The Evolution of Language Online - Thoughts on 'Because Internet' by Gretchen McColloch

The introduction to ‘Because Internet’ by Gretchen McCulloch promises that after reading ‘you’ll never look at your quickly dashed off text messages the same way again’. As someone who has a tendency to carefully construct her digital communications and sometimes worries that the meaning may have been misconstrued, I was certain I couldn’t give any more thought than I already was! However, rather than being anxiety inducing, ‘Because Internet’ provides a thought provoking look at the evolution of our everyday informal language choices and how the dawn of digital communication has encouraged us to become creative with how we convey emotion, meaning and nuance.



Nostalgia and how it affects the way we view digital communication

McCulloch, a linguist with a clear passion for her subject matter, combines historical contexts for our everyday communications alongside many often relatable and nostalgia-inducing examples of online socialising. Indeed nostalgia itself is a topic she also highlights in terms of how people view ever changing technology and how it impacts the way we connect and communicate with one another.

People often mythologize a golden age when people had ‘real’ conversations… The technologies we now decry as new and inferior are going to be someone else’s nostalgia trip; the technologies we now nostalgize were someone else’s new and inferior versions - McCulloch, Because Internet

Other writers about internet culture have also covered nostalgia. Baym’s 2010 book Communication in the Digital Age highlights the disdain that some have for the role digital media plays in the way we communicate today. Like McColloch, she reinforces that the latest technology is only to be feared or disliked until it becomes the predecessor to a newer, shiner innovation.



Indeed, many articles and books around online culture and communication often take a negative or fear mongering stance on the impact digital technology has on our ability to use language and/or socialise. The immediate examples that spring to mind in this regard are Twenge’s widely cited book iGen (2017) and Turkle’s book Alone Together (2013) which - I feel - both only serve to fuel the fires of fear surrounding digital communication. The claim that technology has the ability to leave us incapable of socialising offline just feels too far fetched for me. Therefore, McColloch’s point of view is refreshing, as she examines digital communication from a perspective of curiosity and illustrates the creativity behind our ability to share nuance and context in our texting, social media interactions, emails and online posts.

Visual aspects of Online Communication

Our ability to capture nuance and context within our informal writing is examined through elements like etiquette, gesture or tone as well as the roles that punctuation, inventive spelling and visual cues can play in this. Perhaps most interestingly are the ‘newer’ forms of visual tools which can be used such as emojis and gifs. I use the term ‘newer’ loosely as how new these feel depends on how long your relationship with the internet has been. Interestingly, McCulloch expands on the somewhat dated and limiting (although frequently used) terms ‘Digital Native’ and ‘Digital Immigrant’ introduced by Marc Prensky in 2001. By charting what platforms and behaviours someone first used at their introduction to the internet, she posits we can get a better understanding of their behaviours and technological skill. As a ‘full internet user’ with my initial experiences with platforms like MSN messenger and Myspace, gifs and emojis came much later in my use of online spaces than someone whose first online experiences were on Instagram.

Fig. 1.

By examining emojis and reactionary gifs, McCulloch posits that we often use these to embody meaning and apply context. She demonstrates how the use of an emoji can vastly change the tone and meaning of an identical phrase (Fig 1.) While McCulloch covers visual features in detail, there were certain cultural implications that I hope to understand in more detail through further reading. For example, she highlights the absorption of words, phrases and imagery introduced by people of colour into the culture of the internet en masse. McCulloch usefully cites examples of writers who have explored this phenomenon themselves and I have been able to add these to my to-be-read list.

Final Thoughts

'Because Internet' is an enjoyable read which I found to be equal parts relatable and informative. McCulloch provides a passionately written analysis which provides a plethora of examples to illustrate her points, from the 16th century up to the present day. As a child of the 90s it was enjoyable to have relatable interactions and behaviours examined linguistically. Additionally, being introduced to linguistic traits from unfamiliar eras or spaces of the internet I felt more informed about wider internet culture.


It is recommended reading for anyone interested in digital communication or online socialising and has often wondered about the impact this has on the ways we use language. I also recommend it as a counter text to the often pervasive and overtly negative narratives around the impacts of digital media on our lives.

 

Sources

Baym, N. (2010) Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Cambridge” Polity Press


Prensky, M (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. Vol. 9 (5)