Why Your Mom Uses Emojis All Wrong 🙃

Gretchen McCulloch explains what the internet has done to language.

Mark Helenowski/Mother Jones

In the early 2010s, strange uses of language started cropping up all over the micro-blogging platform Tumblr. A Tumblr user might do ALL THE THINGS, or get major feels, or lose the ability to even. Somehow, everyone understood each other.

One blog, All Things Linguistic, took the language of Tumblr users seriously. Its author, Gretchen McCulloch, gave linguistically informed explanations for the rise of phrases like “I can’t even” and “because [noun].” It was a nonjudgmental haven for Tumblr users who wanted to understand their own online language, which was evolving beneath their fingertips, not to mention for linguistics enthusiasts who simply enjoyed nerdy memes.

McCulloch’s new book, Because Internet, continues in this spirit. It’s a field guide for navigating internet language, written by someone who has been charting these waters on her blog since 2012. Thanks to social media and instant messaging, McCulloch explains, internet users are generating unprecedented amounts and varieties of informal writing. Whether we’re ~signaling irony~ through creative uses of punctuation or LOLing at the bizarre—and I cannot stress this enough—syntactical gymnastics of the latest memes, we’re contributing to the richness of modern language that McCulloch so delights in.

Take, for example, emoji, the little pictorial icons that some pedants have blamed for the decline of the English language. McCulloch posits that emojis act as a form of internet gesture. Sometimes texting a string of emojis to a friend can be a means of commiserating, acknowledging the friend’s message, or simply experiencing a sort of virtual togetherness. Emojis don’t detract from formal language, McCulloch argues. Instead, they add nuance to texted messages that lack the tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language that would color a spoken statement.

McCulloch and I spoke recently over Gchat. During the hourlong conversation, we talked about emojis, typographical tone of voice, and why it’s so hard for one generation to communicate with another over text. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity, but punctuation and capitalization appear as originally written.

So, the idea with this interview is that it’ll be kind of an informal conversation, in the spirit of internet writing

Are we going to add in the periods again, for the written article version? haha

That’s a good question. My rubric is this MoJo article that was done in a similar style, with light editing for clarity

Right, yeah I read that article

Awesome. It doesn’t seem like a lot of punctuation was added there, but that’s something I’d have to check in with my editor about

Yeah, normally if you do an audio interview of course they do add punctuation
But they do have periods at the end of each chat message, which isn’t something I’d normally do
Anyway, feel free to leave the meta conversation in, if you think people would find it interesting! This is literally the kind of thing I think about all the time 

I think this is actually sort of a good segue to talk about some of the intergenerational differences in texting, because, as you mention in Because Internet, a lot of young people find periods at the ends of text messages to be passive aggressive
You mention studying the Beatles’ postcards to see how they use periods…in between short phrases…or sort of to separate thoughts

Yeah, I went looking for archival postcards and turns out the Beatles are a group that lots of people have paid attention to the minutiae of! 

Makes sense!

I think the thing to note about the passive-aggressive period or ellipsis is that it’s not ALWAYS passive aggressive, it’s that it sometimes gets interpreted as passive aggressive because its meaning gets computed through multiple steps
So, in a context where a period isn’t necessary (ie when you’re sending a single-utterance message rather than a multi-sentence message), putting a period anyway makes a message more final, or more solemn, or more serious
And sometimes that’s not passive aggressive at all! 
For example: 
Yikes. That’s rough. 
Oh no.
Oh no….
In these cases, the period reinforces the negative message that you’re sending

But if you say something like
Hope you had a good time.
Then there could be the passive aggressive interpretation?
Or, see me in my office.

Exactly, so a period (negative) plus a positive or even neutral message, that’s when you get this tension that creates the effect of passive aggression
Sounds good.
Sounds good….
Okay. 
Okay…

Or, god forbid, K.

hahahaha the dreaded “K.”

You also mention re: the postcards, that it was common for people to draw doodles
Do you think people who grew up before the internet conceptualize emojis as literal doodles?

Yeah! You get all these great doodles in archival letters and postcards and so on
It sort of just backs the question up further, in that, what do people who use doodles think of them as meaning/doing? 
(Which I would love to see a study on, btw)
I do think that there’s a generational divide in how literally people use emoji though

Yeah! My parents use emojis in ways I would never think to use them

Especially since iOS started automatically prompting people with emoji on the keyboard, I think you see this rise in older people putting them in basically whenever they’re being suggested
I think people who started using computers later in life think of internet communication as: “this is a style that you use when on a device” “this is just how you talk on the internet” 
Whereas people who grew up using them have more splits in how they use different styles: “this is how you indicate irony” “this is playfulness” “this is passive aggression” “this is sincerity” etc 
I cannot overstate how much older people have NO IDEA that they could possibly ever be communicating tone of voice, and how much younger people have NO IDEA that everyone isn’t constantly communicating tone of voice

Right! It’s crazy to me some of the things my parents will text me, not knowing that I would interpret them as ironic
like “10Q” for thank you

WOW
Who even.

that’s something I would only ever use 100% in jest

Is this the 90s

hahaha I guess that’s when they got online, and never changed

I love it

A man uses a chatroom in 2000.

