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Review: “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language”

Originally published August 9, 2019
Last updated August 9, 2019
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book coverI don’t know what I expected from “Because Internet,” but the thing that delighted and surprised me most was the language used in the book itself. It’s written in Internet language, in a way that feels comforting and familiar to me, like a knowledgeable Tumblr post that makes you mash the repost button two nanoseconds after reading it.

The book is deeper and more thoughtful than you might think if you’ve read McCulloch’s well known work at The Toast on the linguistics of doge (very word, much grammar, wow.) Rather than pulling apart the minutiae of particular Internet phrases and styles – for instance she never even talks about the “Because X” formulation in the title – she steps back and takes a 10,000-foot view to show us a big picture that’s been missing from a lot of Internet language discussion up to now. Her analysis is clearly grounded in serious scholarship, her insights will make you see both your online and offline life in new ways, and her writing is accessible and entertaining.

One of the most valuable things the book does is to split Internet People into generations based not on their age but on when they first got online.

  • Old Internet People: First online early 1990s or before. First social use of the Internet was Usenet, IRC, etc. Often made friends with people they’d never met before, through topic-based discussions. Technical proficiency was required, and Internet language often related to technical jargon and practices.
  • Full Internet People: Online late 90s to early 2000s, usually at school age. First social use of the Internet was instant messaging, MySpace, LiveJournal, etc. Less technical proficiency required; often learned incidentally (eg. by customising a LiveJournal theme.) First generation to use the Internet to socialise with offline friends such as classmates.
  • Semi Internet People: came online at the same time as the Full Internet People but were generally older. Typically first got online for work, and were more interested in using the Internet it for practical purposes like booking travel or online banking. They use social media (eg. Facebook) to keep up with some friends, but they still do a lot of things offline.
  • Pre Internet People: An older generation who thought they could get away with ignoring this Internet thing, but it caught up with them later in life. Tend to have access set up for them by a family member, and only use the specific app they need to, for instance, look at pics of their grandkids. Or they might have been forced into it by needing to access services online, through a library or similar.
  • Post Internet People: A younger generation who have always been online, perhaps entertained by Youtube as a toddler, or whose parents blogged about them. They have never known a world where the Internet wasn’t everywhere. The “bright dividing line” for this group is that they got on Facebook after their parents.

I’m one of the Old Internet People, while many of my friends are Full Internet People. This contrasts with many in my age group who are Semi Internet People, who didn’t socialise online until Facebook and the like. This is an incredibly useful way of categorising us, and goes a long way to explaining why I often feel more “millennial” than my Gen-X birthdate would suggest.

But the most important concept, I think, is the realisation that until recently the quadrant of “written, informal” language was so ephemeral that people didn’t think of it much at all. Where was it used? Postcards, post-it notes? Nowhere that was taken very seriously.

because internet review: informality vs formality, written vs spoken language

Written and spoken, formal and informal language – from “Because Internet

That invisibility is why Semi-Internet People and Post-Internet People, and their legacy media outlets, feel that it’s hard or impossible to have real friendships online. After all, building intimacy requires informality, emotional expression, and non-verbal nuance, rather than the highly edited and carefully controlled language of formal written English.

The Internet has made informal written language more common, more visible, and more like informal spoken language, with all its variability, cultural connotations, and ephemerality. Linguists love working with informal language, and you can see the author’s love for Internet language shining through in this book, not only in the content but also in the form of her writing.

My pre-ordered copy of this book didn’t arrive for almost two weeks (grr, Booktopia!) and I’m told that it sold beyond all expectations. The author’s been careful to write in a way that will make this more than just a description of fleeting trends, and I expect I won’t be the only one who’ll be glad to have this book on my bookshelf decades from now.


Feature image CC-BY-SA Martin Grandjean, via Wikipedia. This post contains affiliate links.

 

A linguistically informed look at how our digital world is transforming the English language.

McCulloch, Gretchen. Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. Penguin Publishing Group, 2019.

Alex Bayley is a tech industry refugee, independent researcher, writer, educator and community builder. They live in Ballarat, west of Melbourne, Australia.

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