The Hidden Language Of The ~Tilde~

The simple punctuation mark that speaks a thousand words.

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, 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:

in the ~ spirit of the season ~ will now link to some of the (imho) #Bestof2014 sports reads. if you hate nice things, mute that hashtag.

Erik told me that he used tildes here because of the lack of formatting options permitted by Twitter: "By my very nature, I'm sort of a formatting addict. Like, italics and bold exist for a reason, yes? ... well, you have to use extra characters to, uh, create a little character sometimes ... Asterisks/stars are always a fine choice, but for something that will truly ~ stand out ~, you can't ever go wrong with the inline tilde."

That's the most obvious function of tildes: to call special attention to the thing or things enclosed. Of course, given that the platform in question is Twitter, a space that debases the very idea of calling special attention to things, one might suspect a sharp and self-aware guy like Erik is doing a little more than just formatting.

As I read them, Erik's tildes are saying a couple of things here. The first, and a common thing Twitter tildes say, is this:

"Between us lies a phrase ('spirit of the season') that is cliche, but we are aware that this phrase is cliche and we know this quality is beneath our author, and we don't want you to think our author is a cliche person generally, just right now for the time being for a good reason."

The other thing Erik's tildes are saying, because this is a very savvy tilde deployment, is that the concept between them is dubious, the concept being the spirit of the season as an endless self-promotional sharing of #longreads, and that the reader should take the dubiousness of said concept into account when reading/clicking/engaging. These tildes allow Erik to have his proverbial cake and eat it too — to point out the shittiness of a trend while engaging in it.

If that sounds hypocritical, it's not; one special power of the tilde is to let the enclosed words perform both sincerity (I sincerely want to share this with you) and irony (Man are we both sick of people who share or what?) without a cynical effect. It may be the only gesture on the internet, short of a many-thousand-word think piece, that can synthesize snark and smarm into something...else. Here's a perfect example of this:

Sept. 8 was the day TMZ released the full video of Ray Rice assaulting his wife in an Atlantic City, New Jersey, elevator. Twitter, naturally, hosted a geyser of outrage, ranging from condemnations of Rice's behavior and the response of the NFL, to blanket denunciations of football as a sport from people who really don't know or care about football. The tildes above, based on your familiarity with the author, Myles Tanzer, and/or his Twitter feed, signify something highly complex, a winking performance of Twitter outrage combined with, I think, a sincere moral outrage toward the violence that may be a byproduct of the pervasive culture created by a violent game. It's a lot of work for four characters!

Or take these tildes, from Jessica Roy, a senior writer at New York Magazine and an advanced practitioner of the art:

~bitches ain't got punchlines or flow, i have both and an empire also~

That's a lyric from the Nicki Minaj song "Up in Flames." Why is it in tildes? Well, certainly they're a way to avoid a regrettable tone of early teenage sincerity while still cosigning the words in public. But the tilde juju is subtler than that still. They seem to anticipate your negative reaction to their contents, and, in response, they seem to wiggle away. They seem to say "We are aware of the terrifyingly complex socio-cultural implications of quoting Nicki Minaj" — because how could a person on the opinion internet not be — "and we have decided to quote her nonetheless, and you should be aware that we have considered the angles." Above all, that may be what tildes, used this way, seem to mean: "I have thought about what I'm doing, and I want you to know that I have thought about what I'm doing."

I asked Jessica why she put tildes around the tweet, and she wrote back, well, just the opposite of my back-of-the-bar-napkin overanalysis: "Not a lot of thinking went into this (or any of my tweets!). It's a quote from a Nicki Minaj song and tildes just seemed sassier than quotations and thus more appropriate for Nicki." That seems coy to me, but again, not disingenuous: Tildes can scan as shallow or deep, meditated or improvisational, or all four at the same time.

It's a tactic that has proved effective not just for internet people who want or need to perform sincerity and sarcasm (and who want their tweets to be good but also don't want to seem like they're spending time thinking about their tweets) at the same time, but also, inevitably, brands. The most notable example is Cosmopolitan magazine, which, in the memorable words of Jezebel's Erin Ryan, "like Skynet...has gradually become self-aware." Cosmo's Twitter bio is "~I can read you like a magazine~," a Taylor Swift lyric run through the same self-aware filter as the Nicki Minaj one above. The Cosmo feed is chockablock full of tildes. It's lousy with them:

.@Beyonce and Jay Z's trip to Iceland can only be described as ~magical~:

The one "Harry Potter" character J.K. Rowling thinks fans should NOT have ~feelings~ for:

8 exercises for a ~*sexy*~ hourglass figure:

10 ways to be comfortable and still look ~*chic*~ AF:

"Magical," "feelings," "sexy," "chic": Cosmo Twitter tildes are often, though not always, placed around hoary women's magazine words. The point of them isn't to say that Cosmo finds its gendered and limited historical vocabulary bad, per se, it's to say that Cosmo is aware of the problems with its gendered and limited vocabulary and that it's going to use it anyways, because, relax. Take a deep breath. It's just the internet.

Tildes here strip words and phrases of their baggage, and render their meaning and implications inoffensive, fun. They're a way to salvage the good parts from the things — sharing one's work, sharing song lyrics, righteous indignation, weird heteronormative sex tips — that have been ruined by the infinite scale and infinite scorn of the internet.

So, who gets to take credit for the rise of the tildes? I'm not sure. Neither Twitter nor Topsy allow users to search for punctuation. And certainly as long as there have been QWERTY keyboards, people — going back to Usenet and before — have found inspired use for one of the only symbols with no set significance on the signal input device of the last half-century.

And it's important to keep in mind that a lot of that inspired use didn't happen in correspondence — it happened at a much more fundamental level. In the programming languages C and C++, the tilde has the fancy designation "Bitwise Complement Operator." That's a mouthful for a fairly simple concept; the tilde literally flips bits, turning ones into zeros and zeros into ones. Placing a tilde before any value in C creates a mirror image of that value. In other words, the tilde builds negation into a statement. That's more or less exactly how the tildes in the examples above function: They are built to anticipate the opposite.

C++ has another use for the tilde: destruction. Every C++ class (sort of like the nouns of the language) has a corresponding "destructor," a kind of set of instructions on how to tear down an instance of a class. That destructor is always named after the class, and it always takes the form of "~ + CLASS NAME." So, the "destructor" of the class "DOG" would be "~DOG". Programs typically run destructors when they need to free up resources — chiefly, memory. A "destructor" is inherent to every single class. That means you can't build a new thing in C++ without creating the shape of its destruction. And you can't destroy a thing in C++ without naming it — re-creating it — first.

And isn't that basically the life cycle of popular language on the internet? You can't name something new — a concept, a job title, an appellation, a hashtag — without creating the possibility that people will come to hate it. So why not build the acknowledgement of that fact into our punctuation?

It's a disorienting but ultimately hopeful way to think about our frantic online discourse: not as a series of discrete good and bad statements, but as an ever-improving programmed code that is learning new ways to deal with its inherent problems: too much sincerity, too much sarcasm, endlessly recursive opinion, endlessly recursive response. Loaded with meaning and meaningless, signifying every which way, impossible to pin down, the puckish tilde brackets feel to me, as we turn away from a cataclysmically bad year of rhetoric, like, of all things, ~a way forward~.

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