Last month in New York, Adam Sternbergh began his long cultural history of emojis by contrasting Face With Tears of Joy, the world's most popular emoji, with the tilde, the venerable squiggle that is surfed on QWERTY keyboards by the ESC key and in math means approximately. Sternbergh pointed to the fact that Face With Tears of Joy has grown more popular on Twitter than the tilde as sufficient reason to offer tongue-in-cheek, if not Hearts in Eyes, advice to the ancient symbol:
"The 3,000-year-old tilde might want to consider rebranding itself as Invisible Man With Twirled Mustache."
With all due respect to Sternbergh, does he read the same ~internet~ I do? The tilde today is absolutely frickin' everywhere: In my Twitter and Facebook feeds, in my inbox, in my text messages — every space in which I correspond by writing with other humans — an army of tildes waves back at me, bracketing words wildly, like tiny inflatable car dealership tubemen. Emojis may be the belle of the input-prompt ball, but they only dance with one another, Eggplant-Peach pairs twirling gaily past unloved, old-fashioned text. Tildes, on the other hand, need words. Words give tildes meaning, and vice versa. Without words, tildes can't do their thing.
Their thing: Well, that's a bit of a problem. Placing tildes around web words unquestionably does something to them, something destabilizing and a little uncanny, and while it's true that there are common deployments (I'll get to them), it's also true that no pair of tildes reacts the same with any word or words. And who's to say we're all reading them the same? At the highest level of abstraction, a good definition of the use of bracketing tildes might go no further than adds juju.
To be clear: These are not your father's tildes, or rather, the tildes your father used to access a personal website on a Unix-based server. (Those would be the tildes behind tilde.club, the writer Paul Ford's "nerd party" retro-web community. When I asked Ford where he thought the bracketing tildes came from, he wrote back, enigmatically, "It's very Californian originally. I don't know actually where it came from.") Nor are these the tildes you may have used to make your AIM or Myspace screen name look ~~~extra snazzy~~~, nor are they the tildes used on message boards and forums to broadly signify good vibes: ~~~~~~~~~.
The most common usage of bracketing tildes — or at least the one I see the most in my digital-media-heavy, arch, sincerity-averse Twitter feed — is used to signify a tone that is somewhere between sarcasm and a sort of mild and self-deprecatory embarrassment over the usage of a word or phrase. As in the below, from the very good feed of Fox Sports' Erik Malinowski: