Book Review: Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

Let’s imagine a scenario where all your contacts are wiped from your phone, and the only way to recover them is to identify each person using your chat history. Most of us would do well; your brother always types ‘u’ instead of ‘you,’ your best friend always ends each message with an ‘xx,’ and your colleague never capitalizes, ever. 

The way we write on the Internet is as varied as the individuals behind the messages, and Gretchen McCulloch sets out to explain why its analysis is significant in Because Internet. Known for her blog All Things Linguistic, ‘Resident Linguist’ column in WIRED, and podcast Lingthusiasm, McColloch sets out to uncover how the Internet has shaped language, and what the insights say about the times in which we live.

She begins by detailing the methodology, explaining that Internet language helps us understand traditional language because it’s “unfiltered” and “beautifully mundane.” It’s also much less resource-intensive to analyze compared to speech, which requires audio recordings and transcription. 

Chapter Three explores the nuances of Internet language used by the first, second, and third wave of what McColloch dubs “Internet people.” They can broadly be categorized into those who used the Internet before, during, and after it became mainstream. It goes without saying that the way the three groups communicate varies drastically, where the more ‘literate’ third-wave Internet people are more sensitive to the subtle linguistic connotations associated with certain typographical choices. 

A compelling example is how the use of ‘lol’ has transformed over the years. While it began as an acronym for laughter, it is now more often used to express “amusement, irony, and even passive aggression.” McColloch writes that the youngest Internet people “flat-out rejected the idea of capitalizing ‘lol’ or using it to indicate real laughter, even when expanded to ‘LOLOLOL.’”

She dedicates the entire ‘Typographical Tone of Voice’ chapter to such examples, examining linebreaks to emojis, key smashes to wave dashes. I found this chapter to be the most fascinating; the “mIxEd cAPiTaLiZaTiOn” section transported me back to my teenage bedroom, filling in the ‘About Me’ page on AIM profile. 

Because Internet strikes an excellent balance between catering to those who are interested in linguistics and those who, well, use the Internet. All in all, McColloch’s approachable writing style and passion for the subject matter makes for an enjoyable read.–MC

gretchenmcculloch.com

Cover art courtesy of Penguin (U.S.) and Random House (U.K.).

Header image by Oleg Magni on Unsplash

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