Because Internet [Gretchen McCulloch]

Start Date: 15 January 2020

Finish Date: 5 March 2020

Source: National Library Board, Singapore ebook

Goodreads link.

Goodreads summary:

Language is humanity’s most spectacular open-source project, and the internet is making our language change faster and in more interesting ways than ever before. Internet conversations are structured by the shape of our apps and platforms, from the grammar of status updates to the protocols of comments and @replies. Linguistically inventive online communities spread new slang and jargon with dizzying speed. What’s more, social media is a vast laboratory of unedited, unfiltered words where we can watch language evolve in real time.

Even the most absurd-looking slang has genuine patterns behind it. Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch explores the deep forces that shape human language and influence the way we communicate with one another. She explains how your first social internet experience influences whether you prefer “LOL” or “lol,” why sparkly tildes succeeded where centuries of proposals for irony punctuation had failed, what emoji have in common with physical gestures, and how the artfully disarrayed language of animal memes like lolcats and doggo made them more likely to spread.

Because Internet is essential reading for anyone who’s ever puzzled over how to punctuate a text message or wondered where memes come from. It’s the perfect book for understanding how the internet is changing the English language, why that’s a good thing, and what our online interactions reveal about who we are.


  • This book came to my attention because it was in the Flash Forward book club, and Flash Forward released a bonus episode that was an interview with Gretchen McCulloch. Unfortunately, the bonus episode released in October last year, I decided not to listen to it until I had finished the book, I only got the book in January and took two months to complete it, and by that time, I wasn’t listening to podcasts anymore… and having decided to annotate it together with the Flash Forward interview, it’s taken me six months and a bit to get around to writing it up. Oh well. Let’s go now.

Chapter 1: Informal Writing

  • Chapter 1 introduces the key idea – that language can be spoken or written; and orthogonally to that, formal or informal. But for years and years, written language was purely formal, and informal written language was rare or nonexistent. The internet and texting are new and wonderful because for the first time in history, they’ve made informal writing possible and widespread.
  • But equally important to linguists, the Internet has made informal written language archived and accessible.
  • Linguists prefer to study informal over formal speech; so the internet is a goldmine for them.
  • A metaphorical goldmine. I’ve visited a literal goldmine, and gold mining is far more arduous and less rewarding than the data mining which linguists can do on internet archives.

Chapter 2: Language and Society

  • Georg Wenker sent postcards to teachers all over Germany asking them to translate forty phrases into the local dialect – this had the side effect that it missed out on differences in pronunciation; but was the first compilation of a map of dialects and regional differences in a language – or language atlas.
  • Jules Gilleron, in France, decided to do the same activity for French – but he actually sent out trained fieldworkers on bicycles so that he could catalogue differences in pronunciation as well.
  • In the present day, Twitter lets you geotag tweets; and lets anybody use the Twitter APIs to search through the whole collection of public tweets.
  • The results from doing this activity on American tweets: new slang coinages are more likely to spread from city to city if they are demographically (ie similar proportions of races in the population) similar; than if they are geographically nearby. E.g. slang spreads from Washington to New Orleans (African American population), Los Angeles to Miami (Hispanic population), and Seattle to Boston (rich white population, I guess).
  • The coinage “af” started from LA and Miami, so presumably it was Latino in origin; and then spread to California, the South, and Chicago; which suggests it spread from Latinos to black people; and black people spread it across the country.
  • Women are more likely than men to spread changes in language – both written, like spelling changes – and spoken (pronunciation)
  • But it’s difficult to isolate behaviour and social roles from gender – so can’t say if this is a social phenomenon or a biological one.
  • Weak social ties drive a change in language much faster than strong ties do.
  • Using computer simulation to see the effect of strong and weak ties – weak ties allow changes to propagate, and strong ties make those changes entrenched.
  • This is the second simulation driven result I’ve read about recently, the first being the one that debunked the Kon-Tiki hypothesis.

Chapter 3: Internet People

  • This classifies people into five types:
    1. Old Internet – who used the internet before there was the world wide web; or who started in the early web, when they had to hand code HTML. Such people had to be technically adept – and the Jargon File is an insight into their language.
    2. Semi Internet People – who are too old to be always online, and only come in to check their email, etc.
    3. Full Internet People, or digital natives
      • Old Internet People used the internet to meet strangers
      • Full and Semi internet people use it to stay in touch with their existing social networks
      • This references danah boyd’s It’s Complicated
    4. Pre Internet People
      • Joined so late that all the know are Facebook, Youtube, and touchscreens
      • unlikely to use email or know email etiquette
      • tend to use multiple length “……” and “,,,,,”
      • the last point matches handwritten postcards from the 1960s – including those sent by Ringo Starr
      • they never use internet acronyms or emoticons
    5. Post Internet People
      • socially influenced by the internet even if they’re not active users
      • the youngest current cohort and all future cohorts
  • There are three ways to prevent context collapse (ie something being misinterpreted or seen by the wrong person)
    • ephemeral messages like Snapchat, stories, and livestreams
    • different social networks for different contexts (friends, family, close friends, professional)
    • hashtags and public groups vs closed groups and secret group chats
  • LOL has changed meaning over the years – from literally laughing out loud, to mild amusement, to now “there’s another layer of meaning here, don’t take this statement literally” or “don’t be offended by this statement, it’s meant without malice”

