Wordcels and shape rotators in four dimensions
In praise of "Type of Guy" ethnography
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I have an abiding weakness for a certain kind of amateur internet anthropology, produced by, for, and about message-board weirdos. Confronted with the strange formlessness of the internet, with the anonymous cacophony that characterizes most message boards and forums (I'm including here most "social media"), a particular type of mind will begin to taxonomize and diagram, attempting to impose shape and structure. The results are breathtakingly obsessive, semi-structuralist typologies, maps, matrices, and diagrams of political tendencies, subcultural sects, and posting styles, often expressed in forbiddingly ugly formats. I'm thinking of stuff like this:
Or this (a taxonomy of the r/PoliticalCompassMemes subreddit, which is itself dedicated to taxonomies):
The meme versions of these typologies I'm sharing right now lean heavily on "political compasses" the Wojak family of memes (there's even a meme format about a certain kind of guy's devotion to internet typologies), because they've been dominant in the memesphere for a while now, but I think lists like this one count in the broader category:
And at longer and more detailed length you can get stuff like the work of Venkatesh Rao, maybe the premiere organic anthropologist of the internet. His post "The Extended Internet Universe," for example, has this absolutely lunatic and quite wonderful MS-Paint-style map diagram:
I'm not, to be clear, endorsing as "correct" any particular theory espoused by a Wojak typology or political compass meme or 6,000-word delusional forum post. I just appreciate them on an aesthetic-cultural level, as I do all kinds of crank theorizing, outsider scholarship, and eccentric diagramming. It would be hard to assess "correctness," anyway, since this kind of work is often ambivalent in a manner characteristic of online cultural production: too detailed to be joking, too ironic to be taken seriously. Rather than narrowly "correct" or "incorrect," "Type of Guy" ethnographies like these are in general equal parts revelatory and deranged, accurate and bizarre. They are some of the finest and strangest products of the internet's badly misused intelligence.
Shape rotators and wordcels
The latest in this long tradition of Deep Fried Anthropology arrived two weeks ago, via an essay called "A Song of Shapes and Words" by the Twitter user "roon," which lays out "two archetypes" that "seem to hint at deeper patterns in human nature": the wordcel and the shape rotator.
If you've made it this far into this email, I feel relatively sure that you've already encountered and processed the wordcel/shape rotator meme, but in case you haven't, the nutshell definition is that wordcels are people with high verbal intelligence but low “visuospatial” intelligence, whose facility for and love of complex abstraction leads them into rhetorical and political dead-ends, while shape rotators are people with high visuospatial intelligence but low verbal intelligence, who have an intuition for technical problem-solving but are unable to account for themselves or apprehend historical context.
Famous wordcels (roon writes) include Alexander Hamilton and Jordan Peterson; famous shape rotators include Richard Feynman and Emmy Noether. Another historical antecedent occurs to me: Samuel Johnson's infamous refutation of George Berkley's theory of "immaterialism," recorded in Boswell's Life:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it thus."
Arguing your way through increasingly abstract logical chains to arrive at the conclusion that matter is not real and "material objects" are just ideas in our minds? That's wordcel. Fallaciously kicking a rock to prove that it's wrong? That's shape rotation, baby. For roon, a machine learning researcher, crypto is a space dominated by wordcels, while AI is a field for shape rotators:
ANYWAY. Setting aside that the piece is formatted professionally on a Substack page with subscription touts instead of appearing on, like, page 34 of some endless old forum thread, authored by a since-deleted user, it is, needless to say, primo internet Type-of-Guy ethnography: extremely silly, wildly reductive, not serious but not not serious, definitely not the product of a sound mind, and also, maybe, kind of an interesting and refreshing way to think about ontological and anthropological distinctions between different modes of thought, or at least between crypto and machine learning? Even if it's not enlightening, at least the post was funny and fresh, instead of hectoring and deadening, which is more than I can say about 95 percent of the things produced online these days.
(This isn't to say I don't have my quibbles. I am skeptical, for starters, that Elon Musk must be a shape rotator because he "continually attributes his success to studying physics in college." I mean, come on: This is special pleading. Just because he is the corniest motherfucker alive doesn't make him a shape rotator. His cars don't even fit together right.)
The annoying guys show up
Unfortunately, even if the post was fresh and funny, the meme has already become hectoring and deadening, thanks to its rapid adoption by some of the internet's most relentlessly dull and unfunny posters as a proxy for their endless, tiresome war on "the media," or whatever. (Here's Loopt founder Sam Altman, Ning founder Marc Andreessen, and Teleport founder Balaji Srinivasan, all positive they're in on the joke.) I find this annoying on several levels, the first being, like, what was the last shape Marc Andreessen rotated in his head? The guy spends all his time on Twitter, which is (like many of the biggest and most successful tech companies of the last couple decades) a product made by and for wordcels. That’s stolen shape rotator valor.
But I also find it annoying because takes a Good Internet Thing (insane outsider theory) and turns it into a Bad Internet Thing (smirking rich-guy Twitter bullshit). It's not even right, frankly: "High verbal SAT score" vs. "high math SAT score" gets you partway to the distinction, but what's really key to understanding wordcellism vs. shape rotation is that it's not necessarily about "humanities" fields versus "STEM" fields so much as between particular styles of thought — abstract versus concrete, people-oriented versus thing-oriented, overthinking it versus winging it. As such the framework works within the tech industry just as well as it does between the tech industry and others:
My Twitter audience is full of programmers who like to call themselves shape rotators. I’d say it depends. Some part of software engineering is genuinely visuospatial skill. At a basic level, programs are data and control flows that you visualize in your mind (there’s a reason we call it the control “plane”!) alongside object-model hierarchies, which then become serialized by your fingers into symbolic programming language. Software engineering can consist of building distributed systems or managing resources across compute clusters. Personally, I envision various compute resources filling up like water buckets with data flowing between nodes like a graph in my head. Machine learning is almost all shape rotation — all about letting those tensors flow. Of course, math programming more generally, as previously discussed, can be either-or.
But the folks who concern themselves mostly with the minutiae of programming logic, type theory, etc. are most definitely hardcore wordcels (wordchads?) and frankly, good for them.
Toward a theory of the "wordchad"
What is a "wordchad"? Perhaps there is a third classification to add to the scheme, represented in the meme below:
Hmm. While this framework is generative, it also seems insufficient. Wouldn't the existence of both a wordchad and a wordcel necessarily imply the existence of a "shapecel" alongside the chadlike shape rotator, just as the existence of both Wario and Luigi necessary imply the existence of Waluigi? Perhaps, rather than a bell curve, the proper visual reference is a two-dimensional matrix, with two axes: shapes/words, and incel/chad. Something like:
But now, looking at this, I wonder if the anthropological view, with its distinct typologies and clear divisions, is really the most useful meme type for understanding the shapes and words problem. Perhaps we should leave behind matrices and diagrams, and enter the dialectical zone of the cosmic brain.