What is a snowflake, in Metafilter culture?
January 11, 2021 6:10 PM   Subscribe

The term does not seem to be used on Metafilter in the way that Urban Dictionary defines it: "A very sensitive person. Someone who is easily hurt or offended by the statements or actions of others."
posted by mortaddams to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Agreed that the Urban Dictionary definition isn’t what “snowflake” means on Mefi, although it’s accurate for a lot of the rest of the internet.

I’d say that on Mefi, “snowflake” means “a person whose situation is particular, and requires extra explanation, detail, or context to understand”.

It’s used here in a bit of a self-deprecating way - “Sorry I have so many extra snowflake details that make this otherwise question a bit complicated”, but it’s not derogatory or contemptuous in the Mefi usage.

Also notable - I never see “snowflake” used against others here - it’s a mild joke you’d make to gently poke fun at your question, to acknowledge that you may be a just little “fussy”.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:13 PM on January 11 [27 favorites]

Sorry that this doesn't answer your question, but I've always found the expression "snowflake" rather... fascinating. It seems to be a sarcastic expression about how "we are all unique individuals", but with a secondary meaning that the guy or gal can't take any heat (criticism).
posted by kschang at 6:22 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]

I agree with nouvelle-personne, that it's most used here in situations where a question has seemingly been asked-and-answered before, perhaps quite a bit, but the asker believes (often rightly so, no slight intended) that their specific set of circumstances means the previous question(s) don't have answers that are meaningful to them, or apply to their very specific situation.

(Mind, there are times where the term is used in a semi-pleading way: "Please tell me my circumstances warrant a different answer, because the previous related question's answers are difficult, and I'd like to not ['DTMFA', 'don't eat that', or whatever].")
posted by maxwelton at 6:27 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]

To me both uses hearken back to the "you are not a unique and special snowflake" line from Fight Club. The urban dictionary sense of it is a more direct take on that (people whose feelings are fragile because they think they're unique and special but they are, in fact, "the same decaying organic matter as everything else" and thus worthy of derision for thinking otherwise), while metafilter's usage is more self-aware, self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek take on the same thing, semi-jokingly conflating specialness with specificity.
posted by aubilenon at 6:32 PM on January 11 [18 favorites]

It has also been used here in the past to describe a question with a ton of tiny but relevant information, “flurry of snowflakes below the cut” being the metaphor. I was familiar with mefi usage way before the internet at large started using it the other way and got cranky about this nice metaphor being twisted.
posted by Mizu at 6:32 PM on January 11 [7 favorites]

I'm not entirely sure that Urban Dictionary definition has quite enough nuance to cover the way in which snowflake is used either here, or on the web at large. It's a bit too simplified, imo.

Additionally, there's the modern U.S. (at least) context, in which it's a "thing" and has been since, what? The early 2000s? to (especially in public school) encourage every child to believe that they're oh-so-special and unlike anyone else... just like every other little snowflake out there. Of which there are billions, and, if you take a step back, you remember that no, really, they're pretty much all indistinguishable.

So when someone is acknowledging they're being snowflaky, they're generally self-aware enough to know that yeah, we've all see *that* issue a time or ten thousand, but they still want advice that they're handling it the right way. That's the way we tend to see it used here.

With the internet at large, it's much more likely that someone less self-aware encounters someone that will apply it negatively toward them. Which, to be fair, it has pretty much the same meaning... it's just the context in which it comes across changes the feel. It's more of a spectrum, rather than two separate meanings.
posted by stormyteal at 7:11 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]

My understanding is the MeFi usage is from the thing we learned in school that "No two snowflakes are alike". So when you identify your situation as a "snowflake", you are saying there are a variety of circumstances that make that situation unique where conventional wisdom may not apply.

The MeFi usage definitely predates the contemporary usage to derisively describe one as overly sensitive.
posted by AaRdVarK at 7:20 PM on January 11 [6 favorites]

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, 1996:
“You are not special. You're not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We're all part of the same compost heap. We're all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”
I have always assumed that the MeFi is an ironic reference to Fight Club. I am a unique snowflake, and this is why...
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:29 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]

Came here to support Aardvark's view. There are two separate but related meanings:

1) People on MeFi were using "snowflake" as a self-effacing way to say "I have a lot of specific concerns"

2) The term is also used to mean "sensitive liberal who grew up being told they were special."

The meanings are not totally disconnected, but they are different.

Here is a meta.talk thread about the MeFi usage (and the first meaning) in 2010.

Here is an article suggesting the second meaning really comes into its own around 2016.
posted by ManInSuit at 7:30 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]

I was just pondering this last night. I also assumed that the Metafilter usage was based on the 'no two snowflakes are alike' mantra from childhood, and it's a mildly self-deprecating way to indicate very specific considerations.

The first time I heard the term after metafilter was in the first Lego Movie, where Will Ferrell uses it in a more sarcastic manner.

And then there's the more internet-prevalent connotation, used (exclusively?) by conservatives to denote over-sensitive or PC liberals.
posted by methroach at 7:54 PM on January 11

I think the crux of it is that on Metafilter it's usually meant to indicate a unique set of circumstances, whereas in the culture at large it's used to label people.
posted by theory at 8:50 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, questions about MetaFilter itself and the culture/slang used on MetaFilter are usually asked in MetaTalk.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:13 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

I've always understood the "snowflakes inside" to excuse away re-asking a question that has already been asked and answered many times on AskMetafilter. Snowflakes are famously unique, so a question with "snowflakes" indicates that the asker's situation is also unique, and the answers to the previous similar/identical questions aren't helpful.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:16 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

If I was going to study this I'd distinguish two things:

1) The difference in tone (gently self-deprecating on MetaFilter; elsewhere on the web, originally that way but increasingly nasty over the years)
2) The difference in referent (here it can refer to the special circumstance itself; elsewhere, it only refers to the person)
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:01 AM on January 12

I've always taken it to be self-deprecating "here are the ways in which my question is unique and special but I recognise that, like all special snowflakes, it is actually one of many [potential] similar questions".

It doesn't include 'fragile' which the other usage does. Both trade on the "unique but the same" feature of snowflakes.
posted by plonkee at 6:19 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Addressing different qualities of snowflakes. The Mefi meaning is “unique” like a snowflake. The rest of internet means “fragile” or “delicate” like a snowflake.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:28 AM on January 12

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