Review | Because Internet – Gretchen McCulloch

The blurb for Because Internet calls it “essential reading for anyone who has ever puzzled over how to punctuate a text message or wondered where memes come from”. But this book is not a fussy “how-to” guide for internet etiquette. Instead, it’s a broader look at how the weird world of the internet has changed how we use English.

McCulloch’s primary point is that writing produced on the internet – from Twitter and Tumblr to reactions and memes – is important because it lets linguists explore the missing piece of a linguistic puzzle.

We use different versions of speech – formal and informal speech – at specific times and contexts. While the same is true for writing, informal writing has historically been nearly impossible to study. McCulloch argues that our current era of internet communication marks the first time that linguists have been able to see people’s spontaneous informal writing in real-time. Positioning internet writing as the key to a previously-inaccessible aspect of studying language is a powerful approach, and this chapter conveys its importance well.

As I started reading Because Internet, McCulloch’s engaging and exuberant style caught my attention. Her curiosity and joy in language are both made obvious through her care in keeping topics accessible. Linguistics writing can be laden with jargon, but her descriptions of study findings and of the limits of linguistics research are easy to follow. She also discusses one of my favourite language findings, which is that young women are often the main drivers of language innovation. (In fact, she clarifies that in linguistics circles this knowledge is so common that its boring … I enjoyed finding that out).

The research at the core of Because Internet is McCulloch’s investigation into different “generations” of internet users. This is interesting because McCulloch doesn’t follow the usual narrative of tying people’s internet style and ability to their age or their time spent online. She instead focuses on where people first socialised online, using the analogy that because someone’s childhood location has a much larger formative influence on their later language use than their adulthood locations do, the same might be true of internet language use.

McCulloch’s categories are based on personal research rather than a peer-reviewed study, but I’m pointing that out as context rather than as a criticism. McCulloch explains the value and the limitations of her research and doesn’t claim that her findings are universal or infallible.

The four categories are “Old Internet People” who first socialised online in MUDs and on Usenet, “Semi-Internet People” who first socialised in MSN messenger or AIM, “Full Internet People” who started with Facebook or Twitter, and “Post-Internet People” who started with Snapchat and Vine.

McCulloch discusses the differences in attitudes and behaviours people in these four groups have, without elevating any group above another or saying that any group is less deserving of their internet citizenship than others. Through this, she fluidly glides between humorous subjects like the meaning of ~*sparkle text*~ or the history of lolcats into more academic linguistic details and sociology ideas.

Because Internet contains plenty of historical treats such as an explanation of why we use hello to answer the phone, and the online message which first discussed using :-) to identify jokes. It also contains new ideas that have only just been considered within linguistics, such as the question of whether emojis and emoticons are the text equivalent of emblems (gestures that add to a language without being language themselves, such as a thumbs up or a facepalm).

I appreciated the idea that emoticons and emoji can be used as signals of how a statement was intended, and therefore of how other people should interpret any ambiguity, as I use emoji in that way but I had never put it specifically into words until I read that description.

My favourite section was probably the ending, which contains an inspiring passage about how we look at language itself. This section reinforces McCulloch’s point about the value of internet language and the potential benefits of embracing linguistic variation.

“When we thought of language like a book, perhaps it was natural that we were worried and careful about what we enshrined in it. But now that we can think of language like the internet, it’s clear that there is space for innovation, space for many Englishes and many other languages besides, space for linguistic playfulness and creativity. There’s space, in this glorious linguistic web, for you.”

If I had to sum up my review in one sentence, I would say: read this book if you want to appreciate and wonder at language.

McCulloch’s aim is to show how internet writing isn’t laziness, sloppiness, or error – it’s a creative, inventive adaptation of text that lets people convey emotions and nonverbal information in writing. To me, McCulloch delivers on her aim. She provides plenty of evidence from past and present linguistics research to back up any claims, mixes in personal and anecdotal additions effectively, and quotes from a variety of established and junior linguists.

Because Internet conveys information well, being packed full of interesting trivia and pieces of internet history. But its major draw is that it celebrates rather than just informs. McCulloch revels in language-geekery and linguistic patterns, and she has produced an optimistic celebration of language change and human invention.

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