The past and future of language on the internet.

The Future of Language on the Internet Might Not Include Words at All

The Future of Language on the Internet Might Not Include Words at All

How the past two decades will shape the future.
Sept. 30 2016 12:02 PM

The Future of 📝 on the Internet

How language took over the internet, and how the internet is changing language.

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Animation by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

On Slate’s watch, professional writing has changed out of cocktail attire into sweatpants—or, more precisely, it’s embraced the freedom to wear evening gowns, clubwear, athleisure, business casual, or nothing at all. That doesn’t mean the subjects being covered are any less important; only that journalism, online and off, happens in a more casual register. A political about-face isn’t “very interesting,” it’s “super-interesting.” We notate uh and like and hmm. And our casualness manifests in variety: We treat typography and punctuation less like a woodblock than a jazz piano. We sound all-lowercase depths and perform shrill majuscule runs, piling on exclamation points, upspeak-y question marks, and other gracenotes instead of tapping out a staid Strunkian rhythm.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.

Take a recent post on Slate dot com, “Reddit’s Vendetta Against St. Ives Apricot Scrub Is a Dermatological Inspiration.” The subject? An obscure hatred a certain subthread on a social media site has for a certain skin-care product. The tone? Chatty and informal. The end punctuation: varied and poppy. The clauses hook onto each other with an offhand, infectious speed. There are slang words, references to “your disgusting feet,” a custom-built GIF. The social headline invents a word: “Dermabrasing.” The photo caption quotes TLC. Not only has the internet exploded with modes and tones of all colors and timbres, but any given piece is likely to contain a cacophony.

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Once upon a time, professional writing sounded like writing. Now it often sounds like speech. A caveat here: Many sentences at Slate and beyond do have careful architecture, a constructedness that reveals the ministrations of fussy authors and editors with their tweezers and pumice stones. (And the same authors who slum it in PJs for one post will break out their diamonds for the next.) Count on an A. O. Scott lede to spread its colors like a beautiful, delicate Japanese fan. The day Kathryn Schulz puts “ugh” in a piece will be the day someone has kidnapped the real Kathryn Schulz and stuck anomalies in her copy to torture her. And yet! This looser, stream-of-excited-consciousness style has gained significant ground. Why?

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True, the New Journalists employed giddy, off-the-cuff modes in the ’60s and ’70s. But they were jazzy, celebrity exceptions, as exempt from the rules of grammar as they were from the boring pieties about not making stuff up. But with the “first wave” blogs came a casual voice that’s spread throughout the internet. Maybe the culture of the web has simply caught up to what emags like Gawker were doing all along, when Emily Gould and Alex Balk and Elizabeth Spiers berated, cajoled, winked at, and chatted up readers as if their interlocutors were seated across a card table. Or maybe the prevalent casual tone—once a fun bit of branding—now reflects a brutal process of natural selection as sites compete for the ever-dwindling resource of people’s attention.

In 2008, Michael Agger conducted an investigation into how users read online. Citing “usability expert” Jakob Nielsen, he reported that we transform into “information foragers” when our eyes hit the screen. Rather than savor the flow of language, we scan ruthlessly for an “information scent.” To hold our wayward focus, Nielsen recommended that internet scribblers:

  • Make lists
  • Highlight keywords (especially with hypertexts, which lend an aura of authority)
  • Express one idea per paragraph
  • Slice the word count in half (goodbye, writerly ruminations, ensorcelling digressions, cutting asides)
  • Use short sentence fragments
  • Employ clear, explanatory subheads
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I’m not sure to what extent these hacks have been adopted. Nielsen may have underestimated the power of voice in blogging, and he certainly didn’t foresee the cascading hyper-eloquence of a Heather Havrilevsky or Television Without Pity–era Sars. But the spirit of coaxing readers down the page with an undemanding, chatty tone survives. You see it in the way writers feel the need to be funny—and if not funny, at least intense or worked up. Emotions are grease on the hinges of argument, beguiling to observe and less effortful to process.

