This is a longer episode because we talk about So Many Things. Amanda and I both read and really enjoyed Because Internet, and it was a treat to talk to the author about her book, and about how language and socializing are evolving.
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Sarah Wendell: Well, hello there. Thank you for inviting me into your eardrums. I’m Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. This is episode number 428 of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books. Today, Amanda and I are talking with Gretchen McCulloch, author of Because Internet and host of the podcast Lingthusiasm. We are going to talk about her book, but also we’re going to do one of those episodes where a really smart person with intricate knowledge of what’s really going on beneath mundane activities goes deep nerdy diving with fangirling and squeeing and laughing, and this is a really fun episode, so I hope you enjoy it. We’re going to talk about how the use of language as a tool for socializing is something that we’re all currently redefining, and we’re talking about how the way in which we socialize and the way which we use language in social situations is changing too. This is a longer episode, ‘cause we talk about so many things, but Amanda and I both really read and enjoyed Because Internet, and it was such a treat to talk to the author about this book.
You can find Gretchen McCulloch at her website, Gretchen McCulloch, M-C-C-U-L-L-O-C-H, dot com [gretchenmcculloch.com], and her podcast is there too, which I highly recommend.
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I have a compliment. I love doing these! All right. Oh, it makes my day to have a compliment in an episode.
To Leigh B.: There are a thousand tiny things that you do that lift the moods of the people around you so much that everyone you meet feels better for having spent time with you. Thank you for being so great.
If you would like a compliment of your very own, have a look at patreon.com/SmartBitches. Every pledge supports the show, keeps it going, and makes sure that every episode is accessible to everyone, and the Patreon community is full of fabulous and wonderful people. If you would like to have a, have a look and join, it would be wonderful if you did: patreon.com/SmartBitches.
I will have links to all of the books that we talk about in this episode, and we start off by squeeing about a lot of romance, so, you know, get ready. And I will end the episode with a really bad joke. A really, really bad joke from one of our Patreon members. Thank you! So stay tuned for that terrible, terrible moment.
And if you have bad jokes that you want to tell me, and I know that you do, you can email me at [email protected]. I love hearing from you, so please do drop an email.
But I think it’s time to get started with this interview, don’t you? Let’s do this. Amanda and I with Gretchen McCulloch: on with the podcast.
Sarah: Welcome, and thank you for doing this! I was so excited when you started tweeting about how we were talking about your book. Like, I was like, oh my gosh! Gretchen McCulloch knows who we are?
Sarah: Oh my God! Maybe she’ll come talk to us! So thank you for coming to talk to us about your cool-ass book!
Gretchen McCulloch: Thank you for having me! It was very surreal, because I, I have a friend who’s a librarian who reads Smart Bitches more, more regularly than I do, and she sent me a link, like, Smart Bitches talked about your book! Like, you have to see this! [Laughs] It was really great.
Sarah: [Gasps] Oh, that’s so cool!
Gretchen: Well, thank you!
Amanda: It’s like a little book club that Sarah and I had.
Sarah: Yeah! Like, we basically had a little book club about your book, and now we’re inviting you in.
Gretchen: That’s, it’s really great. Yeah, I know, and I was, I was on recently because the new Courtney Milan book came out, and I was like, I need to read some other people’s thoughts about this, please! [Laughs]
Sarah: Did you read it already?
Gretchen: Yes! Oh my God, it’s so good. I read it the day it came out.
Sarah: Oh, and you liked it?
Gretchen: Yes! I’ve read all of her stuff. It’s, like, I, I really liked this one ‘cause it felt like kind of a return to form for some of her –
Gretchen: – I want to say, like, mid-stage books?
Gretchen: Like, it kind of reminded me of the, the Turner series, where she’s kind of realizing that she can smash a bunch of tropes all in a row?
Gretchen: And so being like, oh, you know, here are all these tropes: watch me smash them, which, like, isn’t quite as much what she was doing with the Brothers Sinister series or with the, the new one, the Worth one, but the –
Gretchen: – the Turner series, she’s really taking glory in smashing the tropes, and so this felt like this sort of beautiful return to form for that.
Sarah: And I love when I, when I did the interview with her and how she talked about how there’s no bleak moment where all seems lost. It’s just, we have things to work out, and we’re going to work them out.
Gretchen: Yeah, exactly!
Sarah: And that’s plenty.
Gretchen: Well, and it’s funny to me that she, she said this is a realization in that interview, which I listened to yesterday – [laughs] – which is, because in the, I found that she already did this earlier in the Turner series where, especially in the book with Smite, he’s like, there’s this moment when – this is a SPOILER, I guess – like, a bad thing ha-, thing happens, and the normal thing to do in a romance would be to not tell the other person about it and just keep this terrible secret?
Gretchen: And instead she just, like, tells him, because obviously she trusts him more than this person who’s sending her this threatening letter, and that, to me, was a sort of similar sort of trope-smashing thing that let us get on with the actual story of the building trust between the characters.
Sarah: It’s like she, she revels in the ability to defy expectation? But then –
Sarah: – isn’t, isn’t pugnacious about it.
Gretchen: Right! And takes such joy in this defying expectation; not like, you know, like F you: this expectation is defied, but, like, what happens if we subvert this?
Sarah: Yeah! What if we don’t? How ‘bout no?
Gretchen: How ‘bout no? Yeah.
Sarah: [Laughs] So, to back up for just a moment –
Gretchen: Okay. [Laughs]
Sarah: Since we jumped right into how great was this book?
Sarah: We’re going to talk about your book too, but we’re also going to talk about lots of things.
Sarah: Would you please introduce yourself and tell the people who you are and all of nifty, cool-ass things you do?
