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Wired Words

 ...Inspired Writing
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?

Brave New Words

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

Sometimes geek vernacular morphs into metaphor. The techie term for network capacity (bandwidth) became a metaphor for attention span or room in one’s schedule (I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with that rightnow). People have come to identify with pieces of hardware or software. Washington high-tech lobbyist Tony Podesta was once described by a White House staffer as “a router who knows how to get people from A to B.” Podesta agreed: “I’m software. I’m a server, I'm a switch, I'm all of the above.”[1] instant message screen

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.

eGads: Jargon and Acronyms

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

Some tech terms started out as playful, irreverent lingo that engineers and programmers invented to use among themselves. Gopher, netiquette and Trojan horses, among others, named things that needed naming, and they did it with a wink. But many other terms were marketing hype that got sucked up by mainstream media: content provider, dotcom, B2B, killer app. Many words coined in the mid-1990s now seem hopelessly dated or quaint: digerati, netizen and even World Wide Web.

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

Almost as bad as clichés is jargon. True jargon — the argot of a special trade or community — can be as elegant as it is meaningful. It is denotation at its best: concrete, specific, direct and necessary. Continuous integration makes sense in a conversation between two programmers. But jargon can also be pretentious, whether it crops up as technical terms stuck where they don’t belong, high-falutin words calling attention to themselves when a single syllable would do, or strings of noun clusters that gum up a sentence like spilled soda on a keyboard.

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...”

C++ Spot Run

teenagers at tnternet café in nyc

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[2]. 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_.)

 

Getting to the Point

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:

MARIE ANTOINETTE-

PEASANTS ARE RESTLESS.

DO NOT MENTION “CAKE.”

TRUST ME.

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.”

Case Insensitivity

Many new words don’t obey old rules

Many new words don’t obey the old rules. To Unix operating system users, every shift key tells a story. Unix denizens stubbornly retain case-sensitive Unix spellings and thumb their noses at literary conventions. A username — neanderthal — would be lowercase even if it starts a sentence. So would a command. This penchant for nonstandard styling bleeds over into tech company and product names.

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.

Blogging In

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.

instant message

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.

Voice Over Internet

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.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • The New Hacker’s Dictionary A collection of slang terms used by various subcultures of computer hackers.
  • Abate, Frank, and Elizabeth J. Jewell, eds. The New Oxford American Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001.
  • Branwyn, Gareth, ed. Jargon Watch. San Francisco: Wired Books, Inc., 1997.
  • Hale, Constance, and Jessie Scanlon. Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 1999.
  • O’Conner, Patricia T., and Stewart Kellerman. You Send Me: Getting It Right When You Write Online. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Books, 2002.

Constance Hale grew up in Hawaii and returns there often in her writing. She left the islands to get a bachelors degree from Princeton and a masters from the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley. She has worked as a reporter and editor at the Oakland Tribune, Hearst's San Francisco Examiner, Wired, and Health. Her freelance work has appeared in many Bay Area publications, as well as in Honolulu, HotWired, and the Atlantic Monthly. She has written two popular books on language, Sin and Syntax and Wired Style, and has been dubbed "Marion the Librarian on a Harley, or E. B. White on acid."

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  1. Miles, Sarah.  “Do You Know Tony Podesta?” Wired: December 1998.180.
  2. ASCII: American National Standard Code for Information Interchange, the code used to transform our letters and numbers so they can travel through and be understood by various computer networks.

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