Failing Massively at Language

Every now and again, I see this group (or page or whatever the kids are calling them now) pop up in my Facebook feed: “Changing the meaning of FML to Feeling Much Love,” and I rub at the bridge of my nose and shake my head a bit. I’ve talked before about the problems inherent in trying to exert conscious control over language, and this situation highlights a bunch of those problems.

For the uninitiated, “FML” is Internet shorthand for “fuck my life,” and the term was popularized by the website, where users submit amusing stories about unfortunate events in their lives. It serves much the same purpose for the Internet as similar sections in “Reader’s Digest” or “Seventeen” magazines (shut up, yes, I’ve read “Seventeen”). Know Your Meme tracks the origin of the initialism to 2009, when FMyLife started as the English-language version of French website Vie de Merde, and popularity peaked shortly thereafter. The F My Life book was published in mid-2009, representing what appears to be the last spike in popularity before a very long downward slope that has largely plateaued.

So, there’s your first problem: the time to attempt to change the meaning of this phrase was two years ago, when it was actually popular and not just part of the background noise of the Internet, the out-of-vogue memes that make up our online vernacular. Going after “FML” now is a little like starting a campaign to make “all your base are belong to us” into a campaign to promote community softball programs or “ate my balls” into a meatball advertisement. The ship has largely sailed, and any attempt to address the term has to clear the hurdle of making the term relevant again.

The second is a matter of bottom-up vs. top-down engineering. The initialism “FML” developed from the “F My Life” phrase, which itself developed as a catch-all term for things that people actually say. Know Your Meme has a clip from “Superbad” where the phrase is uttered, but precursors like “fuck me” or “why me?” and the like are easy to find. Ultimately, “FML” developed naturally out of things people actually say, and moreover, a feeling people actually have. It’s a very natural, bottom-up development of a new term.

Trying to redefine the initialism is a top-down attempt at imposing control. It’s trying to impose a new meaning over something that developed naturally, which puts it in several difficult positions. For one, it’s awkward: “Fuck my life” is a full sentence, “feeling much love” is a verb phrase, and a weirdly-concocted one at that. Unlike “fuck my life,” “feeling much love” is not something you’re likely to hear someone say. “FML” developed as a general term for a lot of other phrases describing the same thing; even if people are “feeling much love,” it’s not something they routinely say. It’s certainly not something that’s likely to accompany pithy, amusing stories–more likely cloying, sappy ones. In any case, the number of people trying to impose this change, almost by definition, is much smaller than the number of people who defined and popularized the term in the first place. Even with the term’s fall from memetic prominence, this campaign is farting against a strong wind.

Then there’s the matter of how one would accomplish this. If it’s just “let’s start a Facebook group and get everyone on-board,” then it’s a symbolic exercise at best, with almost no chance whatsoever of enacting actual change. But let’s assume that the thirty-odd members of the group are a little more gung-ho about this change. One of them writes a blog post about their big family reunion, and how five generations were represented, and everyone had a wonderful time and took a big picture and a great meal, FML. The average Internet reader is going to be understandably puzzled, and so might post a comment, asking “FML? That sounds great! Why would you say ‘fuck my life’?” To which the original poster will have to respond with something like, “no, I’m trying to change the meaning of ‘FML’ to ‘feeling much love’!” Which, again, is awkward and silly.

And it inverts the process. By the time “FML” became widely used, the phrase “Fuck/F my life” was enough of a part of the Internet lexicon that it became easy to figure out (or look up) what the term actually meant. The people waging this counter-campaign are not only working against the term’s loss of popularity and relevance, but also against the clear, understood meaning, and a wealth of links and pages and people who provide the common definition. Is it possible to fight such a trend? I suppose, in principle, but it’s not so much an uphill battle as a scaling-a-building battle.

Perhaps the biggest problem with all this is the motivation. Obviously the intentions are good, trying to get people to be more positive. But, you know, bad shit–and in the case of most of the “FMyLife” posts, embarrassing shit–happens, and we don’t have to be super-cheery about it. With many of the stories submitted to FMyLife, it would be a sign of distressing mental issues–or a severe case of sarcasm–to follow up with something cheery and sappy like “feeling much love.” And with many of the cases, it’s similarly inappropriate to follow them with “fuck my life,” but only because they’re really trivial shit (or obviously fabricated). Such a quality decay–everyone wants to participate, even if their lives are utterly mundane–is probably a contributing factor to the site’s precipitous slide down the Alexa rankings.

The point being, it’s okay to feel bad when bad shit happens. Trying to limit or change people’s language in such a way that they lose an expression for “well, that sucked” just means they’re going to abandon the mangled expression and invent a new one. Expressions of life sucking at the moment are as necessary and natural and legitimate as expressions of life being awesome. At least the FMyLife posts demonstrate a willingness to laugh at oneself, or to let others laugh at oneself, which (considering the Internet) is a surprisingly mature way to handle embarrassing and tragic situations. I think the “feeling much love” folks miss that bit of nuance; people posting on “FMyLife” and saying “FML” aren’t generally that down on life. They’re not all suicidally depressed people slitting their wrists on an electronic forum, they’re mostly people who tripped and faceplanted in front of everyone, and are joining in with the schadenfreude-colored laughter. That’s not really something that needs to be changed, specifically not changed in a way as to miss and negate the humor.

The suicidally depressed people are over at PostSecret.

2 Responses to Failing Massively at Language

  1. Don says:

    PostSecret also appeals to the "Passive-aggressive chickenshit" demographic. "I submitted something to PostSecret" should legitimately require a postscript of "FML."I wonder how many people become suicidally depressed after they submit to PostSecret. You know, when they fully realize what exactly they have done.

  2. Will Staples says:

    If it's just "let's start a Facebook group and get everyone on-board," then it's a symbolic exercise at best, with almost no chance whatsoever of enacting actual change.You say that now, but you'll change your tune when that onion ring is elected prime minister of Canada.

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