December 6, 2019 | Feature
nice to meme you
when internet language is irl
I would not consider myself to be Extremely Online. I am Online enough to know that one should capitalize the phrase Extremely Online, as well as its milder correlative, Very Online. I am Online enough to have installed time-limiting apps for Twitter and Instagram on both my phone and computer, but not so Online that I feel particularly comfortable regularly posting to either platform. I am Online enough in the sense that I have grown up in a culture where to be offline is, effectively, to not exist.
The beginnings of the internet date back to the early 1960s, when J.C.R. Licklider, a psychologist and computer scientist at M.I.T., proposed a plan for an “Intergalactic Computer Network”. The first prototype was built in 1969, and on October 29 of that year, the first “node-to-node” message was sent from one computer to another. From the early 1980s, scientists began to expand these nodes to create the network we understand today as the internet. This early internet reached its modern iteration in 1990 with the creation of the World Wide Web. No matter how bitter the vitriol spewed against it—especially over the past decade, with the rise of the smartphone (and the alleged assault on English grammar that texting has waged) and, more recently, the exposure of politically motivated data-harvesting scandals—the internet was always going to be a place where people came to communicate. It was made by humans, for humans, and connected them with each other on a scale never before known
I am not interested in discussing whether the internet is good or bad—for democracy, for language, for culture. It just is. I have never lived in a world without it, so I don’t know how to conceptualize an alternative.
I have grown up in a world whose linguistic register hews so closely to the lexicon of Online Discourse that what I think and say owes a debt to the internet. As I’ve gotten older and spent more time online, I’ve started to notice the ways in which internet lingo has slipped into the spoken word. My friends and I will frequently say abbreviations out loud, peppering our speech with “lol,” “wtf,” and even “lmao” (pronounced la-mow). Conversations often begin with “You know that meme?” as we link something we viewed alone, on a screen, to an in-person interaction. Mild confusion becomes Math Lady/Confused Lady. Stressful week? This is Fine. We assume a certain level of knowledge to make these references work, but no more than we would if we were quoting The Office or Parks and Rec (GIFS from both are, for the record, often used as reaction shots in comment sections). The level of pop culture background once gained by watching a hit TV show is now achieved by scrolling through Twitter.
But how important is it, really, that memes originate online, often pulled together from one person’s frenetic, goldfish-like thoughts, rather than from the careful honing of a writer’s room? Don’t they provoke the same effect? Some memes do, after all, come from TV shows, both scripted and reality. But I’d propose it’s the capacity for change that makes online humor different. Within seconds, a post can be picked up, circulated, and shaped to fit the whims of anyone with a wifi connection. In 2013, a William Carlos Williams poem was molded to address subjects as diverse as M&Ms, browser tabs, and think pieces, all while retaining its poetic structure. In 2017, the same poem was rediscovered and adapted to the rhythm of “Mambo No. 5” and “Call Me Maybe” while somehow retaining its subject matter: The plums that were in the icebox, so sweet, and so cold. Somehow, people on the internet decided that modernist poetry was cool and ran with it. Something that may have been confined to obscurity was recirculated, altered for the digital age, and it made people laugh. I can’t say that I fully understand why some cultural tidbits become memes and others don’t, but the ones that do offer a form of collective communication, however ephemeral, that rivals only the written word.
University of Michigan linguist Anne Curzan calls language that originates online a form of “electronically mediated communication,” or EMC. EMC is informal, rife with abbreviations and variations in capitalization, punctuation, and spelling—the sentence “I’ll cc mary on that 2morrow” is an exaggerated example. Despite the yearly op-eds about the deplorable state of young people’s grammar, Curzan’s studies show that college students generally have a finely tuned instinct for when to use EMC and when not to. According to Curzon’s students, using EMC in inappropriate contexts—emails to professors, for example—is considered “very uncool.” Though the speech we use IRL (“in real life”) may not always align with EMC, some situations are similar enough for it to work. It doesn’t matter whether friends are communicating via text or at the kitchen table; the social and emotional registers of both types of interaction are casual enough to merit the same language. For those of us who have grown up enmeshed in the internet, our language, whether or not mediated by a computer screen, is often Very Online.
The language used on the internet, like any language, is prone to change. Take LOL, for example, which is more frequently written in lowercase (lol) and tacked on to the end of sentences. The earliest citation of “LOL” comes from a May 1989 post on the computer network FidoNet, though a man named Wayne Pearson claims to have invented it in the mid-80s on a Canadian bulletin board system (a precursor to the internet chatroom). LOL originally meant “laughing out loud,” though as even the most intermittent Tweeter could tell you, no one uses it that way anymore. According to a 2013 op-ed by John McWhorter, the LOLs dropped into online conversation aren’t meant to indicate humor anymore, they’re meant to “signal basic empathy between texters…easing tension and creating a sense of equality.” McWhorter offers LOL as a way of conveying nuance in a medium that lacks verbal inflection and body language. But what if we have both at our disposal, as we do in-person, and we still say “lol”? What does this say about the way communication has changed over the past decade? When did online language migrate beyond the written and into the verbal, and why?
I decided to ask Lucy Duda ‘20, a longtime admin of the Brown Dank Stash of Memes for S/NC Teens Facebook page. She cited words like “yeet,” first adopted ironically before they “accidentally become a reflex,” as prime examples of the near-seamlessness with which internet diction infiltrates speech. “I think these things tend to come out more in speech when people are feeling nervous or awkward,” Duda said. “They provide a structured response in a widely shared vernacular and also allow us to deflect from the vulnerability of saying what specifically is on our mind.” We may be living in a new age of anxiety, but it becomes more manageable when we can trust that everyone else is in on the joke.
Speaking in memes is itself a slightly absurd act. But its absurdity finds an equal sparring partner in the daily news cycle. If asked how I feel about it all, I can reference the things that keep me up at night: climate disaster, the housing crisis, antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Or, to express how overwhelmed I feel, I can reference Kim Kardashian Laying in Bed. Which would you prefer?
If kids these days are using internet language IRL, the boundary between being on and offline feels like an artificial one. In fact, it seems like we’ve been edging in this direction for the past decade. About five billion people worldwide own mobile devices, and about half of these are smartphones, with adults 18-34 leading the way in smartphone use across the globe. If online is always in your pocket, are you then Always Online?
Real Life, an online magazine about “living with technology,” with the emphasis “more on living,” poses one answer. In the introduction to its January 2018 issue, “Extremely Online,” the editors write, “What if instead of an escape from being ‘in real life,’ we think of the internet as a genre or style?” At the risk of sounding like the heretical English concentrator I am, I think the internet is literary. It is a constantly evolving book of life, where events are created, erased, and memorialized at lightning speed—it is a record and an art form and also a place and a medium in which to work out what it means to be a person right here and right now. According to Real Life, “‘Online’ can be seen as structuring an entire a [sic] way of being in the world,” and “‘online’ can be thought of as a way of doing things, not the place they are done.” To be online is “to speak in memes, to see in photos, to intuit the metrics and know what counts.” In other words, it “might be understood as an openness to being continually humbled and troubled by the ever shifting [sic] contexts of conversations.” To be online is to be attuned to the breakneck pace of modern life and to be trying to keep up. To be online is to recall Distracted Boyfriend when making decisions, to reminisce over Nyan Cat, or to use “retweet” as a verbal affirmation.
TL;DR (“too long; didn’t read”): In this culture we’re all Pretty Online, clicking and scrolling, chatting and laughing, and being messy, fallible, silly, and human.