Because Internet

I am currently enjoying my current read, Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet, a delightful and compelling account of how our media landscape, with a focus on the Internet corpus — of course, given the eponymous title — changes how we communicate with each other. It answers one of the most puzzling question I have had this entire time: why do boomers like to type with so many ellipses, and in many cases, in quite an awkward manner? (We’ll get to that later).

What I especially love about this book is McCulloch as a linguist isn’t an elitist grammarian; she has no interest in telling you if one way of using languages is more correct than others. Instead, she wrote on her years of research of observations of watching how people use emojis, GIFs, memes, or short forms — and what they convey, not only the content of the communication, but how they tell which particular society or region one could belong to, if it is part of any social norms, if this is due to your age group, and so on so forth. There were many instances where I read and I would go, “Oh this makes sense!”

One of the biggest question I have had before arose when I watched older generations using Facebook (including my mother) who would type with a long line of ellipses following their sentences, something like this:

i just had to beat 2 danish guys at ping pong…. & they were good… glad I havent lost my chops

Uninformed, I was annoyed, and I kept telling my mother this is no way to type on the Internet. Turns out, the reason for the generations like her — who didn’t grow up with computers — typing like that was due to the fact that they used to write longhand in letters and postcards to their loved ones. This was when they would separate their thoughts with dashes, ellipses, comma etc. as a way to separate their cascade of thoughts. In a way, it is like an olden way of using line breaks to separate what we type to each other. An interview with a senior in the book revealed one of their struggles with typing on the Net:

“Something I use a lot of times, when I’m writing by longhand, is rather than normal punctuation, when I get to the end of a thought, I go ‘dot dot dot.'” He gestures to the computer: “Is that just period, period, perioud?” When West says it is, Don turns back to the keyboard and triumphantly types dot, dot, dot.

There was also this interesting study of lingustic decisions people make when they decide to align themselves with certain group who are seen as rich, educated, or upwardly mobile. This was seen in two instances of the usage of the letter ‘R’ in their pronunciation. One, it was observed in New York that some salespeople in the fanciest department stores, say Saks Fifth Avenue, would pronounce the ‘R’ (e.g. ‘fourth floor’ rather than ‘fawth flaw’, which the latter was quintessential New Yawk accent) more than those at the mid-range stores, say Macy’s. This was so that they could attract more upper class customers, who might be out of New York (e.g. native of New Jersey with r-pronouncing accent). Two, however, this could change across the Atlantic. Salespeople in Harrods in London — the poshest of the posh stores — for instance, would pronounce no ‘R’s at all, unlike those at Poundland, and especially in cities where the ‘R’ pronunciation is more prominent e.g. Bristol and Southampton.

If you have once tried to judge others over their communicative practices (something I was guilty of — as exemplified in my annoyance towards my mother’s typing format there) or have come across people who have done so, something to think of:

Let’s assume that communicative practices which baffle us do have genuine, important meaning for the people who use them. We don’t create truly successful communication by ‘winning’ at conversational norms, whether that’s by convincing someone to omit all periods in text messages for fear of being taken as angry, or to answer all landline telephones after precisely two rings. We create successful communication when all parties help each other win.

It’s been an enlightening read so far, and I couldn’t wait to return to it once I submit this tome of a thesis this Thursday!

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