Last month, writer Michael Arceneaux sounded off on the growing use of Internet slang in everyday situations. And because Complex prides itself on being a democracy of opinions, we've decided to run a counter argument to Arceneaux's essay. Here, Rawiya Kameir explains why eSlang is actually an effective form of communication. Or, put another way: HYFR.
At any given moment on any given afternoon, I'm likely in the middle of a handful of ongoing, cross-platform conversations with several different friends. A link posted on Facebook, after being ‘Liked’ and commented on, could be followed up with text message commentary throughout the day, and then a few tangentially related—or completely off-topic, depending on the day—Tumblr links, Instagram images, and screen grabs shared in a joint Photo Stream. Points of discussion span everything from casual, off-the-cuff reviews of records we’re into or new five-panels we want feedback on before copping or analysis of the encroaching, micro-aggressive racism of co-workers.
My friends and I are having real, meaningful conversations that, for their ability to transcend the constraints of space and time, are enabled almost entirely by the ease and affordability of modern technology. Maureen O'Connor contended as much in a recent essay in which she argued that “[g]roup text messages are slumber parties for adults.” But beyond the convenience of Gchat and the real-time magic of iMessage, we’re indebted to the too often, and too unfairly, maligned gift that is Internet slang. Our messages are riddled with Tumblr- and Twitter-derived colloquialisms, acronyms, and wholly Internet-based speech anomalies that we didn’t learn in English class: shorthand, abbreviations, and web culture-specific references are the basis of our rapid-fire digital exchanges, allowing us to engage with one another faster and more frequently.
The complaint is often lobbed that Internet slang is doing tangible, structural damage to the English language. New Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read, for instance, just outlawed the use of so-called ‘Internet slang’ on the site. “We want to sound like regular adult human beings, not Buzzfeed writers or Reddit commenters,” he wrote in an internal memo to staff members.
For insiders of web culture, online slang can relay meaning with the same precision as standard English. Typing in acronyms or referential fragments is a means to an end, not the end itself. Rather, the end is to communicate meaning from one person to another effectively and efficiently.
But even for those of us who don’t have Gawker-sized audiences, opting to type “IDK” instead of the longer but semiotically identical “I don’t know” is frequently and fervently interpreted as a sign of laziness, youth, illiteracy, or all three. Same goes for all your other eSlang favs. But, despite the alarmist and often condescending tone taken by people who are anti-netspeak, the presence of one does not indicate the absence of the other. In the same way that I can code-switch between different vernaculars in verbal conversation, so can I alternate between different modes of online language choices. I wouldn’t, for instance, write “TBQH” in an email to a superior, maybe because that particular phrase hasn’t yet penetrated her demographic or because our communication tends toward the formal. I would, however, use it to punctuate a sentiment in a message to a Twitter friend. The inability to distinguish between the two situations, and not the abbreviation itself, is the potentially problematic issue here.
For insiders of web culture, online slang can relay meaning with the same precision as standard English. Typing in acronyms or referential fragments is a means to an end, not the end itself. Rather, the end is to communicate meaning from one person to another effectively and efficiently. Related: I’m increasingly just as likely to use emojis as I am words; my friends know that, for instance, the pizza slice emoji means “I love you” and the trophy icon is a Drake-inspired expression of triumph; there are equivalents in shorthand. I’m willing to bet my brain is quicker at picking up and responding to conveyed meaning because of my growing repertoire of chat acronyms and slanguage. Research analyzed by prominent e-linguistics expert David Crystal matches up to that theory.
“When text messaging became popular…[t]here was a widespread belief that texting had evolved as a modern phenomenon, full of abbreviations that were being used in homework and exams by a younger generation that had lost its sense of standards,” Crystal writes in Internet Linguistics: A Student Guide.
“But several studies have now shown that the hysteria about the linguistic novelty (and thus the dangers) of text-messaging is misplaced. All the popular beliefs about texting are wrong. To summarize the results of a growing literature: only a small part of text-messaging uses distinctive abbreviations (textisms); these abbreviations are not a modern phenomenon; they are not restricted to the younger generation; young people do not pour them into their homework and exams; and texting helps rather than hinders literacy standards,” he continues.
Language is nothing if not flexible and adaptive. Slang often originates out of necessity, out of a perceived, if unexpressed, need to create in-group codifiers. The difference with chatspeak, and likely what makes it appear so much more objectionable, is that’s being created, co-opted, and normalized at a much more visible rate than other instances of slang. But, in short, it’s really NBD.
Rawiya Kameir is a regular contributor to Complex, and has written elsewhere for The Toronto Standard, Thought Catalog, and The Daily Beast.