Why did I do this? I wanted to avoid arguments with old friends from my hometown who are stridently pro-cop and with my sister, who is married to a policeman.
In an age where the boundaries between personal and private communication are blurring, and with it the semantic noise that accompanies even the most direct exchanges, vague communication is a necessity. At their best, vaguebooks might qualify as their own literary genre, akin to Zen koan, aphorism, or even an advertising tagline.
“Vagueness can be purely diaristic and insipid, but it can also be musical, beautiful, and thought-provoking,” Michael Costello, a creative director for an ad agency in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told me. “I’d like it if people elevated vaguebooking to an aphoristic art form, or some modern form of Sappho-esque fragment.”
The perfect vaguebook, devoid of meaning and yet full of plausible deniability, works as an interpersonal Easter egg that invites readers to connect the dots: Is X separated from his husband? Is Y unhappy at her job?
There are many varieties of vaguebooking experience. In my feed, a poet’s status reads “four months today,” referring to her husband, who recently died. A bookseller recently posted, “The correct answer: No, knowing what we know now, I wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, obviously,” a dig at Jeb Bush’s inept campaign appearance. A former student wrote, “Boy oh boy that’s a mighty fine looking high horse...” (ending vaguebooks with ellipses, while common, seems to me a redundant gesture). Like many adolescents, my nephew is a master at crafting the vaguest of vaguebooks: “Time goes on and you make different friends, and you find out who’s real and who’s fake in the end,” reads one. I have no idea what he’s talking about, which was probably the point.
At its heart, however, vaguebooking is a passive-aggressive enterprise. It makes sense: For so many of us, online and face-to-face interactions have become interchangeable, and in real life, we can’t just like and favorite everything we read. Some of us need to be left guessing. Not all of us have the guts to express how we feel and face the consequences. And that’s why vaguebooking is so annoying.
I admire unapologetic vaguebookers like Chelsea Biondolillo, a writer and teacher from Portland, Oregon, who shares vague Facebook statuses in “an attempt to legitimately share emotion without airing the actual dirty laundry.” For example, Biondolillo said she “might want my boyfriend to know that his behavior sucked in public, since my saying so in private didn’t change it.” Still, she dials it back. “Let’s say I have some friends who will get all vocally concerned if I’m being too negative or too sad. So I try to temper.”
Such is the power of the vaguebook.
In his 1930 book Seven Types of Ambiguity, British poet and critic William Empson outlined the different ways ambiguity works in poetry, among them metaphor, double meaning, puns, audience reception, and direct contradiction. “The strength of vagueness,” he wrote, “is that it allows of secret ambiguity.” Could Empson, who died in 1984, imagine a world where his so-called “cult of vagueness” would include in its ranks Facebookers looking to vent about the finale of Mad Men?
To this, I say: I just don’t know what to say. I can’t even.