23 October 2007


Fly the freak flag high

Truman Capote is said to have remarked about Jack Kerouac: "That isn't writing at all — it's typing." What would this acerbic man of letters and talk show gargoyle have made of the profundities to be found on Twitter and Facebook, or the excessively agitated scribblings on millions of blogs like this one? Perhaps as the badly written third act of a moderately good play? On the other hand, Capote had a good ear for slang and might have taken pleasure in expressions like "Jack's got a 404 look on his face." Would the Internet's strange linguistic artefacts have been taken as answered prayers, or would Capote merely have uttered one of his disdainful bat squeaks? Would he have googled himself, LOLed, tasted del.icio.us, or poked someone? (On the subject of poking, of course it was inevitable that we would be invited to experience the Zen of Poke, by a blogger who probably doesn't know the difference between a bodhisattva and body piercing.)

It is conceivable that Capote would simply have found more music for chameleons in the web's weird word play. Consider this comment on Apple's new OS X Leopard from Engadget: "Time Machine is like, zomg, so rad." (Zomg? See Wikipedia's List of Internet slang phrases.) Here is typical, unzippered web English: a pop-cultural allusion to classic science fiction, a universal but meaningless space filler, a ludic variation on a chat neologism, a dollop of surfer slang — all providing a solid basis for the impression one gets of Netspeak as a genuine language variety. Given the profusion of such semantic shape-shifting and lexico-graphological invention, the question must be asked: where is language going in the myriad corridors of the Internet, which reverberate with the zomg-like incantatory enthusing of cybergeeks, the meretricious discourse of our political and economic elites, the technical incomprehensibilities of experts, and the colourful argots of the diverse web community?

Being creatures of language, we create a world for ourselves that is both formed by and expressive of words. As we spend more of our lives jacked into the web, our language will change, is changing now. Our linguistic environment is digitalizing. The writer who invented the word cyberspace said this in a recent newspaper interview:

Fifteen or 20 years ago, the time we spent in digital systems was a special time. We spent less time there and we noticed it more. Now that's reversed. The increasingly rare time we spend is that which is not in the system. That's how it turns itself inside out.
The digital system we live in, the World Wide Web, or as David Crystal suggests it should be called, the Word Wide Web, has given us Netspeak. And the Orwellian ring to that term shouldn't go unanalyzed. The web is changing the way we think about language because it is a linguistic singularity — a genuine new medium. Published last year in a second edition, Crystal's Language and the Internet (1), examines the often bizarre and always inventive ways the English language (and every other world language too) is massaged, manipulated, mangled and mashuped in various digital transmogrifications. Is the Internet bad for the future of language? Will creativity be lost? Are standards diminishing? In clear and non-quirky prose, Crystal addresses all of these questions from a linguistic perspective. In his opinion the Internet is in fact enabling a dramatic expansion to take place in the range and variety of language, and is providing unprecedented opportunities for personal creativity. In this post I want to do some of my own exploring, experience some of the spiralling linguistic free fall of my digital world, and get my socks and shoes wet in the metaphor-mixing process.

Before the web there was email, there were listservs, MUDs, and MOOs. In the tradition of the telegram, language was already evolving as it began appearing in ASCII text on primitive monitors. In his novel Yellow Dog, Martin Amis takes wicked delight in spoofing the language of cyber chat and mobile twittering, which shares its DNA with those earlier forms of discourse. The despicable Clint Smoker, a London tabloid hack with phallic anxiety (phalanx?) who writes a column for The Daily Lark, receives a text message from a mysterious online admirer known only as "k8":

dear clint: r u as other men r?
(i ask because u ask: about size m@tering.)
well if u're not as other men r: don't worry.
my current 'other', orl&o, wields a big 1, of
which he is inordin8ely proud. but take my
word 4 it, clint, u don't want a bloody great 2l.

A bloody great ... twenty-one? he thought. Oh: the 1's an l.

they're overr8ed! i h8 them! & what an un4tun8
effect it has on the ego: he thinks he's the b's
knees. it's not size th@ m@ters, clint. it's love
th@ m@ters. (2)

Taken to such absurd limits, Netspeak would seem to represent the extirpation rather than the efflorescence of English. However, to anyone who has a passing acquaintance with medieval Latin palaeography, computer chat is not as innovative as one might think. Perversely silly as Amis' wicked satire makes them out to be, at least the distorted words are saying something humanly intelligible. That is frequently not the case on the web, where language, especially when infected with the Web 2.0 hype virus, easily morphs into computer-assisted forms that surpass even Orwell's inventive imagination. Web 2.0 B.S. I regard as I do the other severe facts of life: something to be faced with philosophy and investigated by science.

