If we’re being honest (and I hope we are), the internet plays a large role in our lives. I can confidently state this about you, the reader, because you’re reading this piece on the internet (✨wow✨)! More than ever, during this past year, it has become apparent just how reliant we are on the internet as students, academics, researchers, artists, writers, workers, and even friends. The internet is a source of entertainment, information, income, recreation, and expression—and we spend a lot of our online time reading text.
Words on the internet aren’t always measured and formal, but often show up as informal captions, tweets, posts, comments and text messages sent back and forth in quick succession. This flood of casual writing has shaped the conventions of online writing into a language understood independently of verbal communication. Now, even visual non-textual elements affect the reader’s interpretation of online text (note the difference between “Wow!” and my previous use of “✨wow✨”).
Internet Linguist Gretchen McCulloch has dived head first into the study of internet speak in her book Because Internet. She analyzes the development of linguistic norms in internet culture. Here are three of my takeaways from the book which may help you communicate effectively on the World Wide Web!
1. Context is Key
Generally, we don’t put the same amount of time into composing a text to a friend as we would when writing a research proposal for a senior thesis. Knowing what you’re writing and to whom you’re writing it will determine the register of speech you might use in online writing. Personal Instagram captions, tweets, DMs and text messages to those in your social circle often use more informal conventions, while academic papers, professional emails, and correspondence with coworkers and faculty take on a more formal tone. When corresponding with someone for the first time, it’s best to err on the side of formality. However, when responding to an email, for example, it’s a good idea to mirror the register of the sender when choosing your greeting and sign-off. Either way, pay attention to the context of your communication.
2. Get a @handle on Online Lingo
Just as verbal slang has evolved over time, internet slang has changed as new generations have arrived online. These rapid shifts in language conventions have led to miscommunications and misinterpretations. For example, a keysmash (“aslkjdsdjlsdhkdjsk”) may represent an emotion of outrage, shock, panic, or hilarity to a twenty-something, while being puzzling to a sixty-year-old.
Interestingly, just as words have changed meanings throughout the years, so have different forms of punctuation in online writing. In the mid-20th century, the ellipsis (“…”) was used on postcards to physically space out each statement, much like how texters today might intentionally send multiple texts conveying a message that could be conveyed all in one in order to break up the thought and indicate a more natural pattern of speech. However, today, ellipses are interpreted by young internet users as indicating either an unfinished thought or an ominous implication. So, if you receive an ellipses-packed email from a person who grew up before wide-spread internet use, don’t fret—they’re probably just pausing to breathe!
3. wAtCh YoUr ToNe
The internet has created a vibrant forum for linguistic experimentation. As a result, we now have a lot of new ways to convey speech patterns through typed text.
For example, texting someone “What’s up?” carries a different connotation than “what’s up” or “what’s up???”. Sentence case capitalization can communicate formality, while all-caps can be read as SHOUTING. Spaced out letters can express how l o n g it might take someone to say something. Alternating capital and lowercase letters creates a mOcKiNg ToNe, and choosing to capitalize select words in a sentence makes A Statement. All of these typographical choices communicate different meanings—and these are only a few examples that have to do with capitalization!
Part of communicating on the internet means being aware of and navigating the linguistic conventions of the space. You wouldn’t want to accidentally communicate anger to a friend by texting “hey.” simply because a period at the end of a short text has come to indicate passive aggressiveness or short-temperedness in the digital landscape.
As online writers, it is important to be well-versed in the conventions of many different online environments. Knowing the differences between how to write a research paper and how to send a nuanced text message will benefit you as a holistic communicator in both academic and social online space. If you’re interested in learning more about the ins and outs of the evolution of internet speak, Because Internet is a fun and informative read!