Because Internet

  • By Gretchen McCulloch
  • Riverhead Books
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jennifer Golbeck
  • September 27, 2020

Why do we say what we say online?

When someone writes a book about an aspect of people's daily lives, the results can be hit or miss. If the author rehashes the obvious basics, it can alienate people by minimizing the complexities of their lives to outsiders and missing the important nuances and sophistication of their experiences.

Nowhere is this more dangerous than on the Internet, where a mob can easily and quickly let the author know just what they think of their poor work.

Gretchen McCulloch's Because Internet describes the language of the internet, primarily social media. When I received this book, I said a silent prayer to the book gods: "Please don't let this be another primer on what LOL means. Please don't let this explain that 'kids' abbreviate 'you' as ‘u.’"

So, with some trepidation, I began reading. Words cannot express the happiness I felt to realize not only was this NOT going to be another one of those primers for Old People about how Young People talk on the internet, but that this book is brilliant, insightful, and funny.

(Truth: I secretly knew I was not about to be disappointed, as I was familiar with McCulloch's other work. Back in 2014, her analysis of the grammar of doge memes — “wow.” “much analyze.” “very thoughts.” — was a big hit, and I've read a lot of her pieces since then.)

In short, Because Internet explains what most of us have internalized about internet language but can't explain ourselves. Why does "asfdlkhjfsdhjkl" look correct as a keyboard mash of frustration, while "[09i[0hiu34n" does not? And why is the latter so upsetting that we might re-mash the keyboard to get something that looks better?

McCulloch addresses exactly this in the opening chapter of the book, with a beautiful analysis of keyboard mash patterns. I cannot resist a scientific breakdown of things I understand intuitively but not theoretically; this book gave me page after page of beautiful revelations.

If you love a statistical take on which syllables have to be emphasized for something to be funny, or when your typography crosses the line from enthusiasm to sarcasm, Because Internet is for you. Ever wonder why it feels okay to send three eggplant emojis but not to combine one with, say, a corncob and cucumber emoji? McCulloch has you covered.

The author effortlessly brings smart and insightful linguistic analysis to a thoroughly up-to-date understanding of how people write online. At the same time, she doesn’t act like anyone using the internet differently than today's high school students is Doing It Wrong.

Instead, she tells us how language has evolved online, from Usenet to Snapchat, and why someone who learned to speak online in the former is guided by a different experience than those who have always used the latter.  

For example, chapter three, "Internet People," describes generations of internet users not as Millennials or Gen Xers, but as "Old Internet People," "Full Internet People," and "Semi Internet People." She explains how each arrived on the internet, how their histories relate to their understanding of the language, and how it influences their use. This manifests as a way to, say, understand variations in capitalization and punctuation when we find something funny: "L.O.L." or "LOL" or "lol."

The principles that guide the book are also placed in a larger context. McCulloch roots her analyses in accessible discussions of linguistic theories and social science. For instance, the Third Place — spaces outside home and work where people gather and socialize — is a pre-social-media idea that described the social importance of places like bars, parks, community centers, and coffeeshops.

McCullough takes that idea and shows how the internet and social media have become a Third Place for many. She also highlights how virtual and physical Third Places differ in important sociological ways — who is allowed in, what customs are shared, and the limit of size — and the role language plays in these experiences.

This book is fun and *brilliant* (see pg. 127-128). If you feel a bit lost in the language of social media, it will help you. If you exist with that language like a fish in water, it will give you a better understanding of why you do things online. Because Internet is a joy to read and will leave you smarter.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]

Jennifer Golbeck, Ph.D., is a computer scientist and an associate professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Golbeck was director of the university’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab from 2011-2014.

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