"An overwhelming sense of ickiness"
We're all familiar with it. A quick browse through one of the leading tech blogs, like Scobleizer, reveals an extraordinary range of web-laced English that would be largely unintelligible even to many native speakers. Here, taken more or less at random from a 22 October 2007 post, is a typical example:
Lunch 2.0 at Oracle (CTIA gadgets coming tonight)
I love the Lunch 2.0 movement. Every few days there’s a different Lunch 2.0 event around the world. Today was one at Oracle’s headquarters. These are great events to network at and see some new stuff (Oracle was showing off how it is Web 2.0-izing some of its Enterprise-focused stuff and privately I got a demo of how Oracle is building its own internal social network which is very cool).

Anyway, here’s some quick videos I shot at the lunch.

1. Matt Galligan told me about his company, Socialthing, which will aggregate all sorts of friends networks. Alpha coming later in October, public release expected later this year. He called it a “digital life manager” and compared it to Jaiku.
2. Justin Kestelyn gave me a little tidbit of why Oracle was hosting Lunch 2.0. His blog with reports on the event is here.
3. Dominik Grolimund of Wua.la shows me this very cool Peer-to-Peer online storage service. I’m going to try this one out. He’s visiting Silicon Valley from Switzerland.
4. Jeremiah Owyang just came back from Hong Kong and explains Cyworld’s homepi to us. Rich Mangalang, of Oracle, was showing us their internal social network (sort of like Facebook, but only for Oracle employees). He wasn’t able to demonstrate it on camera, unfortunately.
The net effect of this kind of discourse is simply to tire the mind. Inundated by such a continuous and constantly changing stream of expression-coining, name-dropping, acronym-spewing data fragments and paradigital bits, the cerebral cortex struggles to cope. I'm sure I'm not the only person suffering from Web 2.0 fatigue. Describing a first trip to Hollywood by Xan Meo — now there's a Name 2.0 — Martin Amis writes in Yellow Dog:
He stopped and thought: that feeling again. And he sniffed the essential wrongness of the air, with its fucked-up undertaste, as if all the sequiturs had been vacuumed out of it. A yellowworld of faith and fear, and paltry ingenuity. And all of us just flying blind. (4)
He could have been describing the linguistic underside of Web 2.0, its capricious and corrupting twisting of language to the point where a burst of web puffery or a simple list of website names can remind you of the platitudes of a soap commercial, or, just as easily, the sinister euphemisms of the police state. Do I exaggerate? Click over to The Web 2.0 B.S. Generator by Michael Calore. With every page refresh a new media release for a fictional Web 2.0 start-up appears. I looked at a few, my gorge rising. I was struck by a fictional media release for "Yixo" with its new coinage: the "$untappedDemographic."
MOUNTAIN VIEW,Calif. - Yixo is proud to announce a new social networking site for $untappedDemographic, the result of its continued expertness in friendly research.

"Our customers, if we had any, would tell us our overwhelming allure in the field of reading the papers and googling stuff is pre-eminent," said Carissa Vetch, Chief of Network Technology. "With lengthy papers and expensive reports, we continue introducing innovative products that make life easier for our consumers."
I found another mock release from "Twaba," a company "committed to providing the uniquest communications and data sifting for our customers." It goes on to say, "Our collaboration and espionage amount to a unique combination of patriotism and value." Real-life variations on this kind of amorally animated twaddle are de rigueur on the web, and far from unique.

For anyone on the hunt for the right buzzword or marketing angle, they couldn't go wrong to consult Bullshitr: the Web 2.0 Bullshit Generator. I had little trouble dredging up the following almost-all-too-familiar expressions:
  • engage semantic mashups
  • beta-test undefined communities
  • post A-list widgets
  • aggregate data-driven ad delivery
  • enable podcasting widgets
  • reinvent peer-to-peer tagclouds
  • create embedded weblogs
  • incentivize social communities
  • harness citizen-media weblogs
  • create social folksonomies
Not to be outdone, the Buzzphrase Generator provides a bewildering cloud of Web 2.0ish jargon that sounds like bits of conversations overheard at a Palo Alto coffee bar:
Podcasts. Tag me. The words aren't what they were. We shall transcend borders. On-demand streams. Clustering. Social is the new push. Folksonomy. This is newer media. Cry out, blogosphere! Faster. Faster! Always be launching. Hack it. Roll your own roll-your-own. We're about what Web 2.0 is about. News clouds. MSM just doesn't get it. Splog is an aggregate noun. An AJAX-driven GUI. You need someone who gets it. It's all changing. Single. Word. Sentences! "ASL" is geezer speak. It's all about community. The new is old. Clear that. Float this. This will change everything. We are on the brink of a new age. 2.0 is the new New. The buzz is loud and clear.

