Why do people on the Internet write so ‘poorly’?

It’s been a year since I wrote one of these blog posts, which I know is appalling behaviour. But darling Kate recently posted some super interesting stuff about Old English, and that spurred/guilt-tripped me into writing something of my own.  Unsurprisingly, I don’t know anything about Old English, but do you know what I do know about? THE INTERNET.

Being a person who is On The Internet*, I’m amazingly fortunate to see language evolve before my eyes on a near-daily basis. When so much Internet communication is written/typed, it’s not surprising that different corners of the internet play with vocabulary, grammar and typology in order to carve out identities. Often, linguistic constraints caused by the technological corseting of computer programmes — like character limits, punctuation restrictions and the lack of intonation and other paralinguistic features that aid communication face-to-face — result in online communities developing linguistic quirks that go on to identify them as users of a particular game/forum etc. But it’s bigger and more exciting than that – those quirks are warped and developed into a whole new system of language use that singles out a person as a member of a gang, a clique, and that allows people to instantly relate.

The first instance I remember hearing of this was during an A Level English class, where we learnt about leet speak, or L337. Originating on message boards and online gaming communities in the 1980s and 90s, leet speak is a form of language which sees alphanumerical characters used to graphologically recreate written language – so Hannah, in an extreme case, might be spelt as I-I /-\ I\I I\I /-\ I-I. Phrases like l33t (from elite), n00b (from newbie) and pwned (from a frequent mistyping of owned) which are now used across the internet (and in spoken language) originated from hackers’ and gamers’ frequent communication, and evolved from their desire to conceal information, gain and show esteem and skill, and mock outsiders. L33t was one of the first stylised online dialects to become whole and recognisable – it developed coherent syntactical structures, reams of new vocabulary, and it was learnable for new users. How cool is that? Just the same way that people who speak to each other in person on a daily basis pick up phrases and quirks of accent from each other, the same thing happened with written language on the Internet.

Of course, this is nothing new. This post is also nothing new. There has been tonnes of commentary on the glories of Internet speech and the new and brilliant linguistic quirks that come from online activity. What I want to talk about is the snobbery that has bounced back from this internet speak, and why I completely disagree with it.

Tumblr is a newish social networking/microblogging site which was set up in 2007, and in recent years has been a hotbed of fandom action – some of which I observe and participate in. Tumblr is a primarily visual medium, with talented users photoshopping graphics for their favourite bands/shows/films/games/people, but it is also frequently used as a platform for lengthy discussion of social justice issues. Readers who partake in Tumblr will most likely be familiar with the language variety that has sprung up on the site, acknowledged as ‘tumblrspeak’. It’s hard to quantify every feature, as it develops and evolves every day, and I’m bound to have missed many here, but some of the most common ones include:

- a lack of capital letters at the start of sentences, and frequent omission of punctuation such as full stops and commas

- but: a very frequent use of capital letters to express shouting/excitement, and excessive use of exclamation marks and other punctuation

- long, run on sentences

- frequent use of abbreviations and acronyms (totes, amaze, lbr, kms)

- stylised, non-standard turns of phrase, often hyperbolic in nature: i want this because of reasons, i can’t hold all these feels, LET ME DIE, i am cry

- use of angry, offensive sentences actually meant with love/lust: shut up with your face, fuck you for existing in the first place, go away and stop ruining my life

- sentence fragments used to express emotion: i just, i can’t, i cannot even

reasons

Original comic, by Ryan Pequin, here. [Source corrected Feb 2014]

Found scouting around tumblr, here are a few examples of posts which use some of these features – 1 2 3 4**. A lot of the time this kind of language play is used in the tags of picture posts rather than in the content itself, so look out for that.

One of the most interesting things I see (and do) on tumblr is innovative use of graphology and the shape of words to mimic the pronunciation and intonation that is used in spoken communication to express sarcasm, etc. Frequently, people will staRT USING CAPS IN THE MIDDLE OF A WORD!!! to express a kind of aroused shoutiness/lack of control over one’s keypresses that makes perfect sense if you’re involved in fandom, but it kind of hard to explain to outsiders. Or, they’ll space words differently in a way that symbolically tells the person who is the focus of the post to s t o p.

It’s fascinating how the constraints of a written medium are circumvented and linguistic trickery is employed to make up for the lack of verbal cues. And, as with other mediums, tumblr’s rules and software quirks have resulted in a good many of these linguistic quirks: the tagging system, for example, doesn’t permit comma use, and so develops the tendency for run-on sentences.

