Reviewed by Ashley Supinski
In her author biography, Gretchen McCullouch describes herself as an internet linguist. She spends her time watching (and reading) how people communicate with each other on the internet, whether it’s social media, blogs, or other virtual forums. In her book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language (Riverhead Books, 2019), McCullouch breaks down how the internet has changed how we communicate, both online and offline.
In the introductory chapter, McCullouch spent time explaining her mission for the book: to understand the patterns of communication in the age of social media. She also wanted to make it easy for anyone to identify those patterns and examine language. Keeping with that idea, the book is written for anyone who’s interested in learning about how the internet has changed our methods of communication.
McCullouch doesn’t only examine the current way we communicate on the internet, but she also goes back to the original inception of the World Wide Web — when the computer savvy communicated through usenet. In the chapter titled, “Internet People,” she’s also created terms for the generations of users, sorted by when the user started to use and communicate with others online. These “waves” (First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave) are further broken down to identify the types of users, based on when they were introduced to the internet, and how they use the internet now.
Beyond looking at written language, McCullouch also examines the rise of the emoji. She notes, “Emoji aren’t the same as words, but they’re clearly doing something important for communication,” then goes on to explain what she thinks that something is: a gesture added to text. (In the previous chapter, she spent time discussing the Typographical Tone of Voice: why we tend to use capslock and multiple exclamation points or question marks.) By adding emojis (especially the typical ones like smiley faces), users are further able to define how they are saying something, so the meaning (such as sarcasm) doesn’t get lost in translation.
Finally, what would a book about internet culture be without a discussion of memes? McCullouch includes a chapter focused on the rise of memes and internet culture. As with other sections of the book, she starts at the beginning of the meme “movement” (remember 4chan and the “Caturday” celebration?). For those of us who love a good meme, McCullouch has even included a few (cat) memes for visual effect.
McCullouch’s dissection of internet language (and by extension culture) is a great read for scholars and laypeople alike. In easy-to-read language, she lays out the impact the internet has had on communication and culture.