Extremely Online: the language of internet culture

Why the language you use online is different, and how to make sure you’re understood.

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When my mum messages me on WhatsApp, she puts ellipses all over the place.

Those three innocuous dots can make a nice message sound passive aggressive. I know I’m not alone in this, because of all the Tweets about it.

Why does she do it? And why does it bother me? Gretchen McCulloch’s book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, gives us a framework for understanding these communication gaps. She delves into how language works online and the implications for individuals.

In this piece, we’re going to take a look at some of the key takeaways for brands who want to communicate better online.

The problem with writing online

Let’s take a moment to appreciate some of the challenges of making ourselves understood online. As language has evolved through years of non-stop digital chatter, new ways to misunderstand each other have emerged. Many of us have experienced these pitfalls personally, but they also present new headaches for businesses who communicate with their customers online.

Misunderstandings happen

Online, misunderstandings happen all the time. Twitter is a bin fire of misinterpretations, both intentional and accidental. WhatsApp groups are a mess of crossed messages. And who hasn’t spent hours re-writing an important email to adjust the punctuation (and delete the exclamation marks!).

Tone of voice is hard

Tone of voice in writing, what McCulloch calls the “typographical tone of voice”, is hard to convey and easy to misjudge. Humour is a great example. Think of the number of jokes that miss the mark over WhatsApp, or the sarcastic Twitter trolls who can wind people up with a few choice words.

Communicating across generations makes it harder

It seems to be particularly difficult for us to make ourselves understood to people from different generations. Which makes sense. People who’ve never known a world without Snapchat communicate differently to those who grew up with letter writing and postcards. We’re all logging in (or dialling up) with different levels of comfort and fluency.

How we use language online

Let’s take a look at some of the specific ways language use has evolved online and how we might better understand each other.

These examples apply mainly to private messaging and social media. Writing for the web combines some elements of formal writing with many of the more casual characteristics of speech, so they’re relevant examples to email, website content and other forms of digital comms too.

We all employ typographical strategies

Digital communication is expressive; it’s full of personality and emotion. And we convey our meaning and intention in more than just the words we use. McCulloch encourages us to think of these stylistic choices as typographical strategies, not random babbling. We can add ~sparkly emphasis~ with tildes, or *firmer emphasis* with asterisks. Or even a bit of Ironic Gravitas™ with the trademark symbol.

What we mean when we say lol

“Lol” was first used in the 90s to mean “laugh out loud”. But its use has changed over time. It’s now a mainstay of digital communication. It can indicate subtext, an inside joke or add a layer of plausible deniability to a risky message. Add “lol” to your “ily” and it’s a way to get over the squeamishness of saying something emotionally sincere. But that deeper meaning is often personal, and that’s why it can sound a bit try-hard in other contexts.

Ellipses are thought separators...

Finally, an explanation for all the ellipses. McCulloch describes them as thought separators. Older generations grew up writing casual notes to each other on note paper and postcards, on which a line break took up valuable real estate. Ellipses or dashes were a more efficient choice.

That’s evolved in the digital age into those strings of dots between sentences. Every generation uses thought separators. For example, younger people are more likely to use line breaks because we rarely have to write within the confines of a small page.

Emojis are gestures

Emojis aren’t a whole new language, simply a new way to gesture digitally. They work best alongside written text. That’s why it can feel jarring to read a sentence in which words have been replaced by emojis (brands, we’re looking at you). The most natural way we use emojis is the equivalent of the gestures and body language you’d get alongside speech in a face-to-face conversation.

Everyone is annoying

We all use language differently. These examples are generalisations, rather than hard and fast rules. But they help to show how language use is evolving online and shaping the way we communicate offline too. My particular penchant (you may have noticed) is for parentheses. I don’t always follow the grammar textbook to the letter, but hopefully you can understand me all the same.

How to communicate better online

So, what does this mean for companies and teams communicating online to advertise, persuade, explain, instruct, or advise our customers and clients?

Authenticity over trends

One of the oldest rules in the voice and tone handbook is to find an authentic way of speaking to your customers; one based on the personality and values of your brand. 

Staying true to that authentic voice should guide the language you use. If that means skipping a trend or two, so be it. Customers are often highly attuned to writing that sounds inauthentic or contrived. Especially if it’s clearly trying to be ~trendy~. Write to achieve genuine connection with your audience, not a desire to look cool.

It’s okay to break the rules (of grammar)

As the way the world speaks and writes changes, our definition of what’s correct needs to change too. There’s more than one right way to write, and sometimes the clearest version of the copy isn’t technically correct according to textbook grammar.

UX writing has long prioritised clarity over grammatical correctness. The rules for writing for interfaces are not the same as the rules for formal writing. And that often means leaning into evolutions in language, including what McCulloch describes as “collective agreements” for language. The most important thing is to be understood, which means it’s okay to break the rules: readability takes priority.

Humour is tricky to pull off

Use it sparingly. When in doubt, leave it out.

Be inclusive

When it comes to your audience, think big. Clear, plain language is the most accessible. This principle includes many facets, but touches on a couple of examples we’ve covered here.

Firstly, it’s important not to get too bogged down in formalities. Readable language will naturally incorporate many of the more casual elements of speech and its digital equivalents. As people change the way they write on WhatsApp, that will filter through into the way we write in all online spaces.

Secondly, on the flip side, don’t risk alienating your older customers by trying to be too down with the kids. TikTok is a great example of inclusivity. Although it was popular mainly with younger users when it started, the company’s content strategy prioritised clear language instead of following trends. Now it’s popular with across the world with users of all ages and backgrounds.

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