Everything from cybercat to spambot
Impersonal computer screens invite no-holds-barred communication that is, paradoxically, very personal. Constance Hale discusses the impact of the Internet and other new technologies on American English. Read Summary.
The Internet has transformed our notions of “print,” and email has turned us all into writers. In chat rooms teens trade emoticons; commercials (“got milk?”) reject standard English. What’s happening to the world of letters? Does grammar still matter? What about craft? Is tech jargon giving us a thrilling new vernacular or just a bunch of junk? Can we embrace technology without losing our humanity? Our poetry?
The Internet has changed the way we use words. Take email. … When the first “electronic mail” was sent by Ray Tomlinson in 1972, he barely realized what he was inventing. It took twenty years for the abbreviation to become a fixture in the lexicon, though few agreed whether it should be spelled E-mail, e-mail or email.
Email is just one of hundreds of new words that have kept the lexicographers and style mavens busy, including cyberspace, blog, listserv and spam. Some of the new words are practical: They name the tools and techniques being invented daily, with computer commands such as whois, human commands such as Rip that file, adjectives such as logon, and brand-new toys such as the TiVo-brand personal video recorder. Words move quickly from the strange to the familiar: A generation ago no one knew what a modulator/demodulator did; today modems are so common as to seem passé.
People have come to identify with hardware
Slang sweeps across the Web; some of it sticks. The name for computer junk mail started out as a joke; today few find spam funny. (Now there’s also spim, or “unsolicited instant messages.”) Usenet had its cancelbots and CancelBunnies, MUDs and MOOs had their dungeons and wizards, chat-room parlance includes BTW, IMHO, and, of course, :-).
Inventions and innovations, in words or wiggles, can carry precise shades of meaning. Good reference books and bookmarks (see below) are essential in keeping all these new words straight. Dictionaries are trying to catch up as quickly as possible; make sure you have the most recent version of a good one.
Not all words spawned on the Internet are welcome additions to the lexicon. Email stuck, but e-cash tanked as fast as dot-com stocks. For every new function (such as Delete), there’s a buzzword that should be banished (such as functionality). For every good metaphor (such as bandwidth for attention span), there is a bad cliché (such as attention economy — remember that?). For every witty wordplay (such as clicks-and-mortar), there is an alphabet soup of empty initialisms (take your pick: ISDN, DSL, IPO, P2P).
Some tech terms are named with a wink
The American Dialect Society named the combining form e-, short for “electronic,” Word of the Year in 1998. But oh, how soon it became a cliché, as in e-commerce, e-payments, e-tailing, and e-businesses such as eBay, E*Trade and eSchwab. It’s not the only combining form that’s gone from hip to hackneyed. Itty-bitty combining forms and single-syllable adjectives are among originality’s worst enemies. The combining form i- (as in iBook, iPod, iMac, and iTunes) will probably stick around until Steve Jobs thinks of a new one, but it’s certainly not clever any more. The term smart isn’t smart; forget smart transmitters, smart phones, and smart appliances. The days for the German prefix uber- are, literally, over; bury ubergeek, uberhip and ubercool. Then, of course, there’s cyber-, of which we’ve seen enough in every iteration (cyberpunks, cyberwonks, cybersex and cyberstation).
Almost as bad as clichés is jargon
Too much tech writing is filled with useless gibberish (nonzero-dispersion shifted fiber) and overused words such as ease of use, utilization and interoperability. We want to stop reading about technology altogether when we hit paragraphs that begin, as did this one in Wired magazine, “By IP-multicasting over ADSL, ImagicTV can deliver programming over a carrier’s multipoint network. Broadcasting several 3-Mbyte signals to each person...”
Hackers and coders — and their successors, teenagers who’ve practically grown up in chat rooms — live by the keyboard, and they’ve wildly appropriated every punctuation symbol in ASCII. In the C++ and Unix programming languages, symbols such as # and ! and / make up the syntax of sentences. They are as important as letters, co-equal members of the character set with which coders create. The !, for instance, invokes a previous command (!3, would rerun the third command of that session history).
Over the years, punctuation marks redefined by programmers were also renamed: A tilde (~) is a “squiggley,” an exclamation point (!) is a “bang,” a number sign (#) is a “hash,” a “sharp,” a “crunch” or a “crosshatch,” and the nicknames for asterisk (*) range from “star,” “splat,” “wildcard” and “dingle” to “spider,” “aster,” “times,” “twinkle” and “Nathan Hale.”
This shorthand allows programmers to speak a sequence of characters with very little ambiguity. If you want to tell someone to type “#!/usr/local/bin/perl,” doesn’t “hash bang slash user slash local slash bin slash perl” just roll off the tongue?
