Physically distanced from each other, our conversations with friends, family, and strangers are taking place predominantly in the cadences of text messages. While common sentiments warn that constant texting can harm relationships and make us ineloquent writers, frequent internet users know that online socialization is not a cause for despair. Although it breaks the rules of formal writing, the complexities of internet language can communicate an emotional precision that rivals even the most sophisticated writing. Particularly at this juncture of isolation, internet language helps to connect people across the distance.
In her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, internet linguist and MA ‘13 Gretchen McCulloch explores the evolving internet language and celebrates it as a valuable human project. According to McCulloch, the rules of informal online communication are uniquely capable of accurately connoting the subtleties of tone.
“We no longer accept that writing must be lifeless, that it can only convey our tone of voice roughly and imprecisely, or that nuanced writing is the exclusive domain of professionals,” McCulloch writes in Because Internet.
The rules of internet language are shaped by the social spaces they are concocted in: Twitter limits users to 280 characters, TikTok only allows videos under 60 seconds, and the handheld sizes of phone screens can make anything over a few sentences appear excessive.
Digital platforms prevent lengthy explanations, forcing us to write precisely in order to avoid miscommunication. In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Kasia Van Schaik, writer and doctoral candidate in the Department of English, discussed how the constraints of online platforms are akin to the structures of poetic forms, helping spur the creative use of language.
“[Social media] platforms reflect the ephemerality of our experience on earth, measuring out the days in moments and short reflections,” Van Schaik said. “[They] perform the formal duties of poetic forms like the villanelle, haiku, or the ghazal, which require a certain number of lines and/or stanzas and adhere to strict rhyme or syllabic schemes. As poets and artists know, constraints can actually be liberating. They can provide a structure that demands more ingenuity from the poet.”
Inventive digital jargons spread in private rooms of conversation as well, making each virtual citizen capable of expanding the catalogues of internet language. Faith Ruetas, U1 Arts, recognized the evolution in the way she conveys shock through text after picking up expressions from friends: First “I-”, then “eye-”, and finally the eye emoji itself.
“If I hear something that sounds interesting or that sounds funny then I’ll slip that into my online vocabulary and integrate [it] into the things I send other people,” Ruetas said. “I think the way I text online is always evolving.”
With tight word limits, internet users often break the formal rules of writing to better express their emotions. In the landscapes of digital conversation, minute alterations make for a big difference. Tildes convey irony, periods have a passive-aggressive reputation, and expressions with “u” rather than “you” tend to contain more emotive content.
The expressive powers of internet language are especially important in the COVID context: An even wider spectrum of feelings are now shared through text rather than verbally.
On McGill’s subreddit, a space for news and discussion, students can find small moments of catharsis. Every Friday, a post surfaces allowing users to vent feelings that require all-caps expression. Messages on the weekly post express a range of emotions including stress, rejection, and personal loss, producing a shared tone of accepted calamity.
Yu Xuan Zhao, U3 Arts, finds that sharing difficult emotions can feel less daunting through the screen.
“I feel like there’s something special about seeing a person’s face when you tell them any kind of news and can hear their voice,” Zhao said. “But, I find I’m more willing to be vulnerable with my emotions through text because it’s a lot easier to manage yourself. I can feel more in control of the situation.”
As a U1 representative for the McGill English Department Student Association, Ruetas has ventured onto digital platforms like Discord to lessen the sense of isolation in new students. For her, the different ways people communicate through text provides an avenue to deepen familiarity in virtual friendships.
“I think I’ve gotten to know people just through texting [….] I think when you look at the way people text, you can definitely get a bit of their personality.”
In vast arenas of online voices, attunement to the nuances of digital communication can cultivate feelings of community. Ruetas described how memes, multimedia creations layered with references to internet culture, feel especially like shared secrets bridging people in exclusive understanding.
“Memes are like big inside jokes shared across cultures and languages, often forming internet cultures and languages of their own,” Ruetas said. “Anyone can see a meme and laugh, but there’s really a feeling of community—of being in on the joke—when you can recognize the layers of irony and references that others baked in.”
Internet language can help maintain intimacy in existing relationships as well. The private group chat is widely celebrated as a space of collaboration for creative communities and a haven of solace for BIPOC in face of hostile boundaries in the real world.
When time allows individuals to gain a shared understanding of one another’s virtual languages, digital communication can feel less like a substitute for in-person connections. John Smith, U2 Arts, and his partner learned to adapt to a long-distance relationship at the onset of the pandemic. Smith explained how their attunement to each other’s forms of digital expression helps them feel understood while texting.
“I think we still have our little miscommunications every now and then, but we’ve been together for a little over five years now, so we’ve really gotten to know each other’s ways of texting and adapted to the other’s expectations,” Smith said. “We know what emojis to use, how much expression to show with caps and exclamation.”
While physical interactions are halted, digital spaces will continue to hold emotions both mundane and melodramatic, celebratory and tragic.
Like with any form of communication, misunderstandings are unavoidable. However, the complexities of internet language help us to declare these feelings with confidence even through the screen, assured we will be understood.