The Hidden Language Of The ~Tilde~

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The simple punctuation mark that speaks a thousand words.

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed

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. Sternberg 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:

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:

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