Folksonomy. Single. Word. Sentences! Faster. Faster! This is newer media. This will change everything. Podcasts. Tag me. You need someone who gets it. We're about what Web 2.0 is about. The buzz is loud and clear. It's all about community. An AJAX-driven GUI. Float this. MSM just doesn't get it. News clouds. On-demand streams. Clustering. Social is the new push. Hack it. Splog is an aggregate noun. Cry out, blogosphere! Clear that. It's all changing. The new is old. Always be launching. Label what defies categorization. The words aren't what they were. "ASL" is geezer speak. 2.0 is the new New. We are on the brink of a new age. Roll your own roll-your-own. We shall transcend borders.
Need a name for that new Web 2.0 product? Try the Web 2.0 Name Generator. True to its name, this tool generates lots of unusual compound or foreign-sounding words. I chose the following, but there were always more like them to come:


Or just create random names at MakeWords.com. I'm sure there are many others, highly valued if you are in the profession of inventing a new laundry detergent, underarm deodorant, surveillance operation, or excuse for torture.

I recently discovered The Name Inspector, a blog devoted to the weirdness of web language. One hilarious post expresses his unease about Utterz, a new mobile microblogging platform. The Name Inspector remarks:
You have to have some respect for a name that knows it’s ridiculous and flies its freak flag high. And yet… There’s something about the whole teat/cell phone/web connection that’s a little unsettling. A little Matrix-y. Everyone knows web use can be obsessive. Addictive even. This name plays right into that idea: our cell phones are our own personal connections to the great life-giving, milk-giving webcow in the sky. It’s enough to give a person, as Cher Horowitz from Clueless might say, "an overwhelming sense of ickiness."
There is a long tradition of using unusual words or expressions to delight, divert, frighten, annoy, bamboozle or educate an audience. Think of Rabelais' grotesques, the peculiar nations of Gulliver's travels, fairy tale characters like Rumpelstiltskin, Dickens' endlessly imaginative cognomens: Squeers, Bumble, Gamp, Dartle, Veneering, Scrooge, Podsnap (perfect for a Web 2.0 podcast and photo site), the Circumlocution Office. But think also of Ingsoc, Gestapo, Gulag, Private Security Contractor, The Mission, The Barrier. The difference now is that we have computer programs to invent names for us, and money or might can be made by finding a suitably catchy website label, logo and look for anything from a school project to a prison camp.

What of the world of health information? Healia is a good example of a doubtless computer-produced company name. David Rothman has given us a brief description of this new search engine. In typical Web 2.0 fashion, Healia's main page announces in large print that it's all about "YOUR search for health." The pastel blues, greens and oranges are trendy, and the website's overall style is a patently obvious salute to Google's peerless look. "Healia" as a name attempts to create a sense of well-being — "We'll heal ya, Cecilia" — although it tends to bring the Simon & Garfunkle song to mind a bit too often, not to mention the hallelujahs, forehead slaps and fervent swoons of a Benny Hinn crusade.

I note that Healia's "President & Founder" (does he have a chest full of medals and a riding crop?) attended the recent Health 2.0 Conference in San Francisco, which I discussed in previous posts. One cannot resist reviewing the names of some of the other new companies that were represented there:

WeGoHealth (rah-rah, marching, pompoms, brass band)
Daily Strength (scripture readings and mirror affirmations for the feckless)
OrganizedWisdom (Buddhist Tripitaka online)
Sophia's Garden (trellises and trowels for philosophers)
Inspire (new pit perfume)
Digitas Health (working the classical angle to sound sophisticated)
Enhanced Medical Decisions
(CIA front)
DNADirect ("Friendly injections at your convenient local salon!")
Vimo (comes with A/C and stereo and other assorted bling, as well as a Latin dictionary)
HealthEquity (that's cash equity, in case you were thinking the other kind).

This selection of smart little company designations gives us partial insight into how language is prinked, preened, pruned and exploited in the marketing strategies of the super-clever, always-plugged-in high-tech business set. The names smack mightily of computer-aided cogitation: the Web 2.0 Name Generator mentioned above, or some other tool like the 2 Robots Random Business Name Generator. On second thought, it couldn't be the latter, since it produces totally lame product such as "Agility Networks Group" or "Lightning Renditions." The Health 2.0 letterheads are playful, allusive, and suggestive, containing multiple potentialities of interpretation. In other words, little is said, lots is promised, less is more. They keep one slightly off-balance. They elude simple explanation, tamper with our fixed notions while relying on our cultural assumptions, and slip out of our hands even as we seem to grasp them. Heidegger would have admired them as a subtle economy of reference, a capitalist version of aletheia, of a truth that conceals itself in the very process of disclosure. Esther Dyson, a well-known industry pundit, sat on the "closing reactor panel" representing her radioactive consulting business, whose expensively provided, impossibly pretentious, and predictably slick name is EDventure, a brilliantly conceived evocation of exclusive adventure and top-dollar education for venturesome executives issuing convertible debentures on the advent of their successful capture of the market. How allusive is that. This tricksy sobriquet has more connotations than a Shakespeare sonnet.