Chapter 4: Typographical Tone of Voice

  • Old people use multi-dot ellipses to indicate pauses because they’re not familiar with the chat convention of using line breaks; nor to abundant texting – this is why their facebook statuses are full of these rambling ……s.
  • These multidots come across as passive aggressive to younger people.
  • Passive aggressive periods apart, a period (full stop) is also use to indicate a falling tone – which explains why it can be seen as passive aggression. (Yes! vs Yes vs Yes.)
  • Other forms of using typography to indicate tone – ALL CAPS for shouting, and repeating letters to lengthen a woooooord.
  • Injokes are used as a way to create solidarity – and pseudocode is a major example.
  • This also discusses the sarcasm or irony tilde; which I was completely unaware of until now.
  • Minimalist typography, i.e. using little to none punctuation or capitalisation as possible, indicated laziness when everybody was typing on a PC; more so on a Unix terminal. With phone touchscreen keyboards offering autocorrect, being minimalist in typography now suggests that you have turned off autocorrect and are deliberately degrammarising to signal something.
  • There’s a long section on the value of irony as a way to build solidarity or indicate that you and the listener both know something – and the challenge is to indicate it in writing without making it explicit, which would destroy the purpose. There’s a huge challenge in conveying it typographically, because the other person also needs to be aware of that typographic convention.

Chapter 5: Emoji and Other Internet Gestures

  • Emoji are technically (i.e., for linguists) emblems and not words
    • The gesture emoji are the most popular, which suggests that emoji are being used to replace the nonverbal parts of language rather than words themselves
    • This is simlar to the Infinite Monkey Cage episode on the science of laughter.
    • Emblem gestures fit into language but also work without words.
    • Illustrative emoji like foods, or musical instruments don’t cause distress when the image varies from platform to platform – but emblem emojis being different can drive people furious.
    • Words are not repeated, but gestures like nodding and clapping are (and they are called beats in this context).
    • On the other hand gestures really combine – so you don’t see such emoji in combination. e.g. clap and heart, etc. But food and animal emojis which substitute for words, can be combined.
    • I learned the CMU origin story of the smiley.
    • The East Asian ASCII faces that were used instead of emoticons are called kaomoji, or face-characters: ^_^, T_T, and o.O. There’s a cultural difference to emoticons wherein the eyes express emotion instead of the mouth.
    • Softbank invented emoji, and tried to get it turned into an international standard, but Unicode refused to get involved in standardising emoji; until Apple dragged them in because they needed to sell iPhones in Japan, and needed emoji to do so. GMail was also lobbying Unicode.

Chapter 6: How Conversations Change

  • Phatic expressions are those which provide context, and not literal meaning – like “How’s it going?”, where replying with a detailed list of problems will cause alarm and despondency.
  • The form of chat we have today – a stream of messages / lines separated by line breaks – was inspired by CB radio. It comes closest to the idea that conversation is a series of turns in speaking.

Chapters 7 and 8 are summaries and have no special insights.

From the Flash Forward Interview

  • Gretchen McCulloch got her break / book offer thanks to an article in which she wrote about the grammar of doge memes.
  • She talked about the challenge of being timely but not so timely that three years later the book would be completely dated; and how she had read writing about the internet from the 90s and 00s to see what worked and what didn’t – her decision was to write in general terms as much as possible rather than reference specific websites or apps.
  • By the time the book was being copy-edited, Tiktok had become huge; and she had to reluctantly leave Tiktok out. But not that reluctantly, because she realised that there was very little else in the book about video to compare Tiktok with.
  • I finally understand all the jokes about the Canadian accent and it turning ‘about’ to ‘aboot’ after hearing GMcC. In my opinion, the ou sound changes from the German au of Haus to something that’s a bit like the marathi au in Gaurav.
  • Interviewer and interviewee both agreed that the best way to get responses is not to ask a question but to make a wrong statement on the internet – and Rose Eveleth claimed that asking a question with a fundamentally wrong premise was her trick to get scientists to talk.
  • Someone from the book club asked if there was anything that had crossed over from the internet to real life speech. GMcC said that kids don’t know that lol used to be an acryonym, and think that it’s just a word like ok, and some pronounce it “Lole”.
  • Another example is saying punctuation or emoji out loud, like “hashtag fail”.
  • There’s a bit on why the book used Twemoji (the Twitter emoji set). Because
    • It’s open source
    • Twitter wanted emoji that would look similar regardless of web, Android app, or iphone app; so they created a set that was the consensus / compromise graphic between all existing emoji.
    • Twemoji are also flat – there’s very little shading or gradients, so they would render better when the book was printed.
  • There’s also a discussion on when people use different colours of the heart emoji. There’s a general consensus that the red heart is for romantic love, a lesser consensus that the yellow one is for friendship; and the others tend to be used based on individual contexts – and in some cases, because they are the colours of the sports team that person likes, or that person’s podcast logo.


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