Gretchen: My name is Gretchen McCulloch. I am an internet linguist and the author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. I also co-host Lingthusiasm, a podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics. I write a column about internet linguistics for Wired and do various other linguistics-y things on these here internets.
Sarah: Awesome! And apparently you also like Courtney Milan. What other romances are among your favorites? These are, these are the real questions here.
Gretchen: [Laughs] These are the real questions! So this is a, a, this was an early lock-down book for me, which I don’t know if it’s typically shelved with romance, but it’s really interesting? Have you read Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton?
Sarah: I have!
Gretchen: It’s so good! So for anybody who hasn’t read it, it’s a romance, it’s like a, you know, Victorian sentimental novel, but all of the characters are dragons, and they eat each other?
Sarah: Right, like I’m not going to read that.
Sarah: ‘Cause I love anything having to do with dragons. Like, just stick a dragon on it, I’m in.
Gretchen: And the, it makes literal a lot of the stuff that’s only implied in –
Gretchen: – you know, like, in other types of genres of like, oh, well, you know, like, the, the women will be ruined if they spend a moment alone with the men, and in, in Tooth and Claw, like, they lit-, the dragons literally turn pink and that, that ruins them, you know, in this very sort of literal way that –
Gretchen: – you know, subtext in the Victorian thing that is explained as some sort of like feature of, you know, dragon biology or whatever this is? So the interesting, interesting linguistic fact about Tooth and Claw: so I happen to know Jo Walton – she also lives in Montreal – and she was telling me the story about the translation, the Japanese translation for Tooth and Claw, which is, there’s some sort of – I don’t speak Japanese – so there’s some sort of linguistic feature in Japanese where you have, like, categories for different types of, like, entities in the world, and there’s one for humans and there’s one for monsters, and what the Japanese translator approached her for permission to do was, can I use the, like, human category, you know, linguistic thing, for the dragons in this book, and for this other, these other people, who are implicitly, like, when they’re described they’re implicitly humans, but they’re, they’re external to the society of this – can I use the monster descriptor for them?
Sarah: [Gasps] Ohhh! Oh my.
Gretchen: [Laughs] And, and Jo was obviously like, oh my God, of course you can! I would have done this in English if I’d had the ability!
Sarah: That’s so cool!
Gretchen: Isn’t that great?
Sarah: It’s amazing!
Gretchen: It’s so good.
Sarah: Okay, so please be a regular guest so we can talk about books. Please, please, please.
Sarah: ‘Cause I know you have nothing else to do and you’re not busy at all just, you know, examining –
Gretchen: I’m not going to be able to – [laughs] – I normally do, like, when I, when I tweet about books, I normally tweet about linguistic stuff in, like, sci-fi fantasy, because there’s often, like, oh, here’s this new world and, like, we’ve put some sort of, you know, thing in here, but yeah, like, there’s this, you know, romance doesn’t always do, like, here’s a bunch of linguistic stuff to analyze?
Gretchen: Although, okay, that’s not strictly true, because I read – what is the book by Helen Hoang?
Amanda: The Kiss Quotient?
Gretchen: Is it The Kiss Quotient or is it the, the next one?
Amanda: The Bride Test.
Gretchen: The Bride Test. What’s the one where she comes over from – ?
Amanda: The Bride Test.
Gretchen: The Bride Test.
Sarah: The Bride Test, yeah.
Gretchen: So The Bride Test has all of these really interesting uses of Vietnamese, and Vietnamese, like, names for family members? And names for, like, like you, it’s one of the languages where you, like, name people, like, people in your life, if they’re not your literal sister or literal, you know, older brother or uncle or something –
Gretchen: – but you use family relationships for them? And so Helen Hoang very carefully, like, uses a couple of them in the book and sort of explains them for the reader who isn’t necessarily a speaker of Vietnamese, but of course I’m on Wikipedia afterwards being like, okay, so –
Gretchen: – I feel like there’s a bigger system here, and I just want to look it up!
Sarah: Well, I mean, you, you can’t dangle a language taxonomy in front of a linguist and expect them not to go down the wiki rabbit hole, right? Like, that’s just not cool!
Gretchen: No! No! That’s cruel! [Laughs]
Sarah: Have you read The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne?
Gretchen: Oh, I have! It was years ago!
Sarah: One of the things I loved about that book was that the heroine is speaking French, but it’s written in English. However, the linguistic order of words is such that you can tell when she’s speaking French and when she’s speaking English, even though it’s all written in English.
Gretchen: Oh neat! Okay, wait. Why do not remember this? It kind of reminds me – so this isn’t romance, but it’s really interesting – so the, the books, the, the series that begins with Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, the Terra Ignota series?
Gretchen: They do this interesting thing with the language terms where they use the quotation punctuation as a symbol for which language they’re talking about?
Gretchen: So when the characters are speaking, like, Japanese, you get the Japanese, like, angle, square quotation marks. When they’re speaking French you have, like, the French triangular ones. When they’re speaking German you have the, like, up and down German quotation marks.
Sarah: Oh my!
Gretchen: Yeah, which was really great. And then really brilliantly, you have a character who mixes the languages, and so they put all of the, she puts all of the quotation marks at once.
Sarah: Oh, that’s just sexy.
Gretchen: [Laughs] It’s so good! It’s so good.
Sarah: [Laughs] So can I ask you about your book?
Gretchen: Yes, you can!
Sarah: I mean, I don’t, I don’t actually want to; I just want you to tell me about romances and things that you’ve noticed in ro-, in linguistics inside romances, but I’m also deeply curious about your book, ‘cause it was so interesting. Amanda and I talked about it several times.
So first, what led you to writing this book?
Gretchen: Well, so I spend a lot of time on the internet, as I think a lot of us do, and like a lot of linguists, I have a difficult time turning the linguist part of my brain off, which you may have noticed in the past ten minutes.
Sarah: No, not at all.
