Because Internet

by Gretchen McCulloch

Cover image

Publisher: Riverhead Books
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 0-7352-1095-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 276

Buy at Powell's Books

If you're familiar with linguistics as a field of scientific study (as opposed to the tool-based fields of grammar or writing advice), you'll be familiar with the dichotomy between written and spoken language. We may spend more time thinking about written language since it is central to most types of education and carries much of the intellectual and social weight of society. Linguists, however, see spoken language as more fundamental, since speech is wired into our brains and universal in human societies. Written language is a recent and somewhat artificial invention.

One also learns from linguistics that spoken language does not follow many of the rules of written language that we painstakingly memorized in school. In casual speech, people split infinitives, speak in partial and run-on sentences, ignore nit-picking pronoun case rules, and rarely notice or care about the difference between less and fewer. Spoken language does have rules, but they're more subtle and nuanced than the grammar rules we learn in school. (I think the real fun of linguistics is separating the rules that native speakers follow effortlessly from the artificial rules used as education markers.) This is, in part, because nearly all spoken language is informal, whereas nearly all written language is formal.

Enter the Internet, and enter this book. For the first time in human history we have both an explosion of informal writing and easy availability of that writing to linguists for study.

Informal writing is not entirely new, of course. We've had personal letters for nearly as long as we've had writing, not to mention private notes, diaries, and other writing intended for tiny audiences. But consider who wrote private letters and, on top of that historical filter, whose private letters were preserved for linguistic research. Until relatively recently, only the upper classes were literate and had access to the infrastructure to write and send letters. Someone's letters or private notes were unlikely to be preserved unless they were someone famous and important, and thus often well-educated and more likely to take a more formal tone in writing.

If you compare this to the Internet-driven blizzard of work and personal email, SMS conversations, chatrooms, and social media posts, the difference is obvious in both volume and level of informality. We're all on the Internet, we all read and write with a frequency that would be staggering to the average person from even fifty years ago, and while one may take a bit of additional care with a tricky email to one's manager, the SMS message to one's friend is as informal of a use of language as a conversation over coffee.

Gretchen McCulloch is a professional linguist and Because Internet is about exactly this phenomenon: the new conventions of informal writing, how it has changed and evolved, and the new subtleties and shortcuts we've invented to make written communication easier. That goes beyond words and grammar to encompass punctuation, emoji and emoticons, memes and reaction gifs, and even the subtleties of timing, whitespace, and the construction of virtual places via our choices in how and where we write.

This topic is my catnip, so it's not surprising I love this book. I've been heavily involved with online communities that communicate in writing since 1993 (making me, in McCulloch's classification, an Old Internet Person; each wave of introduction to the Internet has its own conventions that can be in conflict with later waves). I've now spent more than half my life carrying out most of my social activity and most of my closest friendships primarily in writing, so I found a lot of satisfaction in a linguistic study that takes that seriously rather than treating it as a curiosity. But, even better, I was amazed at how much I didn't know, in part because I am from a specific wave. I have a deep intuition for the Usenet conventions, but not as good of an understanding of the ones from AIM and LiveJournal one wave later (the Full Internet People). And I had a lot to learn about the conventions of the Instagram and Snapchat cluster (the Post Internet People, who have never known life without the Internet).

One of the things that struck me while reading this book is how most of the language innovations that McCulloch describes are addressing the old complaint that written communication is inferior to face-to-face conversation because it lacks emotional nuance. My knee-jerk reply is that, no, written communication is full of emotional nuance and the complainer is just bad at reading it, but that's somewhat unfair. A better statement of the problem is that there is not a standardized language for emotional nuance in written communication, in part because it's so new in human history. Most humans are extremely good at reading facial expressions and body language for emotional cues, and those physical expressions are largely subconscious, reliable, and similar among different people (particularly within a culture; one can get in trouble with body language variations across cultures). This is not true of writing. With friends I've talked to over chat for twenty-five years, I can read volumes about their emotional state in a couple of short lines of text. But with strangers, despite decades of Internet communications, I will still misread cues and misinterpret simple intentions.

The other standard response to this complaint is that it is possible to put extensive emotional nuance into formal writing. Just get better at writing! This is true, but unhelpful. There's a reason why we give book contracts to people who are very good at investing formal writing with emotional nuance. It's difficult, time-consuming, and requires a great deal of practice. That may be appropriate for formal, paid writing, but it won't do for informal writing, which by definition needs to be as effortless as possible.

It's therefore unsurprising that once millions of people were using the Internet regularly for informal writing, they started adding new mechanisms, shortcuts, and conventions for emotional nuance. The standardization is growing, but conventions still vary widely between waves of Internet users. One of the most fascinating parts of this book for me was McCulloch's explanation of why periods (and, to a lesser extent, capital letters) in short chat messages are perceived by younger users as harsh or passive-aggressive. I still have the formal writing mindset of treating proper capitalization and punctuation as a point of pride, but McCulloch makes an excellent argument for letting go of my biases and understanding how and why language is changing.

The realization I had while reading this is that many of the changes that look like sloppiness or laziness to someone trained in formal writing have the effect of giving language greater dynamic range. If one always uses periods uniformly, the period becomes meaningless except as a sentence boundary (which is redundant with newlines in most short informal chat messages). If one normally doesn't use it, and then suddenly starts using it, the period can carry semantic weight. It can convey a snippy tone of voice, a note of annoyance, or other subtle shades of meaning.

I still use periods in most of my Slack messages because habits are hard to break, but I'm remembering to leave them off some of the time and paying more attention to what emotional weight they're carrying when present. Because Internet is therefore the rare book that meets the bar of changing my day-to-day behavior.

"lol" is another excellent example that McCulloch spends some time on. It started life as LOL, an abbreviation for "laughing out loud," and that's still how it's stuck in my head. But, as McCulloch explains, it no longer means that to newer waves of Internet users. It now carries a far more complicated and nuanced meaning that has very little to do with physical laughter and that doesn't easily translate to a single word or sentence. I went from being mildly irritated by and mildly superior towards the ubiquitous "lol" to realizing that it's a fascinating new word that carries primarily emotional nuance and that I don't understand well enough to read or use properly (yet).

One more example of the type of analysis McCulloch brings to this book: emoji. The tendency when talking about emoji is to treat them as rebuses (pictures that stand in for a word, or at least a specific concept). They are sometimes used that way, but McCulloch argues that they more often function in the same role that gestures play in informal speech, including the gestures that have no simple name and no independent meaning outside of the context of the words being said at the same time. This seems obvious in retrospect, but before reading Because Internet I had never thought about what a gesture is, what function it plays in speech, and how that could be translated into informal written communication.

If you're as interested in this area as I am, this is great stuff. I'd seen several mentions of this book go past on Twitter and kept holding off because I had lots of things to read and was worried it would only cover the superficial things I already knew as a long-time Internet user who has listened to a few lectures on linguistics. That was not the case at all. I learned so much from this book and had a delightful time reading it. If you're also interested in these topics, recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-12

Last modified and spun 2020-12-13