Today, these hacking terms have entered the non-geek vernacular. Think of .com (or dot com), @ (the symbol of digital savvy) and Slashdot (which may be the only publication named for two punctuation marks). ASCII itself has given emailers all kinds of options, such as:
• Typing in ALL CAPS, which conveys shouting.
• Spacing an all-caps phrase L I K E T H I S, to make a point loud and clear.
• Using asterisks for emphasis (“where the *hell* is the manuscript?”), or other characters for nuance (“It’s =late+. <gasp>. I want it \now/. Not /later/.”)
• Using an underscore symbol for book titles (I sent you _You Send Me_.)
New tools influence the way we write. Computers make it easier to revise, revise, and revise again. Search engines give us a world of information. Personal digital assistants, text-messaging pagers and cell phones force us to get to the point — and brevity is still the soul of wit. Ads for text pagers exemplified the rough urgency of online communication with a comic twist:
PEASANTS ARE RESTLESS.
DO NOT MENTION “CAKE.”
CAESAR - KEEP YOUR
EYE ON BRUTUS -
I'LL EXPLAIN LATER.
Other tools can be helpful (when they’re not irritating): email software scolds us when our diction is profane, even if we mean it. Word processing packages correct our spelling and grammar, but lack sensitivity to poetic license. Presentational software tells us how to organize public lectures, but as former Yale professor and esteemed information designer Edward R. Tufte says, these standard presentations elevate "format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.” Tufte’s latest book is called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. “Such misuse,” he adds, ignores the most important rule of speaking and writing: “Respect your audience.”
Many new words don’t obey old rules
As email and online writing blossom, keyboard Keatses drop hyphens and capital letters with abandon. Proper nouns such as listserv slip quickly into lowercase; some become verbs, as has google. Words that in the past would have lived for decades “open” or hyphenated get closed up: webmaster, videogame, startup. But keep in mind that we write in English. Words such as realtimevideostreaming look downright Teutonic.
Ultimately, email signals an altogether new kind of communication. David Crystal, the Welsh linguist and author of Language and the Internet, believes the development of “computer-mediated discourse” is as significant as the development of speech and writing.
Merging a telegram, a memo and a nice long chat, email is more artful than conversation: Alone at your screen, you are able to reflect and compose; at the same time, you sense the presence of others and await their rapid responses. The impersonal computer screen seems, paradoxically, to invite no-holds-barred communication that is very personal.
Digital missives can get to the point quickly
A well-written digital missive gets to the point quickly, with evocative words, short paragraphs and plenty of white space. Internet writing puts a premium on clarity, brevity and humor. Subject lines and links play cleverly with words, as artful as haiku.
In online dialogue, spelling and punctuation are loose and playful. On Web pages, in chat rooms, and across blogs, we see the rules of writing loosening as tone and style become more informal. When other sites are just a click away, a premium is placed on punch.
What works best on the Web is the sudden narrative, the dramatic story told in a single screen of words. Think brilliant ad copy, not long-form literature. Pert, casual, breezy pieces are perfect for the Web. Headlines are looser, more fun, more tabloidy. Pages that break (or “jump”) to the next page must end on a cliffhanger.
And it’s not just words that make a site popular. Designed to be so simple that anyone could use it to publish research that could be viewed by any machine anywhere in the world, the Web quickly spread beyond the science world. Today it’s home to everything from deep databases to e-commerce to multimedia extravaganzas. The best Web sites combine multimedia, hypertext, interactivity, and speed. Ideally, a Web page should load as fast as the eye can read and should be a breeze to navigate.
In this era of “client/server databases,” “vertical portals” and “high-bandwidth networks,” we are awash in data. But good writing is not data. We turn to literary journalism not just for information, but for context, culture, spirit and color. We respond to a writer’s voice: not the clear-but-conventional voice of standard written English, not the data-drowned voice of computer trade journals, but the quirky and individual voices of writers. We respond to voices that capture the way people talk, to voices with attitude and authenticity. In fact, voice may be even more important in online writing than it is in print, as the quality that lets a reader know that a story is coming from someone who has been somewhere.
On blogs, a lively personality animates the site
On the best blogs, a lively personality animates the site. Some blogs are just lists of links, but all are examples of the latest form taken by prose. You may or may not agree with Matt Drudge, but the Drudge Report has been a must-read among pundits since before blogging really got going. Legal brain Larry Lessig publishes a thoughtful political blog, lessig blog which even features guest bloggers. Boingboing is perhaps the ultimate geek blog, leavened with news of the weird. Then there’s Megnut, the personal-journal-on-the-Web that started them all.
A.J. Liebling remarked in 1960 that, “Freedom of the press is
guaranteed only to those who own one.” Today, anyone who has access to
the Internet in effect owns a press. But it takes more than a Web site
or a Net connection to turn you or me into the next Liebling. As
always, it takes imagination, discipline and humanity to transform
language into literature.
William and Flora Hewlett
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