Sarah: What are you talking about?
Gretchen: So I’m sitting there trying to do, like, oh, this is some relaxing, you know, pleasure reading. [Laughs]
Gretchen: And then I’m on Wikipedia looking up, like, kinship systems.
Sarah: Yep. Yep.
Gretchen: And, or I’m scrolling through Tumblr or Twitter or wherever and I’m like, ooh! I wonder how people are using this emoji? Or like, I wonder what people are doing with this particular, you know, punctuation mark or this particular use of acronyms or this kind of stuff? And so I, you know, I can’t help wanting to analyze it; the, the data will be sad if I don’t analyze it. And –
Sarah: [Laughs] So for you, data doesn’t want to be free; data wants to be analyzed deeply.
Gretchen: I deeply – I mean, yes.
Gretchen: And so, and especially it started with, with an article that I wrote for The Toast back in 2014. I wrote a, an article analyzing the linguistics of the doge meme, which was –
Gretchen: – which was one of those, like, I’ve been scrolling through Tumblr and I keep seeing this, and it’s got some grammar here? Let me analyze it? And yeah, so, and I, I remember getting to that article and getting to the second-last paragraph of that article, where I started reflecting on internet language as existing across time, because a lot of people who talk about internet language, they sort of conflate, you know, the LOLs and the BRBs and the, like –
Gretchen: – oh, you know, people writing emails in all caps and it’s shouting with, like, what the kids are doing on the TikTok these days, if you will.
Gretchen: Which, recognize the use of “The TikTok” is entirely ironic and I know it’s not called that. And they see everything about the, the medium as if they’re, they’re parts of the same thing, when in fact you do have sort of different time-bound-ness. You have, you have different sorts of eras. You know, some people who use, you know, the earliest adopters of emoticons put noses in those smilies – [laughs] – and you have a generation of people who don’t put noses in their smilies. You have a generation of people who use emoji, and the generation of people who use emoji is not just the youngest group! It’s also the sort of, their parent age, who never used emoticons in the first place, and there are two different ages who are doing it.
And so I wanted to think about internet language not just as a thing that is kind of dictated by its use as, like, oh, it’s, it’s on a computer, so it’s all, it’s all internet language, but as a thing that exists in sort of time and space that’s different across different eras of the internet, that’s different depending on your experience with particular subcommunities of the internet, and that has changed, and that is also part of a larger context with things like letter-writing and postcards and other types of informal written communication – diaries. It’s, it’s part of a spectrum, and it’s part of a larger ecosystem that didn’t just sort of like burst into being when they invented AOL or something.
Sarah: [Laughs] I was explaining to my almost-fifteen-year-old what AOL was?
Sarah: So first of all, I felt really old, and in terms of the, the, the geographic layers of the internet, I am old internet. I am forty-five; I remember Usenet. I hadn’t thought about Usenet until you started talking about it, and then I remembered how often I scared the absolute poodle out of myself reading alt.tv.x-files/ghoststories/really-don’t-read-this-Sarah-you-really-shuoldnt-read-this-one, but I did for hours anyway.
Gretchen: Well –
Sarah: So I had to explain to him, like, AOL – so first of all, it used your phone, but it was the phone that was connected by a cable into the wall, ‘cause not everyone had a cell phone, and you could only connect – and this is what it sounded like. He’s like, oh, that was a real sound? I thought that was a meme!
Gretchen: [Laughs] Oh my God, that’s beautiful! I thought –
Gretchen: – that was a meme. My grandparents had a car phone.
Sarah: Oh bless!
Gretchen: Like, pre-cell-phones, they had a car phone. But the, the thing that I was going to say is I had various beta readers for Because Internet, and early readers, and one of them commented like, hey, you need to explain what Snapchat is. Like, the book was written before –
Gretchen: – the book was written before TikTok. I’m sorry, there is, there is one reference to TikTok in the paperback edition that I shoehorned in very, very belatedly; it’s not in the hardcover, but I got, I, I changed one sentence to mention TikTok in the paperback. But the book was literally just written before TikTok was a thing. And I had one, one reader say, you need to explain what Snapchat is; not everyone knows what Snapchat is. And then I had another reader say, what is Usenet? I’ve never heard of it; it sounds very corporate. And I was like, ohhh –
Gretchen: – oh no! [Laughs] Okay, so it’s – and this is a real, this was a big challenge that I had with Because Internet was figuring out what do I need to explain to people and what should I assume that they know? Because it’s, obviously it’s really condescending to explain to someone, you know, in the year of our internet 2020, or even, you know, 2018 or ’19 or whatever, what Facebook is, right? Like –
Gretchen: – nobody needs to say “social media site Facebook” – [laughs] – “where you can make posts,” ‘cause even if you don’t have Facebook, it’s enough a part of the sort of cultural furniture that you would find it condescending to be explained what Facebook was.
Gretchen: But not everybody has Snapchat, not everybody was on Usenet, so, like, which, which bit needs to be explained? And the thing that I found really helpful in thinking about this was thinking, one day this book is going to be a history book. That’s just how the inevitable march of time happens, right?
Gretchen: And I –
Sarah: This is, you’re talking about the Internet: that’s going to be in like twenty-five minutes, right?
Gretchen: [Laughs] Right! It’s going to be before it’s even published!
Gretchen: Well, as I said, like, TikTok existed in the time between when I had done copyedits and when the book came out. It’s really surreal.
Gretchen: [Laughs] I knew this was going to happen! I didn’t know which platform, but I knew there was going to be something that –
Sarah: One of them, right.
Gretchen: – I was going to miss, ‘cause that’s just how it goes. But I was reading books – so there’s a book about internet linguistics that was, that was published in 2001, which is, you know, very much sort of a history book at this time. It talks about MUDs and MOOs, if you were on any of those.
