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Because Internet

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language

Gretchen McCulloch
Riverhead Books
2019
336 pp.
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In her new book, Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch divides inhabitants of the internet into five groups, arguing that “[y]our experience of the internet and the language therein is shaped by who you were and who else was around at the time you joined.”

“Old Internet People” came online when the internet first started and tend to use a lot of programmer jargon. “Full Internet People” joined the internet in the late 1990s or early 2000s as a social web, a place to continue with and expand on their existing, offline relationships. Most of their internet slang came from peers, who used abbreviations and emoticons to connote tone of voice. “Semi Internet People” joined around the same period and initially used the internet for work purposes but continued to live their social lives offline. To Semi Internet People, “All meaning is face value meaning.” “Pre-Internet People,” the oldest group, are late adopters who only sporadically use the internet out of necessity. According to McCulloch, “Internet slang like acronyms and emoticons is not just unfamiliar to them, it signals membership in a group that they have no desire to be a part of.” “Post Internet People,” the youngest group, have grown up with access to the online world and tend to infer emotional meaning from subtle cues.

Although the title suggests that this book takes a prescriptive approach to language, discussing the “rules” for online communication, the content shows quite the opposite. McCulloch describes a variety of uses of the internet such as ListServs, texting, social media, and memes and explains how language—primarily English, with some examples from other languages—has adapted to each function without judgment. She considers how emojis have developed from emoticons and discusses how gesture research can help us understand how emojis function in the world of texting and online chat. Explaining that both gestures and emojis fulfill a similar role in offline and online settings, she reveals how emojis make up for the lack of paralinguistic features in online communication. This section will be particularly interesting to nonacademics as well as junior researchers because she explicitly discusses the process she used in researching these features.

McCulloch resists exploring internet language as a new phenomenon. Instead, she builds her investigations on older research into sociolinguistic features, discussing key experiments such as William Labov’s 1962 “fourth floor” study, which identified the presence of linguistic differences between social classes. These studies are woven into a compelling narrative rich with examples from her own online activities, a healthy dose of humor, and plenty of cat memes. Although it probably will not provide any novel insights for new media linguists, the breadth of topics covered—from conversation analysis to meme culture to the development of texting as we now know it—makes this book useful, engaging, and enjoyable.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of English Language and Linguistics, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK.