Because Internet - Critical summary review - Gretchen McCulloch

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Because Internet - critical summary review

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Technology & Innovation and Society & Politics

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Because Internet

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0735210934

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Critical summary review

Since the beginning of the internet, the way we communicate has been changing. The internet gave us memes, GIFs, and emojis and has thus created a whole new set of norms for informal writing. In her new book “Because Internet,” the writer and linguist Gretchen McCulloch throws light upon these norms in an attempt to debunk some of the myths.

She has no interest in telling the readers that one way of using your language is more conventional than the other. However, she tries to keep track of how people are communicating these days. You’ll also learn more about the subconscious choices we all make daily as we type and what exactly compels us to act one way or the other.

Toward the end of the book, one paradox comes to light. On one hand, books are here to protect the language, but on the other one, the “new rules” – constantly changing in the digital ether – are adding up to the older ones. 

To get a better understanding of this phenomenon, it’s desirable to think of books as “maps and guidebooks to help people navigate language’s living, moving splendor.”

For many readers introduced to the internet and email during their college days, the language of online chatter looks almost frightening compared to the internet language today. To understand this evolution, let’s take it from the top and dive into the details behind the Internet world.

The internet people

McCulloch starts by explaining what “Internet People” are and defines them as being ambivalent toward technology and oriented toward offline relationships over online ones.

Unlike the people who grew up with the internet and never questioned the social potential and power that it has, some believe that the messaging process is better accomplished by the voice conversation as McCulloch would put it. 

She makes a comparison between Semi Internet People and Full Internet People and their differences in communicating online. Full Internet People are becoming anxious when they have to phone someone and actually use their voice instead of their fingers to communicate a message.

The phone was once a disruptive technology as well, as McCulloch explains. Setting up a standard greeting created some acute confusion on the way, and it wasn’t very straightforward either. What initially started as a battle between “ahoy” and “hello” was later resolved in favor of “hello,” which was a word used at the time as a call for attention. 

This word later became acceptable for greetings of any kind and now has even become the polite and formal word for greeting someone compared to the nonchalant “Hi!” or “Hey!”

What is also interesting in the book is the observation of the exclamation points and their overuse. Indeed, exclamation points usage has watered down, and a single exclamation tends to convey a stronger message than no exclamation point at all. It’s also worth noting that in this day and age, too much exclamation can sound insecure. 

McCulloch does not parse the ascendancy of the double exclamation but is eager to preserve one exclamation point to mostly two as a genuine way to display enthusiasm. 

One of the overachieving themes of “Because Internet” is how fluid these sets of rules are. Online exchanges such as texts, social media posts, and charts provide the linguists an ideal opportunity for study. 

The Internet language is “beautifully mundane” and – unlike speech –  will leave behind a convenient written record. The formal language is mostly disembodied, while the informal language isn’t. You might have noticed while talking to a friend that facial expressions and gestures give the conversation much more context as opposed to how we interact over the phone. 

When we talk on the phone, we only use our vocal inflections, so a higher volume and laughter will have to suffice. McCulloch does a remarkable job of showing how internet speech has been evolving and is “restoring our bodies to our writing” since online conversations have also changed over time.

In the first chapter of the book, you’ll also learn how and why the informal forms of the language are changing on a daily basis. Take LOL, for example, which is an internet slang since the very beginning of the chat. The abbreviation meant “laughing out loud,” but  the definition softened and acquired more layers of meaning as time went by. These days, LOL has a broader context, and, by connotation, it can suggest amusement, irony, and even passive aggression. 

Also, a seemingly harmless statement such as “what are you doing out so late lol,” could exemplify you poking fun at someone or even showing discontent. “Good morning lol,” can too be construed as criticism for someone who woke up late. 

Anyways, let’s go back to the full internet people. A person falling into that category might read anger or annoyance in a sentence that merely ends with a period. Moreover, ellipses at the end of the sentence in emails and texts could point out that there might be something wrong or disappointing, to say the least. 

The younger generation uses a line break for a quick pause before starting a new message since the three dots at the end might seem a little confusing.

Reflecting on the changes in “expressive typography,'' McCulloch says: “I’d gladly accept the decline of standards that were arbitrary and elitist in the first place in favor of being able to better connect with my fellow humans.” 

The internet language is giving us a chance to write not for power, but love. However, it is hard not to look at online discourse today as a platform where some people tend to express their hate. The “in-group” vocabulary of internet languages and memes are not inclusive and often exclude the out-group as a result. 

The formal language can be quite impersonal, as it abides by a strict set of rules, and therefore it must be taught. The formality is designed to appeal to a small audience, or in other words, something that sounds so boring falls short of the needs of the majority. 

