APPLE Award Winning Papers in TESOL & ALVol. 16, No. 2 (2016)

Positive Feedback Loops: Sarcasm and the Pseudo-Argument in Reddit Communities

Christopher Mueller

Teachers College, Columbia University


When it comes to modes of communication, sarcasm may be most commonly associated with the angst-ridden adolescent or rebellious teenager. While the use of sarcasm is certainly not exclusive to these communities, such a comparison may not be entirely without reason. Etymologically, the word ‘sarcasm’ is derived from the Greek sarkazein, meaning “to speak bitterly or sneer”, or, more literally, “to tear flesh” (“sarcasm,” 2014). Sarcasm, then, is far from a benign feature of language, and there appears to be an inherent acerbity, or even a note of provocation, located within. Indeed, sarcasm has been referred to in research in terms such as “jocular aggression” (Pogrebin & Poole, 1988, p. 192) or “humorous aggression” (Ducharme, 1994, p. 51). This does not mean it is rarely or fastidiously used, however. In spite of any innate or perceived aggression, sarcasm is, in fact, quite a common feature in spoken discourse. Studies have placed the use of sarcastic language at roughly 8% of conversational turns (Gibbs, 2000, p. 5; Tannen, 1984, p. 131), so it is certainly a notable and oft-tapped linguistic resource. As technology progresses, however, computer-mediated communication is becoming increasingly common and, with the advent of social media (Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, etc.), increasingly conversational. In this vein, perhaps sarcasm’s role as a feature of primarily spoken discourse needs to be re-evaluated. In this paper, I hope to offer a descriptive analysis of sarcasm as produced in an exclusively digital space, as well as bring attention to a novel use of sarcasm specific to this environment: sarcasm used as a pseudo-argument.