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Hell is Other Internet People

Gretchen McCulloch’s new book unpacks the language of the internet

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch. Riverhead Books, 336 pages.

If the internet is making us crazy, would we realize it? Could we express this awareness? A connection made through the ether can be intoxicating, like brain rot, a fungus that makes us all collectively lose our shit. In “The Communal Mind” for the London Review of Books, Patricia Lockwood writes about the internet as an abyssal portal for collective communication: “Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made . . . or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.”

For Lockwood, the language of the internet (or at least her internet) has gotten out of control. She imagines, for example, her future grandchild asking her why people called each other “binch.” “How could you explain it?” she asks rhetorically. These questions of “why” and “how” of the internet’s collective madness linger beyond the piece (which is, by the way, not exactly written in language of the internet).

Gretchen McCulloch attempts to answer, or at least explain, similar questions in her new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, a general reader’s tour through the usage of 2019 online and a map (of sorts) for how we got here. McCulloch, who was previously a linguist at The Toast and currently writes an internet language column for Wired, is a resident of the same internet that Patricia Lockwood writes about. Rather than becoming overwhelmed, though, McCulloch dives deep into the portal, and she returns with a bevy of cutesy sarcastic asides and chatty, linguist-next-door remarks ready-made for readers to repeat at a party. It all amounts to a digestible introduction for those with minimal literacy in internet culture or linguistics.

Like her predecessor in the area of internet linguistics, David Crystal (who is the most significant contributor to general-readership books on this subject), McCulloch describes linguistic developments online as exciting, creative, and self-replicating. Whereas Crystal, in earlier days, argued against the notion that language was being “degraded” by the early aughts arrival of txtspeak, for example L8R and C U SOON, McCulloch finds herself with a more open field. When she revisits the conservative purists who worried that “kids these days” would be unable to spell the three-letter second-person pronoun, it sounds archaic.

Today, thanks to the development of autocorrect, we could all easily write “correctly,” and yet, as McCulloch notes, we don’t. We override automatic capitalization when our phones provide it, if it doesn’t suit our purposes. We purposely “misspell” and “misuse” words, ignore and overuse punctuation marks, and modify the basic rules of grammar. Hell, we even retype a keyboard smash (like “asdjhfksaskd,” which I just typed three times) if it appears insufficiently smashy.

How we talk online is determined by our linguistic community, which in turn is largely determined by where we were when we first encountered social media

Or at least some of us do. According to McCulloch, how we talk online is determined by our linguistic community, which in turn is largely determined by where we were when we first encountered social media: “Your experience of the internet and the language therein is shaped by who you were and who else was around at the time you joined,” she writes. Note that this distinction isn’t about the use of the internet itself, for information gathering, or even email, but rather the social circles and micro-communities it fosters. For example, I am young enough to remember being gently mocked by my mother for following the advice of a CLICK HERE advertisement when I was left alone for a few minutes on her office computer. Clearly, her technological ability predates mine, but today I speak internet in a way she could not understand. What happened?

McCulloch suggests that it’s partly that we’re writing all the time. And she doesn’t mean the kind of writing that people were doing before, which was edited and at least read by another human before publication. McCulloch rather refers to informal writing, which is now performed spontaneously, in a way that, say, letter-writing rarely ever was (it seems fitting to use the past tense here). Today alone, I’ve probably communicated several hundred postcards’ worth of words, and it isn’t even 5 p.m.

My mother, probably not so much, which is where McCulloch’s theory of “Internet People” does its work. Though the data she relies upon comes from an online poll (as many of the book’s hypotheses do), it nonetheless goes some way toward distinguishing between Full Internet People (me) and Semi Internet People (my mother). For my part, I pay much attention to the differences between lol, lol., and LOL—my mum is not attuned to these variations. When Patricia Lockwood writes SHOOT IT INTO MY VEINS, it should be capitalized, and I understand why. My mother may not.

How did I learn that these typographic markings were significant? The same way all Full Internet People did: together. “By using informal writing to convey the regular dramas of human life, they also started reshaping informal writing into something that could deeply convey the full range of human emotions,” writes McCulloch. When we need a method of expression, language—or perhaps Lockwood’s abyssal portal—figures it out.

This leads to miscommunication, of course, between generations of Internet People. The most think-pieced of these misunderstandings might well be the dreaded ellipsis (. . .), which pre-Internet brains often used as a marker between thoughts. But, to those who have tuned into using punctuation as markers of other types of meaning and emotion, the ellipsis is crazy-making, like a voicemail from your mother, because it seems as if a looming, important expression is going unsaid (“I have something to tell you,”  vs. “I have something to tell you . . .”).

As I was reading this chapter of Because Internet, Joe Biden announced his candidacy on Twitter. The tweet read: “The core values of this nation . . . our standing in the world . . . our very democracy . . . everything that has made America—America—is at stake. That’s why today I’m announcing my candidacy for President of the United States. #Joe2020.” Those pauses! So pregnant, so stressful, so Semi Internet, I thought. More likely, it signaled the perilous record-skips in Biden’s own thought. As if we didn’t already know, this message was targeted at a certain demographic of Pre or Semi Internet people.