Sarah: Ohhh yeah.
Gretchen: [Laughs] But you can read it now as a history book and say, oh, this must have been what it was like on MUDs and MOOs, even if that wasn’t part of your experience. So for people who weren’t old internet people, MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon, and it was originally like a text-based way of playing kind of Dungeons & Dragons on the internet, but –
Gretchen: – it was also used for other types of text-based role-playing games and then just other kinds of chat. So – and, and this book has a whole chapter on them! And they were sort of this pivotal thing. Like, a lot of the – I’m pretty sure we don’t quite have textual evidence for it, but it seems very plausible to me that the thing that you do in online chat where you do, like, third-person self-narration?
Gretchen: You know, where you write, like, sighs, or goes and gets socks –
Gretchen: – that is probably from MUDs, because they were role-playing and people would narrate their own actions in relation to the other players.
Sarah: So it’s like a, it’s like excavating a di-, a giant dinosaur bone, a linguistic, like, tibia.
Gretchen: Right! And, and so –
Gretchen: – what’s interesting is that at some point someone’s going to read Because Internet in like 2040 or whatever, and it’s going to be in the same relationship with that present as me –
Sarah: Holy cow.
Gretchen: – rereading this book from 2001. And so, but, but the, the thing is, is, like, some of the things that get explained in, in this book from, from 2001 are, you know, here’s what a, what a MUD is, or here’s what a MOO is, and because modern readers, even though those existed at the time, a lot of modern readers have never heard of them –
Gretchen: – and so it’s useful to the reader of the future to have that explained. But readers of the future don’t need to be explained what a website is.
Gretchen: So if I’m thinking about readers in twenty years, readers in twenty years, even if Facebook is no longer a thing in twenty years, because who knows –
Sarah: Oh please, yes! Please, yes? Yes, please, thank you?
Gretchen: – it will have left enough of a cultural mark –
Gretchen: – that readers of the future will still not need it explained, or if they do feel like they need it explained in like a hundred years, there will be plenty of other books to explain it to them.
Sarah: Right. It’ll be at lea-, enough of a cultural reference that, you know, we can talk about it like we talk about diphtheria and –
Gretchen: Right! Or like you talk about, like, the telegraph or something, even though people don’t really –
Gretchen: – send telegraphs. You know, people are aware that telegraphs were a thing, whereas, like, all of, some of the intermediate steps between, like, telegraphs and other things, like teletext – [laughs] –
Gretchen: – you know, those didn’t stick around as much, but people in, you know, even though people don’t send telegraphs, they’re aware that the telegraph sort of exists.
Gretchen: So thinking about writing for the reader of the future is like, what is the reader of the future going to look back and know about 2019 –
Gretchen: – already? And what is the reader of the future going to maybe have forgotten or not have learned about 2019?
Gretchen: Was a way of making me feel more comfortable explaining the things that needed to be explained.
Sarah: Right. Because one of the things you talk about in the book is that a lot of internet language is the idea that you know and you don’t need it to be explained. Therefore –
Sarah: – you’re fluent, and therefore you’re in the club.
Gretchen: Yeah! And, and that’s sort of a feature of in-group vocabulary anywhere, right?
Sarah: Right, exactly.
Gretchen: You know, you’re, you’re reading something and you’re saying, okay, here’s, here’s this thing that I understand; here’s this thing that I, that I know; I get these references. Like, if you hang out with a group of friends who’ve, like, been friends since college and you’re kind of wandering in and they’re like, oh, you know, like – [laughs] – you know, just going to do a Mike! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! And you’re like, what is –
Gretchen: – what is doing a Mike, right? But they all know this because, like, Mike did this thing like ten years ago, and it’s now a part of the lore.
Gretchen: So it’s not so much that it’s like, the internet is the only place where in-jokes happen, because I think when you phrase it like that it sounds pretty patently absurd, but it’s a place where in-jokes happen in text and in recorded formats.
Gretchen: And, and that’s interesting because we’re used to in-jokes happening in the sort of physical medium of, whether that’s speech or, or sign like the sort of irl interactions. We’re used to in-jokes happening in those formats, in the evanescent formats, but the idea of in-jokes getting, like, preserved and set down? I mean, that being said, there are Shakespeare plays which, like, we don’t even get because they have so many in-jokes from, like, Elizabethan England. Like –
Gretchen: – Love’s Labour’s Lost, I am told by people who know this better than me, is just crammed with in-jokes that people at the time thought were hilarious, and we just don’t understand now.
Sarah: Sort of like watching Austin Powers, the first one.
Gretchen: Yeah! Or like, yeah, or like trying to watch, like, I don’t know, Monty Python or something without all of the references to, like, what it’s supposed to be.
Sarah: Right. Yeah, absolutely. So you wrote thinking about what someone would need to know about the internet in 2019 as this sort of location of language at the time you were writing.
Gretchen: Right! Because it’s inevitably going to become a history book, and I need to just embrace that.
Sarah: Right, yeah, absolutely.
Gretchen: And even though, you know, its first however many, you know, thousand or whatever readers are going to be people in the present, eventually, hopefully, it ends up on a dusty library shelf somewhere and gets forgotten about for forty years, and some kid picks it up, right?
Gretchen: That’s the dream. That’s everybody’s goal! [Laughs] And so it needs to be accessible to a kid who picks it up from a library shelf in twenty years.
Gretchen: And that also made it easier to write for a larger audience in the present, because one of the brilliant things that I’m going to sound like a, you know – [laughs] – you know, nineteen, like a ‘90s, like, person, you know, raving about the internet, information superhighway – one of the cool thing, coolest things about the internet, kids, is hypertext!
