January 28, 2004

Snowclones are the dark matter of journalism

Paul Boutin in Wired magazine quotes Glen Reynolds to the effect that "Email is the dark matter of the blogosphere." Now where have I read something like that before?

Probing Google with "is the dark matter of", we learn that "The PC is the Dark Matter of the Internet", "Global technoscience is the dark matter of social theory", "Networking is the dark matter of high-speed internet", "Terrorism is the dark matter of the civilized world", "The extraterrestrial hypothesis is the dark matter of political science and science policy in the second half of the twentieth century", "Euroscepticism is the 'dark matter' of German politics", "the Boswell Co. now stands revealed for what it is: the dark matter of 20th century California history", "Intellectual property is the “dark matter” of the corporate universe," and quite a few others.

Like other snowclones, X is the dark matter of Y is more than a fixed phrase or cliché. It's a pointer to a little conceptual universe, bringing along with it a metaphorical framework that structures the surrounding chunk of discourse. If X is the dark matter of Y, then X is crucial to Y, is even the biggest part of Y, but it is not directly visible, and must be inferred because of the strong effects it has on visible things.

In the original citation, Reyolds goes on to say that "I have a few readers who function as virtual stringers, sending me several links throughout the day. Professional journalists sometimes send me links to articles or topics they can't get assigned to write about, in hopes that I might get the story more attention." By prefacing this with the dark matter business, he's positioning his own experiences with emailed leads as characteristic of a universal phenomenon, suggesting that weblog publication is the visible manifestation of underlying social networks that operate via hidden email connections. This is a pretty efficient use of five little words.

Is there anything wrong with this? Why do we sometimes make fun of journalists who recycle these little conceits?

Well, there's certainly nothing wrong with using metaphors. That's how most thinking and writing works. Nor is there anything wrong with using metaphors that have been used before, or with echoing the words previously used to express them. That's culture, and where would we be without it?

It comes down to thoughtfulness. Take a look at this little corpus of examples of the trope "If Eskimos have Q words for snow, [some discussion of the importance of topic X to group Y]" Ask yourself how many of these are likely to reflect any real thought about language and culture, even with respect to X and Y much less the poor Eskimos. In most of these examples, the whole Eskimo/snow frame is nothing but a fancy way to say that X is important or salient for Y. Far from adding any useful insight, the talk about snow vocabulary is just a stereotyped rhetorical distraction.

Reynold's dark matter reference, in contrast, really does add something essential to his paragraph. He really means to imply that email is unseen, that it is nevertheless a crucial cause of the visible motions of web publication, etc. I'm not sure how far he wants to take it -- is email really, by analogy to dark matter's role in the universe, 87% of the mass of the blogosphere? But that's a quibble.

My own interest in this kind of thing is mainly descriptive, not prescriptive. I don't have strong feelings about how often writers should use formulaic language, whether traditional or trendy, or even how carefully they should think through the metaphors they invoke. But as Geoff Pullum (paraphrasing Dwight Bolinger) has recently reminded us, "people remember whole chunks of language, even as they recognize how to chop those chunks up into individual lexical items; we store both the parts and the wholes, and retrieve them when we need them."

I'd add that we retrieve chunks of different levels of abstractness as well as different sizes and shapes. And these chunks are not just structured word strings with meanings, they also project a sort of conceptual and rhetorical aura into their textual neighborhood. Figuring out how to investigate and model these chunks and their interactions is a key research problem these days, because of the very large corpora that we can now access, index and analyze.

[Update: Oops. Right after the "dark matter" paragraph, the very next line in the article is the signature "-Paul Boutin", to whom I originally attributed the quotation. However, a slightly more careful reading suggests that the author of the "dark matter'" quote is almost certainly Glen Reynolds, whose "reading list" it concludes.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 28, 2004 08:12 AM