Review: Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sat Dec 12 21:25:54 PST 2020

Because Internet
by Gretchen McCulloch

Publisher: Riverhead Books
Copyright: 2019
ISBN:      0-7352-1095-0
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     276

If you're familiar with linguistics as a field of scientific study (as
opposed to the tool-based fields of grammar or writing advice), you'll
be familiar with the dichotomy between written and spoken language. We
may spend more time thinking about written language, since it is taught
in schools, central to most types of education, and carries much of the
intellectual and social weight of society. Linguists, however, see
spoken language as more fundamental, since it's the capability that's
wired into our brains and is essentially universal in human societies.
Written language is a recent and somewhat artificial invention.

One also learns from linguistics that spoken language does not follow
most of the rules of written language that we painstakingly memorized
in school. People split infinitives, speak in partial and run-on
sentences, ignore nit-picking pronoun case rules, and rarely care or
notice the difference between less and fewer. Spoken language does have
rules, but they're less fixed, more subtle, and less rigid. (The real
fun of linguistics is separating the innate rules that native speakers
follow effortlessly from the artificial rules used as education
markers.) This is, in part, because nearly all spoken language is
informal, whereas the type of written language taught in schools is

Enter the Internet, and enter this book. For the first time in human
history we have both an explosion of informal writing and easy
availability of that writing to linguists for study.

Informal writing is not entirely new, of course. We've had personal
letters for nearly as long as we've had writing, not to mention private
notes, diaries, and other writing intended for tiny audiences. But
consider who wrote private letters and, on top of that historical
filter, whose private letters were preserved for linguistic research.
Until relatively recently, only the upper classes were literate and had
access to the infrastructure to write and send letters. Someone's
letters or private notes were unlikely to be preserved unless they were
someone famous and important, and thus often well-educated and more
likely to take a more formal tone in writing.

If you compare this to the Internet-driven blizzard of work and
personal email, SMS conversations, chatrooms, and social media posts,
the difference is obvious in both volume and level of informality.
We're all on the Internet, we all read and write with a frequency that
would be staggering to the average person from even fifty years ago,
and while one may take a bit of additional care with a tricky email to
one's manager, the SMS message to one's friend is as informal of a use
of language as a conversation over coffee.

Gretchen McCulloch is a professional linguist and Because Internet is
about exactly this phenomenon: the new conventions of informal writing,
how it has changed and evolved, and the new subtleties and shortcuts
we've invented to make written communication easier. That goes beyond
words and grammar to encompass punctuation, emoji and emoticons, memes
and reaction gifs, and even the subtleties of timing, whitespace, and
the construction of virtual places via our choices in how and where we

This topic is my catnip, so it's not surprising I love this book. I've
been heavily involved with online communities that communicate in
writing since 1993 (making me, in McCulloch's classification, an Old
Internet Person; each wave of introduction to the Internet has its own
conventions that can be in conflict with later waves). I've now spent
more than half my life carrying out most of my social activity and most
of my closest friendships primarily in writing, so I found a lot of
satisfaction in a linguistic study that takes that seriously rather
than treating it as a curiosity. But, even better, I was amazed at how
much I didn't know, in part because I am from a specific wave. I have a
deep intuition for the Usenet conventions, but not as good of an
understanding of the ones from AIM and LiveJournal one wave later (the
Full Internet People). And I had a lot to learn about the conventions
of the Instagram and Snapchat cluster (the Post Internet People, who
have never known life without the Internet).

One of the things that struck me while reading this book is how most of
the language innovations that McCulloch describes are addressing the
old complaint that written communication is inferior to face-to-face
conversation because it lacks emotional nuance. My knee-jerk reply is
that, no, written communication is full of emotional nuance and the
complainer is just bad at reading it, but that's somewhat unfair. A
better statement of the problem is that there is not a standardized
language for emotional nuance in written communication, in part because
it's so new in human history. Most humans are extremely good at reading
facial expressions and body language for emotional cues, and those
physical expressions are largely subconscious, reliable, and similar
among different people (particularly within a culture; one can get in
trouble with body language variations across cultures). This is not
true of writing. With friends I've talked to over chat for twenty-five
years, I can read volumes about their emotional state in a couple of
short lines of text. But with strangers, despite decades of Internet
communications, I will still misread cues and misinterpret simple

The other standard response to this complaint is that it is possible to
put extensive emotional nuance into formal writing. Just get better at
writing! This is true, but unhelpful. There's a reason why we give book
contracts to people who are very good at investing formal writing with
emotional nuance. It's difficult, time-consuming, and requires a great
deal of practice. That may be appropriate for formal, paid writing, but
it won't do for informal writing, which by definition needs to be as
effortless as possible.

It's therefore unsurprising that once millions of people were using the
Internet regularly for informal writing, they started adding new
mechanisms, shortcuts, and conventions for emotional nuance. The
standardization is growing, but conventions still vary widely between
waves of Internet users. One of the most fascinating parts of this book
for me was McCulloch's explanation of why periods (and, to a lesser
extent, capital letters) in short chat messages are perceived by
younger users as harsh or passive-aggressive. I still have the formal
writing mindset of treating proper capitalization and punctuation as a
point of pride, but McCulloch makes an excellent argument for letting
go of my biases and understanding how and why language is changing.

The realization I had while reading this is that many of the changes
that look like sloppiness or laziness to someone trained in formal
writing have the effect of giving language greater dynamic range. If
one always uses periods uniformly, the period becomes meaningless
except as a sentence boundary (which is redundant with newlines in most
short informal chat messages). If one normally doesn't use it, and then
suddenly starts using it, the period can carry semantic weight. It can
convey a snippy tone of voice, a note of annoyance, or other subtle
shades of meaning.

I still use periods in most of my Slack messages because habits are
hard to break, but I'm remembering to leave them off some of the time
and paying more attention to what emotional weight they're carrying
when present. Because Internet is therefore the rare book that meets
the bar of changing my day-to-day behavior.

"lol" is another excellent example that McCulloch spends some time on.
It started life as LOL, an abbreviation for "laughing out loud," and
that's still how it's stuck in my head. But, as McCulloch explains, it
no longer means that to newer waves of Internet users. It now carries a
far more complicated and nuanced meaning that has very little to do
with physical laughter and that doesn't easily translate to a single
word or sentence. I went from being mildly irritated by and mildly
superior towards the ubiquitous "lol" to realizing that it's a
fascinating new word that carries primarily emotional nuance and that I
don't understand well enough to read or use properly (yet).

One more example of the type of analysis McCulloch brings to this book:
emoji. The tendency when talking about emoji is to treat them as
rebuses (pictures that stand in for a word, or at least a specific
concept). They are sometimes used that way, but McCulloch argues that
they more often function in the same role that gestures play in
informal speech, including the gestures that have no simple name and no
independent meaning outside of the context of the words being said at
the same time. This seems obvious in retrospect, but before reading
Because Internet I had never thought about what a gesture is, what
function it plays in speech, and how that could be translated into
informal written communication.

If you're as interested in this area as I am, this is great stuff. I'd
seen several mentions of this book go past on Twitter and kept holding
off because I had lots of things to read and was worried it would only
cover the superficial things I already knew as a long-time Internet
user who has listened to a few lectures on linguistics. That was not
the case at all. I learned so much from this book and had a delightful
time reading it. If you're also interested in these topics,

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-12


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

More information about the book-reviews mailing list