Gretchen: But the cool thing about hypertext which, like, we forget, because we do hypertext literally all the time now, is you don’t have to explain everything because people can just click on a link, and if you want to use a word and you’re not sure people are going to know it, you can just link to the Wikipedia article, or you can link to your previous blog post about it or whatever, and people can go find it for context, but people who already know the word don’t have to go look it up and don’t have to get interrupted, because they don’t need the context. That’s really cool! You can’t do this on paper!
Sarah: No, you cannot.
Gretchen: I had to relearn how to write without hypertext, and it was difficult!
Sarah: I get mad when I’m looking at a cookbook and I can’t hit control-F.
Gretchen: [Laughs] Right, right, right!
Sarah: Like, damn it, where’s the recipe for the chicken? Damn it, it’s in here somewhere!
Gretchen: Tell me how to find the chicken in this page! Yeah!
Sarah: So what has the response to the book been like for you? What has your reader mail been like? I imagine it’s very fun.
Gretchen: The people love to tell me anecdotes about, like, things that their, you know, family members especially are doing online, whether it’s their parents or their kids or different generations. It’s really fun to get, you know, sort of tagged on, on social media in these kinds of things. I’m, I’m not good at reader email; email goes into work brain for me, but social media is good. [Laughs]
The thing that’s been most gratifying is hearing both from sort of more internet-ish people that are like, ah, this is a book that makes me feel really seen?
Gretchen: And, like, somebody, somebody finally reading about the internet and they get it? Because I know I’ve been really frustrated, you know, as, as somebody who grew up with, you know, all of the, oh, you’re a digital native and therefore you must do everything in acronyms, and I was like, that’s not quite true though, guys.
Gretchen: The, the sort of weight of those bizarre cyber expectations? And so to have people read it who, who think of themselves as internet people and be like, ah, this is a person who gets it! And then also to have people read it and be like, oh, now I get this thing that other people are doing? My friend’s like eighty-year-old father picked up the book and was like, this is fascinating! I have, you know, it’s such a world into this, you know, glimpse of this world that I never knew existed! [Laughs] And at the same time, I had like a fourteen-year-old tag me on Twitter the other day being, like, your book got me into linguistics, and now I listen to your podcast, and I want to go, I want to major in linguistics when I get old enough. And so I put a lot of thought into trying to write really for all ages and really for various levels of experience with the internet, and it’s been incredibly gratifying to hear that that’s actually succeeded, because you never know.
Amanda: One thing is – [laughs] – when Gretchen mentioned whether people include noses in a smilie emoticon, one of the biggest arguments my brother and I have gotten into – I’m thirty-one and he is twenty-six –
Amanda: – is whether to put a space between the eyes and the mouth in an emoticon.
Gretchen: And which side are you on?
Amanda: I’m a spacer. My brother is not. He thinks it looks stupid if you put a space between, like, the colon and parenthesis. [Laughs]
Gretchen: And where did you, what, what kind of internet communities did you first hang out with when you were getting online?
Amanda: So I am a second-wave, so like AIM, MSN, and I feel like my brother falls in between the third and fourth category? He started with, like, Facebook, but I, he’s more of an iMessage, Instagram user, but he’s a weird kid in general. [Laughs] So he’s definitely one that’s kind of eschewed social media right now –
Amanda: – and doesn’t use it at all really. But, like, that is one of our biggest disagreements of using emoticons and whether to put a space in between the eyes and mouth.
Amanda: And definitely no-nosers.
Gretchen: That’s weird.
Gretchen: The – well, well, you’re under forty, so I’m not surprised.
Gretchen: I had, I had somebody tell me that, like, she stopped using a nose in her emoticons so that she could instantly appear ten years younger on the internet, and I was like, well, you know, you’re not wrong; it, it’ll probably work. [Laughs] The, although sometimes I lately found myself, like, tempted to insert the nose if I’m talking to, like, a certain type of person, ‘cause I’m like, maybe you’ll like the nose and this’ll make it feel like a more –
Amanda: It just feels wrong. It feels wrong! [Laughs]
Gretchen: It makes it feel, it makes it feel more formal to me. Like, oh, I’ll send this to you in a business email, because it, it’s got the nose in it, so it’s businesslike.
Gretchen: I don’t do it normally!
Amanda: That’s how I feel about doing LOL versus ha-ha? Ha-ha feels more, like, a formal text laugh –
Gretchen: It’s very businesslike!
Amanda: – than LOL? It’s a business laugh!
Gretchen: Same thing with, like, exclamation marks in email of, like, oh, you know, I don’t know if I can, I can quite bring myself to put a smilie in this email, but I’ll just put extra exclamation marks, so that’ll be kind of close enough, right?
Amanda: And then you, like, start going through like, is this too many exclamation marks? Am I too excited in this email?
Gretchen: Would you like one every other sentence?
Amanda: So I, you partially answered this with, like, the, the TikTok mention, but because language is always evolving and changing, I’m curious as when you were working on this if there’s anything that you just didn’t have room for or you’re writing and you’re like, shit, if I knew about this like six months ago it would have made it in, and now there’s no going back, and I just, I’m curious if you could redo it, if there’s anything that you would really want to, to include that didn’t make it in this round.
Gretchen: What I have thought as I was writing the book was, if they let me write another edition in like five or ten years, there’s totally going to be a chapter about video. But the research that I wanted to cite for the chapter that I wanted to hypothetically write about video hasn’t been published yet.