A lot of this obviously has to do with the rise of blogging: Slate launched Chatterbox in 1999, Andrew Sullivan started the Dish in 2000, Gawker began in 2002, Wonkette in 2004—the same year that Merriam-Webster named “blog” its word of the year—the Huffington Post in 2005. On these ephemeral platforms, fast-paced and often editorless, writers loosened up their language, adopting an intimate, talky tone. They also broke a lot of rules, sprinkling in ungrammatical slang and weird punctuation.

You can’t mention blog voice without celebrating (or deploring) one of its founding fathers, Choire Sicha, who left Gawker to create the Awl in 2009. A New Yorker essay from 2013 hails Sicha’s “idiomatic dominion” over the internet, where he pioneered a style at once “candid,” “self-consciously hysterical,” and “humorously helpful.” (You can see his influence, for example, in Heather Schwedel’s not-a-disclaimer, “Again, no idea if this is true and will actually improve your skin!”) A typical Choire piece sounds like the ravings of your most articulate, manic, so-earnest-he’s-ironic friend on a topic he’s spent five hours chasing down a Wikipedia wormhole. Here he is, obsessive on the nomenclature of group sex:

Where does an orgy stop and start? Two is a mating and three is a threeway. Because four is a fourgy, you would think that five is logically an orgy, but no, five is two couples who keep forgetting about the creepy guy cranking it in the corner. Six is an accident, you didn’t get enough for a gangbang but you got too many for something more innocent and lovely. Six is gross.
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The tics and tropes—flexible sentence structure, comedic prolixity punctuated by short declarations, extreme familiarity—grew so recognizable that Jessica Misener applied them to the Bible in a parody for Medium:

The earth was formless and empty, and darkness was hovering over the surface of the deep, which, ugh. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light?? Also! God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.

But it wasn’t just syntax that was evolving. Jezebel’s Lindy West led the pack of writers revolutionizing the role of the caps lock key. Her humorously shouty rant became its own literary form, a way of communicating the kind of outsized emotion that only follows extreme provocation (which can then be measured against the smallness of the actual provocation for comedic effect). “I LOVE THE UNFILTERED, UNAPOLOGETIC PUSHINESS OF ALL-CAPS,” West explained in her caps defense. “I LOVE THE BREAK FROM PROPRIETY. I LOVE THE HONESTY OF IT. I LOVE LETTING LOUD FEELINGS BE LOUD. I LOVE HOW ALL-CAPS HELP ME FILTER OUT PEOPLE WHO PRIORITIZE CONVENTION OVER CONTENT, BECAUSE I DO NOT CARE VERY MUCH ABOUT IMPRESSING THOSE PEOPLE.”

On the other end of the spectrum, bloggers turned to ironic lowercase and no punctuation to capture their deep ennui. Raise a glass for the fallen: Nobody deployed sarcastic minimalist typography like Mallory Ortberg did on the Toast. To type something and not punctuate it is to either imply that you don’t have the energy to press the shift key (as Ortberg does here to convey exhaustion with men) or to jokingly downgrade the content of your sentence. Just a thought, the lowercase, no-punctuation statement ventures archly.

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Perez Hilton unveiled his cybertabloid, originally called PageSixSixSix, in 2004. He combined a hyperventilating style with gleeful shade, absurd nicknames, juvenile comments scrawled on photos, and a knowingness about the superficiality of his project that made him look sophisticated rather than silly. Hilton’s was just one way of expanding the range of internet writing. Think about the precisely calibrated, distinctive voices that now power online conversations, from Jon Bois’ woozy surrealism to Mark Lisanti’s ornate flourishes to Damon Young’s glorious, acidic experiments in ironic stagecraft. Print publications—prestigious ones!— have also felt the tug toward freer forms and language. Could anyone have foreseen, five years ago, the technology article that ran in the New York Times on Sept. 1 under the headline “When I’m Mistakenly Put on an Email Chain, Should I Hit ‘Reply All’ Asking to Be Removed?” It consisted of a single word, “no,” and a byline. Even the New Yorker is now publishing gutsy essays booby-trapped with “bitch,” “fuck,” and “bodacious tatas.”

Affecting breeziness or deadpan, off-the-cuff truth-telling requires care and effort. Blog voice performs spontaneity because it scans as more authentic—and the internet is all about the illusion of authenticity—but hyperintelligent verbiage doesn’t just bubble up from bloggers because they’re so clever and passionate. The ideal blogging persona has in it an element of the savant, effortlessly original, vehement, and quirkily obsessive. But even West’s untrammeled explosions and Sicha’s excited monologues likely went through a round of edits. The traditional labor of writing has simply gone toward making the writing appear unlabored.

