Tone Indicators are not Accessible

It’s New Year’s Eve today, so I wanted to reflect on something I’ve seen lot on short-form social media (microblogs) this past year. It’s a phenomenon known as tone indicators, or “tone tags” for short.

The user of tone tags will insert something like “/gen,” “/hj,” or “/lh”1 into a post or instant message in order to convey a specific tone of voice. These things are an evolution of the perennial Internet classic “/s” to indicate the end of a passage of text that is not intended to be taken seriously — in the vein of sarcasm or satire.

To my no-doubt incomplete understanding, the “/s” tag evolved from an attempt to jokingly insert a tag for sarcasm in the style of HTML, there <b>bold</b> or <i>italicized</i> text are marked up using tags. The hypothetical <s>sarcasm</s> tag would grant the contained text the semantic meaning of sarcasm. Yet, due to the unwieldy nature of HTML — and how many websites would strip HTML from user-submitted posts — the fictional tag was simplified to include only the closing “/s” (without angle brackets).2

This begs the question, why insert such a tag at all? Well, as it turns out, sarcasm is actually quite difficult to express over text. Tone of voice does not translate well, yet the 2010s era of Internet irreverency demanded sarcasm,3 and so the proliferation of a sarcasm indicator was doomed to happen.

At some point, the 2010s ended and the 2020s began, with these changing times came a momentary zeitgeist where a much more significant amount of important communication became virtual, and textual. For a brief moment, accessibility was considered, and like so many other times, said accessibilty came without consultation.

As an aside…

Most accessibility initiatives fail because they start in response to the feelings of those in power. Most rulers and leaders are loathe to feel like purveyors of injustice, and so they demand quick improvements so that they may feel like they’ve made a difference. Because of the short timelines demanded by ego-driven initiatives, often the first idea that springs forth is the one that is chosen to be realized.

In the realm of accessibility, this means that good ol' “/s” was dusted off and repurposed4 into a form to communicate anti-sarcasm, and the purveyors of tone tags thus declared their mission accomplished.

Of course I, as someone not versed in this new proxy language, do not know the meaning of these new indicators. They are unfamiliar. When they are alien, they become this strange attachment to something I otherwise understand (the written word) and become this sort of contextual slang item that I am keenly aware of not understanding. My initial reading of tone indicators is that, much like the abstract tones of voice that they seek to replicate, they are a means of communication that is imprecise and prone to misunderstanding as it relies on assumptions about belonging in certain cultures.

Why would someone find themselves so attracted to using such things?

If I were to guess, I would start with the assumption that users of tone tags have a history of struggling to be understood. They’re probably misfits. I must assume that these individuals have a long history of their serious but unusual opinions being read as sarcasm, and their rare satirical examples being read as sincere.5 Wanting to avoid the frustration of being misunderstood over textual mediums, someone with such a history could easily latch onto something that promises to help convey tone of voice. No longer will I be misunderstood by anyone who has done the work to understand a collection of acronyms and abbreviations!

I anticipate that any reader who does unironically wield tone indicators might be asking what possible alternatives there are. I can think of one: drop the sarcasm.

Become comfortable with sincerity.

Without a backdrop of sarcasm poisoning everything you say, you’re far less likely to be misunderstood by individuals who engage with you in good faith. I promise we’re all better for it in the long run.

  1. I still don’t know what one of those tags means. ↩︎

  2. What I find amusing about this is that this phenomenon is the opposite of HTML’s strange syntactical affordance allowing certain tags such as “p” (paragraph) to be closed by simply opening a new paragraph without explicit inclusion of a closing tag. ↩︎

  3. I would also surmise that individuals who are chronically online may also be the kind of techy, nerdy type to struggle with sarcasm. I write this from such a perspective. ↩︎

  4. I don’t think I’ve seen this pointed out anywhere — this is literal irony poisoning. ↩︎

  5. I suspect that this happens for reasons other than tone of voice, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. ↩︎