Exploring the way we communicate online

In her bestselling book Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch, MA’14, a linguistics columnist for Wired, explores emoji, memes, and the way we use language on our digital devices.

Story by Daniel McCabe, BA’89

September 2019

In her new book Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch, MA’14, identifies an unsung Canadian pioneer who has influenced the way millions of people communicate with one another every day: Wayne Pearson, who first introduced the acronym LOL (for laughing out loud) in an online chatroom during the eighties.

“I would love to see a Canadian Heritage Minute with the LOL guy re-enacted,” says McCulloch with a chuckle. “Who do we pitch this to?”

The folks who produce those Heritage Minutes might well be receptive. After all, people are paying a lot of attention to what McCulloch has to say right now.

Her book examines the way we use language online and how that use has evolved over time.

Publications ranging from People to The Wall Street Journal to Science have reviewed the book. It cracked The New York Times bestsellers list. The New Yorker described Because Internet as “an effervescent study of how the digital world is transfiguring English.”

The Montreal-based McCulloch is the “resident linguist” for Wired, writing a regular column about language in the internet era.

“I like to say that I can’t really turn the linguist part of my brain off,” says McCulloch. “I spend a lot of my time on the internet, as many of us do these days. And as I noticed these interesting things happening in terms of how people communicate online, I started thinking it might be useful for other people if they had a more explicit explanation for some of those things and how they came to be.”

Like emoji, for instance. McCulloch credits Lauren Gawne, her co-host on the podcast Lingthusiasm, with steering her toward the field of gesture studies (Gawne’s area of expertise) for a sounder understanding of how emoji work.

Basically, emoji support words online the same way that gestures support spoken language in face-to-face conversations. They add a further layer of meaning to the words they accompany. It’s no accident that some of the most widely used emoji include symbols for some of the ways in which we express ourselves offline – winking, thumbs up, crossed fingers, rolling eyes.

Emoji aren’t restricted to straightforward representations of human gestures, however. They convey a broad and sophisticated range of meanings. In her book, McCulloch reports on the Japanese engineers who found themselves making the case to their superiors for why the smiling pile of poo emoji should be included in Gmail. “They described it as: ‘It says I don’t like that, but softly.’” Take away the smile, adds McCulloch, and that particular emoji wouldn’t function quite the same way.

Emoji are now taken very seriously as indicators of meaning, says McCulloch. In Because Internet , she notes that “emoji are often treated as a clue regarding the intent of the writer” in court cases.

While some might view the way language is used on the internet as a threat of sorts to longstanding standards for proper grammar – all that lower casing, all that inattention to punctuation – McCulloch isn’t troubled. For one thing, she makes a clear distinction between the more formal use of language (in a speech or a literary novel, for instance) and the more relaxed way in which we typically communicate – which now includes the way we communicate through our digital devices.

“The average person has always communicated more often through informal speech than formal speech. Not everyone is a bard. And sometimes, even a bard just wants to say, ‘Can I have more bread? Is it cold outside?’”

Gretchen McCulloch

But McCulloch also offers evidence that all that texting isn’t destroying the ability of digital natives to use language properly. She points to studies that indicate that they perform fine on spelling tests and formal essays, and cites one Russian study that concluded that “15-year-old [internet users] in 2016 wrote more complex posts than users of any age in 2008.”

If anything, says McCulloch (pictured left), the people who spend a lot of their time communicating online are flexing those communication muscles much more often than their peers in previous generations did. “Fifty years ago, unless you were a professional writer, you didn’t put together anything that was much more complicated than a grocery list. Maybe you wrote a memo now and again if you had an office job. These days, you can barely organize a birthday party without sending out a stream of texts.

“The most important factor in determining whether a piece of writing is effective is whether you understand the reader and you can anticipate the way they will respond to what you wrote,” says McCulloch. “What kind of effect are you aiming for and did you succeed? That’s how any form of writing should be evaluated. And people who spend a lot of time online are getting a lot of practice in that – and they are getting stronger at it. Let’s say you want someone to know that you’re a little annoyed at them – not seriously annoyed, just a little bit. That’s a very subtle thing to convey and that message will require a lot of thought and nuance. Think about flirting in a text message. That’s a very high-stakes interaction! You want to get it right.”

McCulloch says the way we use language online is frequently inventive. We have come up with all sorts of ways to convey the use of irony and sarcasm online – emoji, gifs, sparkle punctuation. Some of the brightest minds of previous generations – Jean-Jacques Rousseau among them – tried and failed to come up with some sort of standardized signifier for irony. Today, we have a variety to choose from. “I like having access to this full range, depending on what I want to signal,” says McCulloch.

Communication can get bumpy when it involves someone who isn’t particularly fluent in the informal norms of the internet and someone who takes those norms for granted. Woe to any unsuspecting grocer who uses the eggplant emoji a little too enthusiastically to promote his produce online. A grandfather who insists on ending every sentence in a text with a proper period may have no idea that he is inadvertently raising suspicions that there might be a passive-aggressive subtext to his messages.

“One thing that I hope to do with Because Internet is to foster these kinds of dialogues among different people with respect to what they think of as a default way of communicating,” says McCulloch. “We do this in speech all the time. We learn to meet in the middle. We adapt our language to suit each other better.”

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