Because Internet

Because Internet coverBecause Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language
Gretchen McCulloch
Riverhead Books (July 23, 2019), 334 pages
Kindle edition $4.99, Amazon paperback $14.49

Audiobook edition read by the author
published by Penguin Audio
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I don’t know why I didn’t get to this book when it first came out in 2019. Perhaps because of its (deliberately) ungrammatical title. But that’s no reason not to read (or listen to) this highly informative and entertaining book.

I have never recommended both the audio and print versions of a book before, but that’s the case with Because Internet. One almost needs both to get the full value of the book. Gretchen reads her own work in a lively and engaged manner. She speaks at a fast clip, and I suspect that had a professional voice actor read the book it would have come in at longer than the exactly eight hours in which McCulloch completes her reading. The author enhances much of the content with her intonation and inflection.

On the other hand, there is much in the book that relies not only on spelling, but on sequences of keyboard characters, something that doesn’t translate well into the audiobook version.

The author writes about the evolution of internet language. She describes how users who were limited to the characters on the keyboard would use asterisks, hyphens, and underscores to enhance their messages. She explains how the convention developed that all caps means shouting, but points out that earlier mainframe terminals equipped with only a keyboard and a teletype (without a monitor) used only capital letters. McCulloch describes the evolution of terms like “lol,” which originally meant “laughing out loud,” but has evolved to simply show amusement.

McCulloch tracks the evolution of the emoji, which started as keyboard characters called emoticons and describes how the form evolved into the graphical emoji, with officially supported characters. The cross-platform characters are managed by the Unicode Consortium, “a small committee of people who live at the intersection of tech geek and font nerd, and are mostly employees of major tech companies,” in case you were wondering.

She also follows the evolution of the meme. Meme captions started out explaining the thoughts of the person or animal pictured, but evolved so the captions became labels for the various parts of the picture. One cannot, of course, open Facebook without encountering a meme.

The author also categorizes the generations of internet users, from the earliest adopters to those who never knew a world without the internet. She calls the first group “Old Internet People.” I’m not sure that I like that since I am part of that group, but that’s how she refers to us. I’ll write about my experience as an old internet person sometime soon. McCulloch writes about Full Internet People and Semi-Internet People, both of whom didn’t know a time without the internet, but are distinguished by their level of internet involvement. She discusses Pre Internet people, who were around at the beginning, but did not start using the internet until later.

McCulloch is a professional linguist and did considerable research for Because Internet. In addition to her original research she reviewed the work of other linguists. She does an excellent job of capturing a snapshot of our online world. If you are a word nerd or an internet nerd you’ll thoroughly enjoy McCulloch’s offering.



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