The sequiturs vacuumed out
My interest in such trendy monikers fades quickly. But there is one case where I think immediate action is needed, where all the above tools should be applied and the most brilliant minds of the English-speaking world should be put urgently to work. I refer, of course, to the hideous My NCBI. No more fatuous, colourless, insipid, and abortive appellation has ever been fabricated than this pallid semblance of a brand name. I would like to see a massive competition to come up with a good Web-2.0-worthy descriptor for PubMed's little bag of tricks.

Sidebar: What's in a K?
On the subject of the importance of naming, I came across a "news" item from North Korea, dated 3 June 2003, entitled "Movement for regaining English name of country." (Source: http://www.nk-news.net/index.php). Apparently the Pyongyang government would prefer that English publications refer to their country as "Corea," a traditional spelling used in most western languages for hundreds of years. "Korea," according to the article, was an invention of Japanese imperialists after their colonization of the country in the early 20th century. The restoration of the older spelling would help "to eliminate another leftover of Japan's colonial rule." Ironic this, given that I remember the provocative use of the letter 'k' in the spelling of Kanada and Amerika (sometimes Amerikkka) in the student rebellions of the 60s. There is much in a name.

"Tiny doses of arsenic"
Where is language going on the web? How is it changing and what will the ultimate effect be on how and why we communicate? "The sheer scale of the present Internet," says David Crystal, "let alone its future telecosmic [sic] incarnations, has convinced me that we are on the brink of the biggest language revolution ever. . . . [T]he arrival of new, informal, even bizarre forms of language extends the range of our sensitivity to linguistic contrasts. . . . The human linguistic faculty seems to be in good shape, I conclude. The arrival of Netspeak is showing us homo loquens at its best." (4)

Crystal is quite upbeat about the webification of English (and other languages). Yet surely it is also true that languages can get better or worse, that they can coarsen over time, be deliberately perverted, and can contribute to the corruption of human thought and sentiment. While taking pleasure in the inexhaustible variety of web language, it is important to guard against the growing use of the web to promote cruel and intolerant ideologies, as well as the constant trivialization and commercialization of speech and the written word. In his monumental The language of the Third Reich : LTI, Lingua Tertii Imperii : a philologist's notebook, Victor Klemperer demonstrates how language was systematically degraded and debased in Nazi Germany. A Professor of Literature at the Technische Universität Dresden until his dismissal in 1935 under the Nuremberg Laws, Klemperer was stripped of his academic title, job, citizenship and freedom and eventually condemned to forced labour. Miraculously, he survived the war, and the incredible diary he kept during this ordeal has been published to great acclaim.

"What was the most powerful Hitlerian propaganda tool?" writes Klemperer. "Was it the individual speeches of Hitler and Goebbels . . . their rabble-rousing against the Jews, against Bolshevism? . . . Certainly not. . . . Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously. . . . Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all."

Klemperer's words (quoted from a review of two books by David Crystal in The Guardian of 11 February 2006) are a sobering reply to Crystal's own frothy rhapsodizing. But my web life must go on. I have to make a living, like other librarians, immersed in its use and misuse of language. And the clever or clunky neologisms and word play just keep swarming up from the web's fertile depths. Only yesterday I discovered hooeey, a new bookmarking and tracking service from India which records your complete browsing history, allowing you to share interesting web pages with others easily and to manage your browsing time more efficiently — sort of a del.icio.us plus Google Web History combined. Where on earth did they find that name? Hoo knows? What does it all mean? More Web 2.0 word weaving. I see a lot of hooey in the future. But as William Gibson has remarked, we can't do futures anymore.

Non-digital references

1. Crystal, David. Language and the Internet. 2nd ed. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2006. (David Crystal has his own website and blog: davidcrystal.com and DCBlog.)

2. Amis, Martin. Yellow dog. Knopf, 2003, p. 102-103.

3. Ibid. p. 10.

4. Crystal, op. cit., p. 275-276.


Dean Giustini said...


This post must be 2000 words long.

It must be some sort of record for blog posts. I'd call it a blog essay.

Is it a paper you have written for a publication?


Mark Rabnett said...


I write for the pure pleasure of it, casting a feather into the abyss of cyberspace to see if it produces an echo. I suppose it amounts to a blog essay (a blessay?). The topic is inexhaustible, and it deserves more than a squib.

No, this is not a paper written for formal publication. Who on earth would want it anyway? It is simply thrown to the wind that it may "cleave the general ear with horrid speech."


lekshe said...

How excellent is my karma that I landed on your site this evening. Holy macaroni.