Sunday, October 11, 2020

Review: Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

Rating: 5/5

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language is very much a quick and approachable intro into basic linguistics concepts, and how these concepts apply to the development of internet-specific communication mores. Although the culture of the internet develops so quickly, by anchoring her observations/study about the internet in theory, Gretchen McCulloch really gives you the tools to think about new developments in internet communication. For example the etiquette of social distancing Zoom calls isn't covered in the book, but now I have Thoughts about what she might have written. I think this approach will also give the book a little more staying power - it isn't a description of the rules of a particular meme, or a guide to when and how to use phrases like "I can't even". It's much more about how technology and communication needs intertwine to produce new quirks of informal internet speak. Her writing tone is funny, thoughtful, and informative. I loved it.

I think my favourite part of the reading experience was recognizing a bit of a kindred spirit in McCulloch. For example, she's daydreamed about a research project involving the variation in the language of "missing cat" posters around Montreal neighbourhoods. She's a "full internet" person, like me, and fluent in internet culture. Many of the aspects of internet communication she highlighted are things I've used, seemingly naturally, and then picked apart and analyzed. (Why did I use "hahaha" there, "hahahaaaa" there, but "lol" in the response before? Why two :joy: emojis there? It feels better to correct my phone's autocorrect there to use a lowercase to start the sentence... but why?) Her nerdy delight in research and understanding the world around her was familiar and contagious.

Because Internet goes a little deeper than just face-value text frequency studies like "which letters are most likely to be repeated/elongated." There's also examination of how communities form, how people share and interpret intense emotions, how people express and develop their senses of identity, how different people encounter and use the internet in their lives. There's no pearl-clutching about the kids these days not knowing how to write well - and in fact, she combats this myth with thorough examination of casual versus formal writing styles over the years.

There's a few areas she touches on but doesn't really go into that I would have liked to hear more about. For example, she dates the end of "Advice Animals" memes to around 2014, but doesn't explain what contributed towards their demise. I've thought about this before - I suspect reddit removing the subreddit from its "default subs" led to its sharp drop in popularity, but I have a feeling that this meme format was already on the downward slope. This could have been an interesting avenue to discuss in more depth how the decisions of social networking companies shape language development. She mentions very briefly the alt-right's use of the pepe frog, but not how their ironic use of rapidly changing memes and slang and extreme irony allow them to pretend they were less hateful than they were, and communicate somewhat unseen with each other in the rest of the internet.

The author read the audiobook, and I liked her reading of it.

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