Book Review: ‘Because Internet’ by Gretchen McCulloch


Book Review: ‘Because Internet’ by Gretchen McCulloch

If all the cool kids on Editor Twitter are gushing over a book on language, then I should probably read it too.

Because peer pressure.

But also because I follow other editors for good reasons: to learn from them, to stay current on trends in the industry, to feel part of a community even while working largely in isolation.

I haven’t been steered wrong when jumping on the latest reading trend and picking up books such as Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English, Emmy J. Favilla’s A World without “Whom” and Kory Stamper’s Word by Word.

Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language is the latest it book in the editorial realm, and rave reviews and brisk sales have backed up the hype.

In her book, McCulloch skillfully examines language change via electronic forums, from the days of ARPANET to today’s Snapchatters, breaking down Internet People into three waves characterized by

  • Old Internet People (First Wave)
  • Full Internet People (Second Wave)
  • Semi Internet People (Second Wave)
  • Pre Internet People (Third Wave)
  • Post Internet People (Third Wave)

I’m nearing fifty, so it’s safe to say I’ve lived through most of these waves, and I enjoyed the bursts of nostalgia as McCulloch walked readers through BBSs and listservs and AIM and MySpace, all the way through Facebook, Gchat, and Instagram.

Beyond a simple evocation of days gone by, however, the grouping of internet users serves a useful function: allowing readers to place themselves — and their attitudes toward internet communication — in a greater context, thereby encouraging readers to examine how and why they communicate before turning their eye toward how others do so.

Any preconceived notions of internet language as a bastardization of more formal language are quickly shattered as McCulloch explores nuance in internet communication, whether through capitalization or punctuation or use of emoticons and emoji.

I can imagine someone, exhausted by charges of laziness about the way people communicate on the internet (ruserious?), presenting Because Internet as a gift to a text-speak derider. The highest praise for the book might lie in how quickly it opens the eyes of the most resolute of the kids-these-days, get-off-my-lawn crowd.

In other words, as the author demonstrates, language use on the internet has a lot less to do with laziness than it does with complex factors developing in real time and bolstering expressiveness rather than limiting it.

People hate-reading the book to grouse about language change may instead find themselves taking notes on why their use of the period is misunderstood or on how they can better communicate with loved ones via a new set of tools.

At heart the book displays a generous, enthusiastic love for language and for seeing where it is leading us and how we are shaping it.

As McCulloch writes, “When we study informal language, we open our minds wide. We step out of the library and see the complexity of the wide world that surrounds us.”

McCulloch herself is an internet linguist and the author of the Resident Linguist column at Wired. She also runs All Things Linguistic and cohosts the Lingthusiasm podcast.

McCulloch’s writing style combines her academic bona fides (you don’t doubt her chops) with a playfulness that shines through often enough to make it an enjoyable as well as informative read.

Final Take

Seeing people ridicule each other for their use of language is one of the darker sides of being online.

Knowledge of how and why people use language is usually inversely proportional to the frequency with which people ridicule others’ language (which is why you so rarely see good editors “correcting” people’s posts and tweets; most editors prefer to limit their comments on your language to when they’re being paid to do so).

Increasing your understanding of how people are using language is therefore reason alone to read this book.

Because Internet is highly recommended for both outsiders looking in, hoping for a better handle on how to communicate on the internet, and the savviest of internet wordslingers, looking for insights on where the language is going and how they’re helping to shape it.

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