But again, it goes beyond necessity. Tumblrspeak is a badge of belonging, of being in a place where EXTREME ENTHUSIASM isn’t frowned upon, and screaming about a TV show is a great way to make friends. And it’s absolutely brilliant. So much of tumblrspeak uses non-standard grammar, spelling and punctuation, but it’s not out of laziness. It’s a conscious decision: as this simple post puts it, not using punctuation is a way of using punctuation. Tumblr users are likely to be perfectly familiar with standard grammatical rules of English, but they’ve said ‘fuck it’ and put emotions first, twisting and moulding their own language variety that is by the medium, for the medium.

Just because language is non-standard, doesn’t mean it’s bad, or that communication is hampered. In fact, tumblrspeak is an incredibly effective and efficient method of communication. In tumblrspeak ‘I am really attracted to this person’ is translated to ‘FUCK U’, ‘I am having a lot of strong emotions about X’ is translated to ‘HALP’, and ‘I agree wholeheartedly with whatever opinion is being expressed here’ is translated to ‘THIS’. That’s pretty efficient!

People use language differently depending on the company they’re in – my furious potty mouth is toned down in front of my grandmother, but utilised in full force on my Twitter feed. Using language in a standard way, adhering to rules prescribed by teachers and centuries of grammar books, is just one way to use language. Flouting those rules allows for inventiveness, companionship and, far from being a sign of poor intelligence, is actually pretty damn smart.

Final point: a frequent feature of Internet/fandom-related language is the keysmash, or a stylised ‘askjdhfgjakhsd’ used to express feelings of the most extreme nature. A tumblr user suggested this should be referred to as typerventilating. Typerventilating. T Y P E R V E N T I L A T I N G. And I’ll be damned if that’s not the smartest, most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard.

*different to being ‘on the internet’ – the capitals suggest that I conduct a good deal of my life and friendships through online platforms, and have for years.

** NB. One or more of these posts may contain One Direction.

10 responses to “Why do people on the Internet write so ‘poorly’?

  1. shut up with your face—I love that. Thanks for the heads up about one direction

  2. I love this because I love love love linguistics and discussion of in-group/out-group markers, but I do have to say that “tumblrspeak” didn’t exactly spring up on Tumblr. It’s got roots in Livejournal, mainly the ONTD comms. The no-caps, all-caps, “this is perf”, “lbr”, “this”, etc. have been common on ONTD for ages, and as a lot of people have been migrating away from LJ in the past few years, especially to Tumblr, I wouldn’t be surprised if the early adopters of this language on Tumblr were originally on ONTD.

    • Hey Cassidy, thanks so much for your comment! You are absolutely right – what is maybe now known as Tumblrspeak would absolutely have got its roots in places like ONTD. I’m a Livejournaller who has migrated to Tumblr, and while I didn’t spend that much time on ONTD itself (too scary!), I recall a lot of the same features being there. I’d be really interested to see the crossover between Tumblr users and ex-ONTDers, and whether the language forms are similar. Thanks so much for pointing this out!

      • Ooh, I’m an ex-ONTDer (I miss it so muuuuch) and this is very true. It wasn’t quite as strict as it is on Tumblr, I don’t think the “rules” had been established, but it was definitely emerging.

      • Another ex-ONTDer here and I have to definitely say that the language was there first or on livejournal in general. So was the whole culture of posting gifs for emotional responses. There and 4chan .

  3. typerventaliting!, c r y i n g, that is brilliant, ugh get out i cannot even deal with your brain, and by brain i mean face, lol do you see what i’m doing here?, THAT’S RIGHT i am replying like this is tumblr tags, I AM THE FUNNIEST PERSON YOU’VE EVER MET DON’T EVEN TRY TO JOKE WITH ME I WILL CUT YOU, also ew so many one direction references IT’S LIKE I DON’T EVEN KNOW YOU, oh no wait it’s like i totally know you, i think it’s time i started calling YOU GUYS granny pervert innit, YEAH TAKE THAT, also i love you

  4. I absolutely love this. I’ve got a real soft spot for the language used on Tumblr and similar sites, and it’s great to see it analysed so eloquently.

  5. Pingback: Why do people on the Internet write so ‘poorly’? | Endless Realms

  6. What you identify as Tumblrspeak gave me powerful LiveJournal vibes, funnily enough. I don’t think that style of communication is unique to Tumblr so much as it has… sort of crystallized and distilled certain habits and manners of speaking which originated in various different corners of the Web all into one massive beast which is in turn cheerfully evolving into its own thing. I think it’s best to refer to it as Webspeak rather than tying it to any one website – it’s hardly limited to Tumblr in any event. I generally agree with you though.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s