Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch

I got to let my wordnerd flag fly as I read Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch. The Canadian linguist dives deep into how the English language and the internet and social change and popular culture have influenced each other since the days of Usenet in the 1980s. I inhaled this book, fascinated by how complicated it all is and entertained by McCulloch’s examples from her own life on the internet. This book made me lol more than once and I had to restrain myself from spamming my social media feeds with TIL facts.

Partway through Because Internet, McCulloch introduces her taxonomy of internet people, from the programmers who created the internet as we know it to the people who started using the internet as teens (oh hai!) to the newest generations who never knew a world without the internet. Each of these groups put their own stamp on internet culture. In fact, one of McCulloch’s themes in this book is that the internet is a third space of constant change where new vocabulary and grammar is coined every day. McCulloch explains this by using a sociolinguistic theory of strong and weak links. The gist of the theory is that the internet brings people into contact with each other (how most new words and such come from) and where friends and family socialize (how new coinages gain traction in the wider linguistic community).

Another theme McCulloch explores is one that predates the internet: adults complaining that kids don’t talk right. While we learn to speak from our parents, our peer group always puts its own spin on the language. I’m old enough now that I have to ask my sister’s kids or consult Urban Dictionary to figure out what youngsters are saying to me*. And I’ve spent enough time in academia that I find myself occasionally annoyed at young students who make mistakes in their writing that make me cringe. But if teens didn’t mess with the language, McCulloch points out, it would mean that our language was fossilizing and dying.

My favorite parts of Because Internet are the sections where McCulloch explains how speakers figure things out when technologies like chat and social media present a problem that requires a creative solution. For example, McCulloch goes into great depth in explaining how English speakers have tried to express sarcasm and joking in text-only. Writers in previous centuries proposed new punctuation but it never gained traction. Internet users now have a range of workarounds to try and show the intent behind their cutting words, like emoji, new uses for existing punctuation and capitalization, and new abbreviations. What can look like silly, very ungrammatical language can actually contain layers of subtle meaning for people who know what they’re looking at. For linguists, McCulloch says, looking at tweets and discussion board posts and all the others can allow them to see speakers of a particular language work these problems out in real-time.

I had a great time reading Because Internet. I loved it so much, actually, that I bought a copy so that I can read it again with a pen in my hand. McCulloch has a gift for explaining very complex phenomena in easy-to-understand, chatty prose that’s full of examples that perfectly illustrate her arguments. I realize this makes me a massive nerd, but I really enjoyed this book.

* I have way too much fun misusing teen/internet slang around them to wind them up. I get the most mileage trying to conjugate yeet to make my nephew’s head explode. I yeet. He yotted? They yote? IDK.

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