The paradox is that the utility of the formal and informal style of communication is not a zero-sum game. The future is looking quite inclusive, and it’s evident that there is space for you in this glorious linguistic web. 

Smashing your keyboard pattern

What is also amazing about this book is the observation of how we have a pattern when we smash our keyboard. 

This happens once you run out of words to explain how you feel, which drives you into randomly creating a string of incomprehensible characters to express your emotional overload. According to the writer, it turns out that smashing our keyboards does not come randomly at all.

The keyboard smashing usually begins with “a” or “asdf” and seldom include numbers or letters with different cases. Most of the people resmash their keyboard if their first version of the letter order does not look quite “right” to them. Some even manually switch the letters around to reach their perfect smash. 

When it comes to spellcheck, Americans seem to be using z’s at the end of the words, while British use both z’s and s’s. This means that in the U.K. you can both find “organize” and “organize” as a correct spelling. 

However, when the rules for spell-checking came along and demanded standardized spelling, the “ise” verb suffixes were the default British English setting. This is something that McCulloch understands as well and says that it has led to an upswing in “ise” suffixes among the general British typing public and the perception that “–ize” is only for Americans.

The  LOL acronym is brought up a couple of times more with the man who invented it, Wayne Pearson. He was so amused by something that his friend wrote and laughed out loud, and that is how the acronym came into existence.

All terms and words are subject to evolution and change, and so was LOL. The person behind a study that was put forward to determine what is the appropriate way to use  LOL was a linguist by the name of Michele McSweeney.  

She found out that the use of that word nowadays has a completely different meaning than it did years ago. Now, LOL tends to show up in many situations that leave enough room for plausible deniability. For example, when people are flirting or when they are asking sympathy. Sometimes they even use it in situations that demand complete emotional sincerity such as expressing your love toward someone.

Using ellipses

It’s no secret that people tend to write with strings of periods or commas or even dashes for that matter. However, some people don’t understand what these signs mean and sometimes believe that this is a passive-aggressive way to behave on the internet. Turns out that there is a reason why people think this way.

In the pre-internet era, when people took notes and sent postcards to each other made by hand, they separated their thoughts with dashes or ellipses to represent a speech-like train of thoughts. 

Ending a sentence with a period was only used in formal writing like essays and business letters. Nowadays, the generation that grew up with the internet, have the same aversion to periods but their solution is to simply use a line break and convey their real-time thoughts instead.

As McCulloch pointed out, every generation’s thought separator of choice is more efficient for the medium in which they learned how to write informally. The line breaks will take a lot of space on paper, but a string of dots or a dash will hardly take up any space. On-screen, you don’t worry about the room, but you do need to worry about how much effort it will take you to write something down.

Emojis – a new way to gesture 

McCulloch argues that emoji became extremely popular because it facilitates the expression of emotions online. There’s undoubtedly a similarity between how we voice our concerns when speaking out loud and the use of emoji. This correlation appears in the form of gestures and expressions that are hard to convey behind a keyboard. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they add to the vocabulary, but they merely spice it up. 

In a nutshell, the emoji manifests gestures that are commonplace in the real world, and we already have distinct English terms affixed to them. One great example is thumbs-up or even the famous eye roll.

McCulloch writes that every culture that’s been studied has gestures, and we gesture along with our speech even when it’s communicatively useless, such as when we’re talking on the phone.’

As a society, we’ve been able to transform some of the gestures into text, through illustrations and now emoji, which is proving to be a powerful asset in the online world.

How conversations change

Did you really think we forgot about the famous hashtags? Their applicability extends beyond the digital barriers and includes different channels, from chats to formal emails. On top of that, the hashtag jokes are gaining momentum as a new fun way of expressing yourself, but they do not represent a new form of speech. 

As McCulloch pointed out, the idiom vocabulary is full of spoken punctuation. “Spoken hashtag” is just another element on the long list of creative strategies to insinuate something without actually saying it and adds context to the information flow. 

Final Notes

“Because Internet” is an important book for anyone who’s ever wondered how to punctuate a text or a message or even wondered where memes come from. This is the perfect book for understanding how the internet age is changing the English language and what does it mean for the future of our culture.

12min Tip

Every form of communication is unique and no one has a guidebook on how to do it perfectly, so don’t be afraid to go out and talk to people in the real world. But most importantly, be yourself, both in the real world and behind the keyboard.

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Who wrote the book?

Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist: she studies the language of the internet for the people of the internet. McCulloch is the author of “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language,” a New York Times bestseller and Best Book of... (Read more)

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