Roslan Rahman/Getty

But I feel like you do see a resurgence of some of these older ways of typing
And I think the boundary between irony and just…normal talking can shift

Absolutely, irony is super flexible and contextual
And a lot of stuff that was sincere a couple decades ago comes back as ironic (not just in punctuation! also in like, jeans)
Something that was interesting when I was researching Because Internet, is I actually spent some time with the irony literature
Because it turns out, there’s an irony literature
And what the irony literature tells us first off is that even in your sort of gold-star spoken irony, an ironic exchange has two components, and that’s the utterance of the ironic statement itself and the acknowledgement by the recipient of the irony, whether that’s by laughing or by continuing the irony or whatever
Because irony isn’t always successfully transmitted
And that’s the exciting part, if we wanted to make all of our statements completely lucid, we already have a tool for that and it’s called Not Being Sarcastic
So the whole POINT of irony is that there’s this possibility of misinterpretation
That’s why it’s so enticing, it’s literally a bit dangerous

I’m kind of curious how that plays out in places like Weird Twitter
where everything is ironic, but everyone (presumably) knows it’s ironic.

well, everyone who’s in the in-group knows that it’s ironic

good point

so it’s still creating that in-group

I was talking to my editor about how I’ve seen people,,, typing like this,,,

I love that one!

my editor informs me that that came from weird twitter, but I’m kind of skeptical of that
so my question is twofold:
do you have any insight on the origin of repeated commas as a way of signaling irony? and, have you noticed any (other) typographical trends starting from weird twitter and going really mainstream?

hmm, I mean, I’d have to do some digging
it’s not one I’ve researched already
it seems that ,,,, has this initial association with less tech savvy people who mistake it for the period key and this gets transferred into irony
see also facebook groups like the one where the Youths pretend to be Boomers, lots of ,,,,, there

oh wow
those are both connections i wouldn’t have made

I’d love to see some more interviews/digging with older people who use ,,,, non-ironically, because this group definitely exists

that would be cool, i wouldn’t even know how to go about finding them
the illusion of technological un-savviness seems to be really big on twitter

I’ve tried a bit, but it’s hard because you often get this answer of “well that’s what’s correct” even when what they’re doing is patently not in the traditional canon of formal english 
So the IDEA of “correct writing” is very important to this group, even when they don’t actually produce things that a newspaper editor (say) would print
Whereas when I ask younger people what they mean by what they’re saying in an internet context, they often give me answers in terms of how they expect other people to interpret them
That’s just not an answer that older people give
(although, I should also say, the age boundaries are by no means fixed, and people who have been on the internet longer often write more like the “younger” group)

yeah, that kind of goes back to the more splits in styles that younger people have when communicating via text
it’s always cool to me when I reach out to someone to interview and the way they email totally belies their age, just because they’ve been online since before I was born

hahaha yeah I love this part about getting all sort of random cold email as well, I totally guess people’s age and internet habits from their email styles

we’re getting kind of close to the end of our time together (amazing how much slowly people type than they can talk, isn’t it?) and I wanted to ask you what some of your favorite quirks of informal language are: the ones you see your friends using or that you yourself use

hmmm, I have to say I do love the entire ironic set
especially the thing where people will sometimes just reply to a joke or a pun (lbr, it’s often a pun) with your name in all caps or all caps with spaces
like, 
GRETCHEN
or 
G R E T C H E N

omg, i have been freaking out when my boss does this on Slack
he’ll do it, say, if an article i write does well on social

your boss? oh no, that seems disconcerting

i always interpret that as, I have done something wrong and he is angry

when it’s for a pun, I interpret it as like faux-anger

right, like “I hate you”

but I don’t think I’d want to try it across a power differential

hahaha I’ll tell him a #certified #linguist said that

hahahaha

This has been a fun convo! Especially since I’ve been following allthingslinguistic for a long time

Aw, that’s great!

I was there for the memes and I think i often overlooked that there was one person running it, so it was awesome to read your book and see all that went into it

Hahaha oh god, I used to get asks addressed to like “you guys” and i was like NOPE THIS IS JUST ME
But I kept it pretty pseudonymous while I was in grad school, so

anyway, I’ll let you go
Anything else you wanted to add?

I think we’re good! 
Thanks again! 

Thanks so much! I’ll send you a link to the article when it goes live, and let you know if I need any other info

Great, sounds good!
(note lack of period lmao)

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