Gretchen: It’s like, I, I’ve been told, a, a few people have been – I, I say this every time somebody, somebody asks me, and every so often somebody’s like, oh, I actually know, like, this one thing one person wrote about TikTok. Please, send it to me. [Laughs] And it, it, like, ‘cause it’s not just TikTok, and I, I tried to be, where possible, relatively platform-agnostic, because so, like, this is also not a book about YouTube. YouTube has existed for a long time, it definitely existed, it was already a cultural feature when I was writing Because Internet, but I didn’t write a YouTube chapter, and I didn’t do a huge section about YouTube, and I try to be relatively platform-agnostic and talk about online video –
Gretchen: – because that was a way of sort of future-proofing the, the book so that you could read stuff about online video and think, does or does this not apply to TikTok in a way that’s a little bit less transparent if you’re going to read, read it and it says YouTube specifically, and then you’re like, but what about TikTok? And I’m like, well, thank you, but it didn’t exist.
Gretchen: So –
Amanda: And there’s so many more video-specific mediums. Like, you know, Instagram has, like, their Reels, and Boomerang, there was Vine, TikTok –
Gretchen: Yeah, and, and video was, was, I could see video coming. You know, like, Instagram Stories – Snap-, Snapchat was really, kind of rose, rose and fell a bit as I was, as I was working on it, but, and, like, Instagram Stories with the short video clips were definitely a thing by the time I was writing, and I was thinking, okay, you know, what’s the next thing after images everywhere? Well, looks like everyone has video capacity on their phones; I bet there’s going to be more video. Like, that was an easy thing to predict at a trivial level? It was difficult to predict the exact cultural space of TikTok in terms of, like, resharable, remixable audio, which is, I think, one of the really interesting things that TikTok does is remixable audio and making video-editing tools really easy, so it’s easy to create audio and video memes? So I think there’s, there’s that half of things where, you know, what’s going on with sort of video as a production format or as a posting format, and then there’s the second half of that, which is video as chat and video as streaming. So –
Gretchen: – things like Twitch, but also things like Zoom, which, you know, that’s, that’s really like, the book was already published when Zoom became a thing. But again, I tried to sort of future-proof it by talking about video chat as a platform, because, you know, like, we don’t know if Zoom is still going to be a thing in five years; maybe we’re all going to switch to Microsoft teams or something. The, like, Skype used to seem like a juggernaut, and now people don’t even use Skype as a verb as much anymore.
Gretchen: The, so, but yeah, like, I think there’s been a lot of sort of advances in people using video chat for interesting ways and for more social situations in general, and I did read some papers about, like, you know, people using video chat because there are, like, Skype studies that existed when I was writing about it, when I was writing Because Internet, but there just wasn’t enough of a cohesive thing there looking at all of these different sorts of formats of video?
Gretchen: Like, I need some dissertations here, people. [Laughs] Please get on this.
Gretchen: You know, I –
Sarah: Somebody needs to write that dissertation.
Gretchen: Yeah! You know, somebody writing, like, like, inter-, like, because there’s a, you know, subfield of linguistics called conversation analysis, which analyzes, well, how we have conversations, and things like turn-taking and things like holding the floor and interruptions and greetings and farewells and this type of stuff, and there’s been a lot of conversational analysis on phone conversations, because they’re easy to record – [laughs] – and you don’t have to deal with video, ‘cause nobody gets video. But it seems like, and I expect that there are already conversation analysis grad students who are working on this – please get in touch with me if you’re listening; I would love to read your thesis – and who are doing things about, okay, well, how do you analyze turn-taking in a Zoom meeting? Or how do you analyze –
Gretchen: – interruption in a video chat format where you have a bit of a time delay? Right? So there’s that aspect of things, and then there’s also, one of the reasons why I didn’t analyze YouTube in Because Internet, even though it totally existed, was because putting videos on You- – so (a) the, the theses didn’t quite, the dissertations that I wanted to cite didn’t quite exist, even though the videos existed, so I would have had to do it all as primary research myself, which is like, I, I’m a public communicator and I do a certain amount of original research when I can, but I don’t do all the research, and I like to cite people, and I like to tell people about other people’s research that they’re putting in academic journals and make it more accessible. And I just don’t have time to do a whole YouTube study. I’m sorry; it would involve watching like hours and hours of video, and that’s what grad school is for. [Laughs]
But because there are, there are a few kind of emergent linguistic properties of YouTube: things like YouTuber voice?
Amanda and Sarah: Ohhh –
Sarah: – yeah.
Gretchen: Or, like, the, the editing sty- –
Sarah: Subscribe and comment!
Gretchen: Like –
Amanda: Smash that Like button!
Gretchen: And also the sort of like high-energy YouTuber voice, which I think of as like the, like, John and Hank Green, like, hey, guys! Today we’re talking about this! [Laughs] And, and lots of little jump cuts and lots of little cuts and transitions in between stuff? And I think it’d be really interesting – and again, I haven’t done this study; some grad student needs to do this – to say, okay, if we can get recordings of, for example, somebody who has a big YouTube channel, so you could maybe do the Green brothers or something, and see how their voices change as they’ve been on YouTube for longer? Like, do they, do they acquire more stylized style, or does them posting videos influence other YouTubers –
Amanda: It’s so interesting –
Gretchen: – for how they talk?
Amanda: – ‘cause I watch a lot of Let’s Players and, like, streamers, and some of them that I watch on YouTube, I’ll start going back and watching their older videos if I run out of their current content –
Amanda: – and you can definitely see and hear the difference of their voices between when they first started their channel and now that they’ve kind of like settled into their own –
Amanda: – personality, it’s definitely a, a tonal change and an excitement level change? [Laughs]
Gretchen: And I wonder if you could, you know, compare somebody who does, like, streaming versus and they also do edited videos – maybe they talk differently in them – or if they also have a podcast, maybe they talk differently in the podcast compared to how they talk in their videos or something like this. I think there’s, you know, longitudinal stuff, and then there’s, like, maybe time-based stuff? Like, do YouTubers from like, I don’t know, 2005 to 2010 talk differently from, like, YouTubers from 2015 to 2020? You know, has there, have there been shifts in YouTube voice style? That’s the kind of thing that, like, if this study exists, someone please tell me about it! I haven’t found it; I would love to read it. But it would just involve, like, watching and coding hours and hours and hours of video, and that was not – like, that would be a whole book. If, if you’re going to do that much work, you have to write a whole book about it, so that wasn’t a study that I was going to do. But I think if there was a combination of this type of work on YouTube and maybe this type of work, like, comparing YouTube and TikTok and, you know – Snapchat Stories are really hard to analyze ‘cause they vanish; Instagram Stories vanish; so the great thing about TikTok is you can, like, download them; you can share them off platform; they don’t vanish. It’s really brilliant. [Laughs] But, but yeah, like, and, but a lot of TikTok is, is repurposed narrative, right? So the question is sort of, what are you going to analyze linguistically? You know, because, you know, maybe somebody would do the study, but, like, what, what audio snippets make for a good TikTok excerpt?
