Tech + Health

01.18.14

The Dark Side of Wordless Internet Slang

Defenders of Internet English may think they’re standing up against oppressive, elitist style police. But the rush to replace words with images may be preparing us for servitude.

On a newly buzzworthy strip of storefronts in Venice, CA—Silicon Beach, as it’s now known—there’s a modest-looking building with some kind of ghost logo out front. No eyes, no mouth. It’s yours—for $16,800 a month.

If you’re a total loser, you won’t recognize this as the former headquarters of fast-expanding Snapchat, the app so far at the vanguard of progress that it brushed a $3 billion buyout offer from Facebook. The spectral startup, of course, is almost the opposite of the world’s most famous social network, which is losing droves of younger users because too many old people are posting too many words.

Yes, the velocity of cool streamlines everything away. Cool people have no cars. Cool houses have no furnishings. In the onrushing future, it seems, the coolest of internet spaces will lack even the special online vernacular that makes current online titans like Reddit and Instagram such fertile content ecosystems. (If you’re Googling examples bb ur doing it wrong tbh lol.)

It’s enough to make you suspicious that the internet was designed to create a race of illiterates, communicating through a primitive system of winks, tongue selfies, rap squats, and chunked deuces. (Yes, in the future, these gestures will have no names.) There’s no doubt now that the internet has tipped the balance away from continuing our multi-millennial streak as a fundamentally text-based society—in favor of pictures, moving and otherwise.

Yet the rush toward an image-heavy, text-light internet bears the mark of a certain kind of secret shame. If an effortless awareness of the latest slang can quickly signify cool, it can also—if thisclose to being too far ahead or behind the curve—signify terminal loserdom. (Stop trying to make “stop trying to make fetch happen” happen.) Plus, there’s now so much online argot that it’s all taken on the grotesque quality of gross excess. Up in arms against our ever-changing acronym overlords, we’re tempted to follow Inbox Zero with Slang Zero—one big poop emoji where an encyclopedia of obsolete vernacular once groaned on the digital shelves.

It’s a pattern we’ve seen repeated for centuries in politics. Every total revolution approaches terminal velocity. Today, it’s the bejeweled aristocrats getting the guillotine. Tomorrow?

First they came for the authorial elite employing Clinical Standard Written English, and I did not speak out, for I was generating memes at that time…

Oh, yes, didn’t you know? “Clinical Standard Written English,” or CSWE, is a thing now, thanks to Jon Evans, whose put-upon defense of internet-speak on TechCrunch is also a thing. “Textbooks,” he tells us. “Cookbooks. IRS instructions. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the British broadsheets, etc. All written in a similar mode: authoritative, declamatory, distant, dispassionate, impersonal, and (allegedly) neutral. Formal, pure, and precise. The problem, of course, is that English, as actually used by 99 percent of its practitioners, has never been even close to formal, pure, and precise.”

Ah. Right. Best cross out precision from the New Empowered Dictionary of the People’s English and write in oppression.

Whoops—I’m snarking, aren’t I. It is true that language really is a main source of power in social relations. There’s also little doubt that Standard Written English—originally, a term coined by David Foster Wallace—is dry as a bone, and uses its dryness to present specific (often, failed) elite perspectives as simply the news. Evans might be pompous and put-upon, but in the grip of frustration, who isn’t? (The people freaking out in their cars or weeping in the corner and gnashing their teeth, that’s who.)

The trouble is Evans has lost sight of how language works to establish our sense of proportion and perspective—by exercising measured control, thousands after thousands of years, over the speed with which we redescribe reality. Evans—hardly alone on the internet—exhorts us to welcome “bizarre memes, subversive polemics, and the mad ravings of anonymous redditors; hell, even 4chan” with nothing less than “open arms.” And why? “Because words matter. Language matters.”

If language matters, it must have matter—rather than moving so fast that it becomes pure energy. English’s internet tendency is to increase and accelerate the production of terms and meanings so rapidly that we can’t cling to any fixed reference point. Speed is simply a relationship between two things; when we rush, we’re always rushing away from something. When that something is the recurrence of places, things, and people that awaken in us contemplation, wonder, and wisdom, our online hypertext is making us dumber, not smarter.

Increasingly awkward during face-to-face encounters, increasingly unable to remember what happened the day before yesterday, and increasingly habituated to redescribing the world with joke words, nonwords, and abbreviations, what will our relationship to power become? Instead of being liberated from those dry, tiresome elites, we’re more likely becoming readied for a kind of servility that no one has bothered to name.