Book Review: Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

I used to have this theory that a lot of mid-2000s internet patois derived from Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics; North, whom you might also know from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, would have T-Rex turn a particular phrase or Capitalize Certain Words or ALL CAPS something for emphasis, and eventually I’d see everyone else doing it.

I have no proof of this, of course. I didn’t take notes, either. Someone else can dig through the archives if they really want to figure out how many people were using nonstandard capital letters and end punctuation the way North did in the very first Dinosaur Comics on February 1, 2003 (go read it, I’ll wait).

Which is exactly what Gretchen McCulloch did in her new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. She dug through the archives. Not specifically for Dinosaur Comics, which doesn’t even get a mention, but for a lot of what became everything else.

Because Internet is, in theory, a book about how language has developed since the early days of the internet (and yes, that means the 1970s). It’s a book about how internet language has evolved to encompass multiple levels of meaning, including text, subtext, paratext, metatext, and so on. Not to mention the fact that we’ve become attuned to an ever-shifting emotional shorthand, where periods and ellipses and tildes and certain emoji—but not all, since some emoji are literal and others are metaphorical, and somehow we’ve come to a cultural consensus on which are which—stand in for what cannot be put into words.

It’s also a book about how growing older means ceding control of the culture we once created.

We’ll start with the title. When was the last time you saw someone use the “because X” construct online, as in “because reasons”? How old were they? If someone uses “because X” these days, it’s either because they’re being deliberately nostalgic or—equally likely—because they don’t realize that internet language has moved on. (So very, very, on.)

As McCulloch explains, the way we use language online often depends on how old we were when we first got unfettered access to the internet. Adults who were on Usenet in the 1980s use language very differently from people of the same age who didn’t really start communicating online until their office got email, who use language very differently from people of the same age who didn’t start communicating online until their phones got texting or their kids helped them get on the Facebook.

In the other direction, people like me use language reasonably (but not yet very) differently from people ten years younger than me. Because… well, you already know the reasons.

I suspect that McCulloch and I are roughly the same age—I’m 37—simply based on the way that her timeline of internet language usage centers on the I Can Haz Cheezburger era, and I don’t mean “centers” in the “gives the most space to” sense, I mean “if she were plotting a graph of how the internet has evolved, LOLcats would be at the center.” The internet before Ceiling Cat, and the internet afterwards.

Whereas someone younger might center Vine, and someone older might center the Eternal September. The historical internet, your internet, and the internet that has started to feel like it belongs to someone else.

You know that one of the reasons I am absolutely obsessed with saving up a big pile of money—NO WAIT, THIS IS RELATED—is because at some point the internet is not going to belong to me anymore. I can integrate elements of the shifting patois into my freelance writing and my social media posts, but as we get further away from those LOLcats and the moment I felt like I was actually creating new ways of communicating (or, in many cases, learning them from people like Ryan North and instantly understanding what they meant), the less integrated my communication will become. It’ll be copying without fully understanding. Appropriating, as it were.

And then I will be An Old, just like all the Olds before me.

Of course, people in my age group may not be so willing to yield total linguistic control to a younger generation—especially because people in my age group kinda think we created the whole “how to communicate online” thing. (As McCulloch eloquently notes: we didn’t.) I would not be surprised if Gen-Xers and Old Millennials find their own online spaces in which we can “because reasons” to our hearts’ content.

Or—and this would be more interesting—continue to evolve our own internet patois, but in a different direction than whatever the kids are doing these days.

McCulloch’s research suggests that we won’t; that generations tend to stick to the linguistic quirks that developed during their youth, which is to say that they stick to the language they used when they got to decide what language meant.

But I’m still young enough to hope that my generation might be the one that changes everything. ❤️