Gretchen: I know that, like, musicians are analyzing this now, because they’re trying to make songs that, like, have a TikTok-able bit to them so that they can go viral on TikTok and then rack up the plays on Spotify? I’ve read some, like, musicians trying to analyze this, but I haven’t read any linguists analyzing this yet! I bet there’s something linguistic they do.
Sarah: Oh wow. One of the things I think that’s so interesting about TikTok is that it does what Instagram sort of did regarding Photoshop: it makes editing and enhancing photos a lot easier, and TikTok makes editing and splicing and mixing video so much easier. You don’t need –
Sarah: – this multi-thousand-dollar piece of software! You could just do it on your phone. And I’m wondering, like, what’s the next super difficult process that’s going to be made easier by a viral str-, by a viral social service, or social network? What’s the next thing that’s going to be made super easy that’s currently really complicated?
Gretchen: That’s, that’s a great question. The – like, I mean, so I, there are, there are kind of platforms who, that are trying to hit that for podcasting, and I think they’re kind of getting, getting there. I don’t know if everybody wants to have a podcast, but –
Sarah: And why not?
Gretchen: I don’t know! I have a podcast! It’s fun!
Amanda: Well, with the, with Twitch, Sarah and I, we started our own Twitch channel for the site, and I remember –
Sarah: Yes, it’s SmartTwitches ‘cause I’m terrible.
Gretchen: Oh my God, oh my God –
Amanda: So –
Gretchen: – that’s beautiful! I love it. What, what do you do on Twitch? Do you just read books out loud, or –
Amanda: We, we play Stardew Valley together. [Laughs]
Amanda: But I remember like four years ago I tried starting my own Twitch stream, and it was hard to figure out. You needed all this extra software –
Amanda: – and a lot of moving parts, but now Twitch has kind of streamlined the process? They have their own, like, studio platform that’s in beta, and you, it’s just like a program that you start and kind of like handles everything for you, so you don’t have to download any extra software, which I thought was very helpful. It’s super easy; Sarah and I both use it with no problem, but, like –
Gretchen: That’s really great! The thing that I’ve been trying to figure out, technically speaking, and there are a bunch of platforms that are all sort of, you know, relatively nascent and not, there isn’t like one that’s taken off as, like, the one go-to verb like Zoom – you know, a platform’s a real platform when it becomes a verb –
Gretchen: – the, but the, the thing that I’ve been trying to sort of figure out is – and a lot of them have really taken off since, you know, the pandemic and lockdown and stuff and everybody having to do so much digital hanging out with, with, through, through screens – is sort of proximity-based audio platforms? Because the problem with having, like, a Zoom cocktail hour is, if you get, like, you know, a dozen people and you have a bunch of drinks, you’re still sort of having a meeting over drinks with a dozen people where you can have like two or three people chatting and everyone else just kind of sitting there being like, cheers, and then every so often you’ll switch –
Gretchen: – who’s talking, and that’s kind of awkward because ordinarily, if you were hanging out with twelve of your nearest and dearest at a bar, back when we went to bars, you would naturally splinter off into a couple smaller conversations, and sometimes you might kind of come back to the whole group, and sometimes you’d splinter off just onto the person next to you or the two or three people near you –
Gretchen: – and that sort of spontaneous joining and leaving of conversations is something that a straight-up video platform doesn’t do.
Gretchen: But there are a couple platforms that are, people have been experimenting with. One of them is Gather.Town; another one is Rambly; there’s a couple others – I can try to give you some links – where you get a little avatar of some kind that moves around in a little space with other avatars, and when you get near people you can see their video, and you can hear their audio, and then when you walk away, when you walk your little, like, chibi away – [laughs] – you stop hearing people and seeing people who, who are further away from you now, and I’ve been experimenting with having, like, linguistics-themed hangouts with them because, like, I miss being able to go to linguistics, linguistics-y conferences and interesting sort of conferences about stuff and – [laughs] – you know, like, having, having conversations with, with, with people about linguistics at conferences, and, and I especially miss the sort of hallway circuit? Like, a lot of what conferences have been trying to replicate is like, well, we’ll put the programming online! People don’t go, actually go to conferences for the programming! They think they’re going for the programming, but they go for the conversations they’re having in the hallway before and after the programming.
Sarah: Yes, that was part of your book, and I was like, oh! I loved that part at some of the conferences I’ve been to.
Gretchen: Right! And a really good conference is like, you attract the right people to the hallway so you can have the best hallway conversations that you wouldn’t be able to have in your ordinary life, which is really exciting, whereas, you know, a, a kind of boring conference is like, well, the talks were interesting, but everyone in the audience was kind of dull, and nobody wanted to talk.
Sarah: I’ve been to conferences where – and this was ages ago – people were reading the Tweet stream, the hashtag for the conference –
Sarah: – and if the conference session that was someone else was tweeting about seemed more interesting, you’d see people look at Twitter and just get up and leave.
