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Book review: Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch

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In ‘Because Internet’, linguist and writer Gretchen McCulloch explores the concept of writing on the Internet as ‘informal writing’.

Internet writing can be a bit of a joke. It is often used as lazy shorthand to mock young people as uneducated and unrefined, although I suspect it would be a struggle to find a 17 year old who sincerely writes predominantly in emoji and ‘text speak’. Here, Gretchen McCulloch makes a convincing and lively argument that internet writing is a creative and natural extension of language.

The central argument of ‘Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language’ (Riverhead Books, £19.99, ISBN 9780735210936) is that written language has forked into formal and informal styles. The explosion of digital technology means that we no longer learn to read and write just from edited books, academic articles and professional journalism. Instead “writing now comes in both formal and informal versions, just as speaking has for so long.” This is not an aberration. Instead, McCulloch sees the “boundless creativity of internet language” flowing by.

Much of this book is dedicated to exploring these creative quirks of internet language, and dismantling assumptions about internet writing. For instance, while we assume that old internet language looks a certain way (“brb, sry”) the first generation of people who used the internet – via usenet, listservs, forums, and other early internet platforms – actually coined many terms we barely think of as internet language any more: bug, glitch, feature, crash.

For me, the most enjoyable part of the book examines how informal writing allows for playfulness with the structure of writing, causing entirely new forms of expression to spring up across different platforms. In informal writing, all caps is instantly recognisable as shouting, while a full stop conveys seriousness, and repeated letters (which often have no spoken equivalent) puts emphasis on certain words: “stahppp omggg”. While it is easiest for linguists to study open, searchable platforms like Twitter, McCulloch appreciates the linguistic innovation on more underground platforms like Tumblr, which have developed their own brilliant sort-of dialects. For instance, while ~*~sparkle exuberance~*~ once expressed exactly that (exuberance), it is now commonly used to indication sarcasm or embarrassed self-awareness, while all lower case, selective capitalisation, and spaced-out letters all have their own distinct meanings.

Of course, there is also an entire chapter dedicated to emojis. Emojis are often used to mock young people, with regular headlines about emoji being a whole new language, or entire books being translated into emoji. ‘Because Internet’ rejects this hyperbole: “Real languages can handle meta-level vocabulary and adapt to new words with ease: every language has a name for itself, and many have recently acquired a word for ‘emoji’, just to take a salient example. Emoji aren’t capable of either."

Instead, McCulloch argues that emojis are comparable to ‘emblem’ gestures such as winking, thumbs up or flipping the bird; considering them as emblems is (at least to a non-linguist like myself) a great way of seeing what emojis are doing with respect to language; they are occasional non-verbal substitutes for words, or used to give additional meaning to language. For instance, emojis are very rarely used in long emoji-only messages, and the few long emoji-only messages tend to be very repetitive (such as a series of hearts or thumbs up) in a way that reflects emblematic gestures far more closely than actual words: “Emoji added in a whole new system to represent a whole other layer of meaning… a way of representing our gestures and physical space,” McCulloch writes.

This book will age quickly (which McCulloch fully acknowledges) and does not contain as much academic background as it could have done, but is a thoroughly funny, refreshing, and thought-provoking read which sets out a clear and convincing theory of internet language. Since finishing it, I have started paying more attention to the fun feature of internet writing that I have used for a decade and never appreciated as linguistic innovations.

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