But one significant type of communication on the web usually doesn’t pass through any editing gantlet. That category is social media posts. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Snapchat, and the like have shaped the prose of the internet in powerful, unintended ways.

They’ve made it more casual, and also more multimodal. With the rise of GIFs, emoji, and video on personal messaging apps, writers have felt pressure to fold images into their text, not to mention the lingo and symbols that have sprung up around specific platforms (fave, #blessed). What social media helped accomplish was a twofold shift toward visual complexity and away from formal expression. Perhaps one is a compensation for the other: The meticulous word choice and grammar that once conveyed subtle washes of feeling have been edged out by “discourse particles”—words or marks that have no semantic meaning but add flavor or intent to a statement.

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We embed pictures and graphics. We make use of lots of different types of punctuation, casing, font styles, and diacritic marks. The ironic hashtag has become a staple of self-conscious web writing. So have abbreviations like “lol,” “idk,” “ymmv,” and “wtf.” And emoji! They are beginning to stud blog posts like little 🎆 🎆  of cartoonified affect, lest anyone suspect a website takes its feels too seriously. Slate recently updated its content management system so that writers could fling a hollow-eyed skull or three into their posts. I’ve also spotted emoji kickers in the Atlantic, Wired, and Fusion. (Though, to be fair, all three articles were about emoji.)

In fact, one of the best places to observe social media–driven linguistic innovation is in the emergent genre of Articles About Internet Language. This is where you see the inventiveness of black Twitter earnestly dissected after it’s been appropriated—where passwords like the emphasis clap and “show me the receipts” make the leap into a meta-conversation about how our discourse is evolving. Because news and culture sites are eager to decode the latest trend, “she doesn’t have the range,” a shady idiom coined in a late-night tweetstorm, becomes, within hours, an occasion for in-jokes, explication, and analysis. Previously formal writing opens its doors to phrases like “spicy boi,” “Damn, Daniel,” and “THIS.

Perhaps the most shocking and magnificent change the web has worked in language has to do with the multiplicity of voices any intelligent reader is now exposed to. Periodicals and news shows used to deliver the affairs of the day in a consistently serious tone. (Tom Brokaw: She doesn’t have the range.) But in 2016 the number of modes and styles available to both readers and writers is endless—the ability to comprehend and express oneself in multiple registers, multiple forms, is essentially a requirement to make sense of and participate in the online welter. And so, rather than try to master the “one true language” of shined-shoes journalism, websites from the New Yorker to Huffington Post to Slate attempt fluency in several tongues at once. Tonal light-years separate a BuzzFeed listicle from a BuzzFeed investigation from a BuzzFeed personal essay. The same writer who sardonically describes attending a friend’s funeral as “so Eurotrashy ugh can, several sentences later, vault into impressionistic poetry veined with Shakespearean drama: “Diana’s death automatically rewound her legacy to ca. 1984 with a dash of 1992: the beatific young mother, the impossibly chic princess, the haunted and hunted innocent bearing up bravely under her husband’s betrayal.”

This is the great gift of the internet, its channeling of a democratic spirit far older than bytes or pixels. If a voice speaks with energy, insight, humor, or style, that voice can be heard and elevated. Schwedel can with a single Dorothy Parker–worthy quip puncture the pretensions of those who care too much about their complexion (“clear skin—and the moral high ground that comes with it”), before complaining about “n00bs.” Rembert Browne can immortalize #SQUAD in an insanely meticulous, image-dense close reading of a bar mitzvah photo featuring Nicki Minaj and a posse of early teen boys.

So what does all this (THIS) point to? A linguistic world that in the next 20 years will be characterized more and more by rich visual diversity and a conversational tone.

A space of OVERWROUGHT EMOTION and performative numbness

Where fragments and 🐙  are OK.

And even professional writing feels freed up to experiment with   spacing   and font and   punctuation?!

… As long as it doesn’t go on too long. There’s so much to get to, and you don’t have all day. Congratulations! You’re released from this article. Get reading!