Every day I write to friends, acquaintances, colleagues and strangers using most or all the following media: Gmail, Google Hangouts, Twitter, Instagram, iMessage and WhatsApp. A message sent through Facebook still occasionally pops up; I could also communicate via Spotify, the music streaming service; Venmo, a money-sending app; Yelp, where I looked for restaurant recommendations pre lockdown; and two astrology apps that I keep on my phone but rarely consult. Even without Slack, the messaging platform for people who work in offices, or Tinder, for people looking for dates, I send and receive thousands of messages over the internet every week. This is the case even when I’m not stuck at home. Why? Because I can. The tone of my correspondence veers from ebullient to combative to conspiratorial to semi-ironically frustrated, outraged, mournful. Run-on sentences abound, as do unnecessary line breaks, excessive punctuation, all caps, unapologetic typos, old-school emoticons and emoji non-sequiturs. A message that follows spelling and grammar conventions is rare; it’s likely to be an email, and its recipient someone who can’t be trusted with my emotional landscape, a person I don’t know well or one I dislike very much. For everyone else, my favourite conversation starter is: ‘i hate everything!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ 🍳🐙🤸
My text messages usually express my actual feelings, though I sometimes revisit my muddled, slapdash messages with shame or confusion, and my interlocutors don’t always know what I’m talking about. Social media users might describe this ‘energy’ as ‘chaotic’ – meaning that I am wily and unpredictable. As Gretchen McCulloch argues in her recent survey of online linguistics, Because Internet: Understanding How Language Is Changing (Penguin, £9.99), speech has long been both formal and informal, and now writing is too. ‘The internet and mobile devices have brought us an explosion of writing by normal people. Writing has become a vital, conversational part of our ordinary lives.’
McCulloch is thrilled by this. Informal speech is hard to study in a natural setting – people speak differently when they know they’re being recorded – and a pain to transcribe. The more shit we chat online, the more ‘unedited, unfiltered and … beautifully mundane’ writing she and her colleagues can analyse. Much of her data comes from social media, Twitter in particular (even if she acknowledges that our public posts aren’t really unedited or unfiltered), and the language formed and popularised online makes its way into our speech, formal writing and private correspondence, if any of our correspondence can be called private any more. Informal language, she argues, is worthy of sustained attention in its own right. ‘The continued evolution of language is neither the solution to all our problems nor the cause of them,’ she writes, resisting the arguments that our lolz portend the end of civilisation. ‘It simply is.’
Of course, ‘lolz’ isn’t used much anymore, except as a knowing reference to a bygone era, c.2012. But its root, ‘lol’, is fundamental to internet linguistic history. ‘Lol’ can be traced to chat rooms in the 1980s and was first cited as in a list of common internet acronyms in 1989. In 1996, Wired Style advised it should be capitalised without punctuation, as ‘LOL’. Now, a capitalised LOL would signal to me that my friend thought what I said was pretty funny, though if she thought it was really funny, she’d probably write ‘hahahahahah’, ‘lololololol’, ‘loooooooool’, ‘actual lol’, ‘lmao’ (laughing my ass off) or ‘lmfao’ (laughing my fucking ass off). These days, lowercase ‘lol’ alone is used to tone down a sentiment, most often indicating mild amusement or joking, or to alleviate awkwardness, as in ‘i am months late on this deadline lol’. It can also be passive-aggressive. If I write a lengthy, ferociously sincere takedown of a novel, and the author replies ‘lol’, she’s not laughing out loud, but laughing at my efforts. I can undermine her ‘lol’ by drawing attention to the replicable cool of this form of dismissal, perhaps by pretending to write from her perspective using the helpful meme: ‘i’m not mad, i’m actually laughing.’
‘Both memes and needlework are collective folk texts that spread because people remix and remake them,’ McCulloch argues, before identifying ‘faxlore’ – those joke faxes people used to send – as the missing link between chain letters and memes. Her account of the way the ‘grassroots’ adaptation of mobile phone keyboards for the Arabic alphabet led to the widespread use of Arabizi, which replaces some letters in the official Romanised version with numbers that better resemble Arabic script, is welcome in an otherwise English-centric discourse. (There is also a nice discussion of multilingual Twitter users.) She offers straightforward explanations of phenomena such as the pre-internet generation’s fondness for ellipses, which for them separate units of thought, but for younger people are simply ominous (when a relative texts ‘What do you want for your birthday …’, I read it as ‘I have already got you something you won’t like’).
McCulloch’s approach to irony, the live wire of meaning online, is much more tentative. Promises that she will elucidate the way it works are never quite fulfilled. The main innovation of the language of the internet, as she sees it, is that it clearly expresses shades of meaning; she sees the evolution of lol, ~irony tildes~, Ironic Capitals and minimalist typography as successful examples of what (she claims) formal writing has mostly failed to do: flag irony. More broadly, she celebrates the advances internet language has made in conveying tone of voice: ;) means something slightly different to an 😉. Though this creates as many opportunities for exclusion as inclusion (explaining memes is surprisingly hard), it’s more inclusive than what preceded it. After all, anyone reading my tweets also has Google; if you don’t get one of my references, you can look it up. (I learned a new acronym today: ngl. Look it up!) ‘Irony, paradoxically, creates space for sincerity,’ McCulloch writes. ‘If you and I can have the same web of complex attitudes towards one thing, then maybe we can also share more straightforward attitudes towards others.’
The desire to convey a complex concept as quickly as possible is understandable. (‘Money printer go brrr’, a meme anticipating the imminent Covid-19 recession, is a great example of the way internet language uses ironic childishness to deal with intimidating complexity; I couldn’t explain Modern Monetary Theory to you, but I can explain this meme.) For all her optimism about new forms of meaning, McCulloch writes in the simple, scrubbed prose of general-interest websites, with a chipper clarity that belies a fear of giving offence. Why? Her frequent use of the word ‘cool’ is suggestive. There’s a reason young people drive online trends: we’re the ones who care about seeming cool in front of the whole of the internet. The efficiency offered by internet language is less a short cut to meaning than to social cohesion. But its use isn’t always reassuring, even if you’re in on the joke. When someone turns to our shared catalogue of ironic signifiers, I assume they don’t want me to get too close, or they feel our conversation isn’t worth the energy it would take to come up with something original. After all, that’s why I use them.
Despite a brief mention of ‘context collapse’ – the technology researcher danah boyd’s term for the problem that arises when, as McCulloch puts it, ‘people from all your overlapping friend groups see all your shared posts from different aspects of your life’ – McCulloch doesn’t address the context collapse that has dominated the news in recent years: not what happens when a student accidentally invites his parents to watch him dancing the Renegade on TikTok, but when the American president, or a man with an assault rifle, can’t quite parse what a 4chan troll means in his Reddit chat-room rant. The internet’s contribution to language has been to give us more ways to communicate without saying anything at all :(