Why “Ok.” Is the Most Terrifying Text You Could Ever Receive
Gretchen McCulloch, author of "Because Internet," breaks down the cultural context of sexy emojis, ellipses, and lowercasing
Could you pick up some bread on your way back please?
I’ll be home by 8pm!
Do these text exchanges make you reel in discomfort, squeezing your emotional core? Or do they seem perfectly normal, an everyday occurrence? If you feel slightly sick inside, welcome to the club. If you’re wondering what the problem is: are you my mother?
I’ve spent the better part of several years trying to explain to my mum how her two-letter “ok”s and overuse of periods makes me feel. She, in turn, tells me that all her friends text this way. It’s true, they do. (I checked.) But despite my concerted efforts, I can never quite find the words to explain what exactly the problem (or rather, my problem), is. Because internet.
No, really. In her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, Gretchen McCulloch writes: “Getting an Internet Person to stop overthinking a text message is just as impossible as getting people of any age to stop reading emotional nuances from tone of voice. We can’t help it.”
This debut nonfiction book from Wired’s resident linguist is located deep within “the internet as a cultural context,” taking readers on a clear-eyed and often funny journey into the intricacies of online language. From exploring “an inequitable distribution of typographical emotional labor” to drawing a beautiful comparison between memes and embroidery, Because Internet is written for readers across linguistic generations.
Whether it’s punctuation marks, memes or deciding whether to capitalize words, the internet is constantly shaping how we write—and, as McCulloch tells us, “how you write is who you are.” Because Internet allows us to know ourselves that little bit better.
I spoke to Gretchen McCulloch about sexy emojis, ellipses, the anti-authoritarianism of all-lowercase texts, and how democratic online language really is.
Richa Kaul Padte: Please let’s start with emoji, because the way you situate them totally blew my mind! Emoji, you explain, are gestures— the way we talk with our bodies as well as with our words. You write: “We use emoji less to describe the world around us, and more to be fully ourselves in an online world.”
Last month, Facebook banned “sexual uses” of emoji on its platforms, including 🍆 the eggplant emoji (sometimes used to connote a dick) and 🍑 the peach emoji (sometimes a butt). While the impetus for this policy was a continued hostile offensive against sex workers online, your book also made me wonder: has this ban completely misunderstood how emoji actually work?
Gretchen McCulloch: Facebook’s ban of emoji sort of confuses the result with the cause. The eggplant wasn’t initially a sexual emoji; in fact, there still aren’t any overtly sexual emoji. It’s people using the eggplant in sexual contexts that makes us interpret it sexually. So what I’ve seen most people predicting as a result of this particular ban is that people will find something else to use as a sexual emoji—here are lots of other objects in the emoji spectrum that one could potentially use! So while it may have a short-term effect, I don’t think the ban will actually do much in the long term.
RKP: You write not just of emoji, but of all internet language: “once we had the technology…we used it to restore our bodies to our writing.” This makes me think of the French theorist Hélène Cixous, for whom writing, and especially women’s writing, is always an embodied act. She also believes that it is a necessary act: not just for women’s words, but for our bodies and our selves.
There’s a study you cite in Because Internet which finds that “women lead 90 per cent of linguist change,” making them primary “language disruptors.” And I wonder, to what extent is the embodied nature of online writing born from women’s needs? Not just for communication and community, but to restore our bodies to our selves?
GM: That’s an interesting theory! I think that as we do more writing, and as writing becomes more a part of our everyday experiences—something we do as regular communicators, and not just in the form of professionalized remote writing—its embodied aspect becomes more interesting and even more essential. So whether that’s combined specifically with women’s writing because women have often been excluded from spaces, or whether that’s simply a human need to connect with each other, I think both of those things can be true.
RKP: Gretchen, your book is full of explanations I didn’t know I needed but now consider e s s e n t i a l—especially when trying to understand people who text differently to me (namely, my mum). Take the use of ellipses to separate sentences. Prior to the real-time interwebz, ellipses were a way of indicating informality: from letters to recipe cards to (embarrassingly) my own early emails to friends. This also explains why people who never had an informal writing context outside the internet didn’t understand why anyone would use them. Were they trailing off? Was there a hidden message?
But now, ellipses have made a comeback! I find myself using them all the time, in texts and tweets and emails. What does this…mean?
GM: Ellipses can mean a bunch of different things depending on the context. As you said, your mum sometimes uses them to indicate informality. Other people use them to indicate a kind of trailing off. But now there’s a rising use of ellipses to sort of parodize the tendencies of older people to use ellipses a lot. In these cases, it’s used to express an incredulity or a lack of familiarity with technology—or as an ironic distancing mechanism. Essentially, they’re context-dependent, but so are a lot of things we communicate.
RKP: Many of us have shifted to using all-lowercase letters in our internet sentences—a minimalist typography that you trace from its first days on Tumblr to its present moment in the sun as “a soft/weird aesthetic” on Twitter.
But compared to dot dot dot, which felt very intuitive, I was a lot more conscious of this shift to minimalism in my online speech. It’s almost as if I realized that everyone I liked had started doing this thing and now I needed to…do it too? You talk often about how we use language to project who we want to be, or as a means of aligning ourselves with particular groups. Does this mean we’re all simply trying to be cool, or does emulation indicate a desire for belonging? Is there even a difference?
GM: Dot dot dot is something that emerged from a set of existing cultural practices: it had an offline [life], so using it online for some of those purposes involved a more gradual emergence. And while minimalist typography does have historical antecedents—like e.e. cummings poems—I think its moment in the sun starts with a reaction against automatic capitalization. When smartphones capitalize everything automatically, lowercasing things takes more effort and can have additional semiotic value: “Here’s this thing I’m doing in rebellion against what the phone is trying to get me to do.”
I also think people are aware that all-lowercasing was considered a sort of lazy practice in the early days of the internet—because it was the default thing to do. And when it became no longer the default, it shifted into being anti-authoritarian, while also invoking in an ironic sense the stereotypes of those early internet users. So there are many levels of interpretation. And because all-lowercasing involves a multi-step reaction against default capitalization, I think it is something that all people do tend to do more self consciously—and less as a natural outgrowth of existing practices.
RKP: Internet language serves as community, but it also acts as a tool for exclusion. You explain how it can be “a way of repelling outsiders, of saying, ‘I don’t care if you take this the wrong way.’” That’s so true, and very much reflects how I respond to unwanted comments online: by using language that primarily makes sense to my own linguistic community. Do trolls/men/other people understand? ngl idgaf.
But this “you can’t sit with us” energy also works to solidify existing hierarchies: class, race, caste and so on. In India, where I live, it is a visibly felt truth that internet access does not equal internet literacy—and that neither equal English fluency, much less fluency in the shape-shifting English of the internet. If “language is the ultimate participatory democracy,” does the online world still need to catch up?
GM: I think saying that language is a democracy can mean that it has the same problems that offline democracies also have. So technically we all have equal votes in a democracy, but that doesn’t mean that democracies are paragons of inclusion, or that they’re perfect and don’t need to continually address hierarchies of class, race, gender, caste and so on. I think you can be a democracy and still have lots of things to work on, and I think that’s true of both the online and the offline world.
I definitely think there is still a lot of English dominance on the internet, though. What English speakers take for granted, especially in English speaking countries, is that the internet is available primarily in their language. And that’s definitely not true for a large portion of the world. So having phone interfaces in your language, having Wikipedia articles in your language, or when you’re trying to code a website, having keywords in a language that you can already understand—these are areas in which the internet really needs to catch up for speakers who aren’t in the top ten languages of the world.