There are other areas of “language” where it seems Semi and Full Internet People have more in common: namely, the emoji. Arguably not themselves a language, emoji do inflect language, and McCulloch’s theory is that they attempt to reproduce gesture, which every culture that’s been studied has. This, she says, aided the spread of emoji, which were accepted into our online vocabulary with remarkable speed.

It’s not a perfect correlation, of course. It’s not as if we make sad, shocked, or puking faces very often. Or gesture spiders, flames, or . . . aubergines very often. But we do add physicality when we speak, and this can accentuate or “massage” the meaning we want to convey. In particular, McCulloch points to the existence of “emblems,” or nameable gestures, such as winks, thumbs up, or the peace sign, as non-online precursors to emoji.

Like gestures, though “emoji don’t just have one function, they have a range of them.” And they’re not always purposeful. We gesture all the time. We add them to our speech even when no one benefits, such as when we’re on the phone. So, since we already have an intuitive feeling for communicating with gestures, emoji had an intuitive, communicative vehicle for expression.

The internet, however, doesn’t restrict us to a single method of gesturing or other acts of communication. Reaction gifs, after all, are functionally similar to emoji, suggests McCulloch. “When you go to insert a gif on Twitter, the built-in categories of gif that you’re offered are the same nameable, stylized gestures by humans, cartoon characters, or occasionally animals, such as applause, eww, eye roll . . .” We’ve invented gif keyboards that allow users to play these reactions back to their friends in chats, looping moments of rote feeling, available on demand.

I remember when the keyboards first arrived. I felt enraged at my niche being stolen. I’d been running a Tumblr gif blog that poked fun at Berlin’s hipster community, which had gone accidentally viral. The curatorial joy of finding the perfect pop cultural artifact to illustrate the sensation of being in the supermarket, getting on the U Bahn, queuing up for a club—it felt euphoric, a way of working beyond the confines of accepted language. As Lockwood writes: “It was no longer the embarrassing adolescent question of whether people saw the same colour green. It was a question of what soft formless Excuse me Linda, what the fuck did you just say? played out in your innermost ear when the Caucasian man appeared in the portal.”

How could the internet enable such distant and emotionally disparate humans to communicate the ineffable, to become a “we,” joined only by the reaction to a gif? Here, we slip into the realm of memes, which suitably earn their own chapter in Because Internet. McCulloch follows digital media researcher Limor Shifman in distinguishing merely viral content from memes: “A meme in the internet sense isn’t just something popular, a video or image or phrase that goes viral. It’s something that’s remade and recombined, spreading as an atom of internet culture,” McCulloch writes. Like Shifman, she notes the significance of the amateur, the low or unfinished quality of memeable content, which allows users to modify it, to choose and share their own versions, thereby broadening the in-group of those who understand the joke. “Making and sharing memes is about policing what’s in and what’s out of internet culture,” McCulloch writes. Or, if you think about the internet’s ubiquity, of all popular culture. 

Semi-dense references made collectively sensible—units of internet language begin to feel like secrets. We are part of a group, though we don’t know what the group comprises. Where did we come from? We are everywhere. We lose the plot together, scream about dogs and politics and wife guys together, inviting registers of expression and levels of meaning and tiny dramas accessible to Full Internet People alone. It’s enough to rot the galaxy brain.

Are we having fun, or are we in a hell where we’re merely communicating, learning too little too quickly, melting our brains into the abyssal portal?

Which is to say that it’s difficult to agree with McCulloch’s description of what participating in meme culture feels like. “Creating a dense set of references . . . or just getting them when you see them,” she writes, “is a sheer delight, like meeting a compatriot when you’re far away from home: you get a rush of fellow-feeling simply from swapping familiar landmarks.” McCulloch, like me, ran her own meme blog (and somehow still finds the jokes in it funny—I can’t say the same of most of mine). She knows the joy of connecting across a nothing-something of her own making. But is this really analogous to national (or, more dangerously, nationalist) feeling? Watching the United Kingdom, where I grew up, becoming divided in more obvious and visible ways, this feels particularly off-key.

Even within the commonality of living in Berlin, the premise of my early blog doesn’t ring true. I had little connection to those I made fun of. I had only just moved to the city, and while we were bonding over shared meaning, there was likewise the feeling that we were having fundamentally different experiences. This became obvious when an anonymous blogger, angry that my blog, “When You Live In Berlin,” was getting attention, started a competing blog called “When You Really Live In Berlin.”

Left out of McCulloch’s analysis: What is it, exactly, that is connecting us? Is connection for its own sake, without some common aim or purpose, altogether valuable?  What makes memes fever-inducing is their lack of rationality, their weirdness, the fact that there is nothing of substance in these tenuous moments of mutual understanding. Are we having fun, or are we in a hell where we’re merely communicating, learning too little too quickly, melting our brains into the abyssal portal?

McCulloch offers reassuring rules for this oblivion. Peppy and neat, some element of our internet selves is, to use internet parlance, seen. But what about the madness that daily folds into our lives as the meme comes for us, and, eventually, our family members, bosses, WhatsApp groups, and Slack channels, until everything is a sludge of gesture and easily reproduced half-thought?

McCulloch tells us where our current use of language has got us to—her book is “a snapshot of a particular era and a lens that we can use to look at future changes.” But how it makes us feel, and what it’s doing to us, that may be a story for another language.