Gretchen: [Laughs] Amazing! Amazing!
Sarah: It was, it was like multiple layers of conversation all happening at the same time, and you’re right: you don’t go for the session; you also go for the conversation.
Gretchen: And, and that’s one of the things that making sessions, like, prerecorded and available everywhere, which it, like, it’s nice because time zones are difficult and the world is inconveniently round, but it’s, it also means people are watching it at any time, and so you don’t have this sort of communal experience of everyone’s tweeting this at once.
Gretchen: So I went to, I digitally attended this year in, in May, WisCon, which is a feminist science fiction/fantasy con, and we were, I was on a spontaneous panel about linguistics in science fiction/fantasy – so, like, linguistics plus X is kind of my thing – and they had a Discord set up for the conference, for the con, and so they had all of these different Discord channels and for –
Gretchen: – you know, all of the different events that were happening, and people could hang out in the channel and sort of have a live tweet – well, effectively like a tweet stream or like a LiveChat stream about what was going on during the panels –
Sarah: Ooh, that’s smart!
Gretchen: – and where you hang out that way. And I think that worked really well for a certain kind of sub experience, because not everybody has Twitter; not everyone wants to tweet to the public about their reactions. You may just want to tweet to the other people at your conference, and so doing that in a semiprivate space like Discord kind of works. The thing that I didn’t find Discord did as good of a job with was that thing where you, like, wander around the lobby and you see who you might wander into? And have, like, a one-on-one conversation or conversation with like two or three people? Because it was a huge, huge con, and so you could have these sort of focused conversations about topics with a sort of random assortment of twenty or a hundred people, but it was harder to have, like, you know, one-on-one or, like, two- and three-person, five-person conversations –
Gretchen: – to find that sort of group, and I think that that’s something that the sort of Gather.Town and other platforms like it – I don’t know which one’s going to win; I don’t necessarily have, I’m not, I don’t own shares in Gather.Town or anything – [laughs] – but I, you know, like, which, which of those are, are, are going to kind of accomplish being able to have, like, conversations with, with multiple people and sort of the autonomy to enter and leave a conversation that is and isn’t working for you.
Amanda: Well, one thing – so I also work at an independent bookstore, and one thing that the pandemic has really fucked with is just the feeling of, like, discovery and spontaneity –
Amanda: – of conversation.
Amanda: So just, like, talking about a book that you love or having someone come in and ask about a certain genre, or, like, even, I do miss going to conferences, ‘cause there are certain people that I only see when I attend yearly conferences. [Laughs]
Gretchen: Yeah, and there are certain people who, like, they’re your, your closer friends who you can, like, message and be like, hey, let’s hang out. And it’s been fairly easy to stay in touch with those people with lockdown and not traveling anywhere, because you can message them and be like, hey, let’s have a video call, or like, hey, let’s, let’s chat about this thing, or you have a, you know, ongoing, like, text message thread or group chat or something. But exactly: the people who you see like once or twice a year, who are great, and you enjoy seeing them once or twice a year, and you don’t need to become BFFs with everybody who you enjoy seeing once or twice a year, but how do you make space to see people in that sort of group setting? And if you want to try to experiment with, with some of these proximity-based platforms, I think they’re the closest thing we have at the moment. I’m hoping to – [laughs] – depending on when, when this goes up, I’m, I’m still doing experiments on this via my Twitter and, and getting, getting groups of people and things, but I’m hoping to write up something, probably for Wired, about what I’ve learned with doing this, just sort, because I think it’s a problem that a lot of people are having right now. I’m trying to replicate that sort of hallway running into each other experience.
Sarah: So it’s like not only, not only trying to use technology to recreate and replicate a human behavior, but it’s trying to use technology to create an opportunity for language that is usually only spoken.
Gretchen: Well, and this is still a very speech-based thing, but, like, I see – one of the things that I think is really interesting about internet linguistics is that the ways in which it can help us sort of un-take-for-granted or de-take-for-granted a lot of the things that we’re doing in, you know, face-to-face, irl conversations that we don’t think about, we don’t, we don’t, we, we just think about it all as one thing. Oh, oh, it’s all conversation. But there, it turns out there are many different kinds of conversation, right? Like, there’s the conversation where you, you know, make plans to meet up with a specific person and you have coffee together and, you know, it’s an hour and then you’re, you’re gone, and that is relatively well replicated by existing video calls, because you can make that appointment and you can have that meeting.
Gretchen: And then there are other kinds of conversation, which is the sort of running into each other, hallway type conversation, which aren’t as well replicated by existing technology, and thinking about how we differentiate between those and also about, like, parts of the way we interact with each other are technology, even when we don’t think they are. So, like, a social gathering, say you’re at a conference and there’s, like, a cocktail reception on the first night, right? And at this reception, the cheese is a technology.
Gretchen: Please bear with me. You can use this as the title for this ep- –
Gretchen: – podcast. At this –
Sarah: ‘Cause, listen, you’re speaking Amanda’s love language? She loves cheese!
Amanda: I love –
Sarah: She’s entirely on board for this metaphor? Like, you don’t know how appropriate this is.
Amanda: I always say that, like, if I were lactose intolerant and I couldn’t eat cheese, I would just throw myself into traffic. I’d be like –
Amanda: – pack it up; we’re done here.
Gretchen: They make some good lactose-free cheeses now! I don’t want, I don’t want you to throw yourself into traffic. Okay.
Gretchen: So the cheese is like technology, and I mean this in an extremely literal sense! From a social perspective, you know, like, we think about, oh, you have to have snacks at a, at a cocktail reception because people get hungry and we live in these, like, fragile human meat sacks, right? But the snacks actually serve a useful social function because if you show up at this, you know, like, reception, party, wine and cheese, and you don’t have anybody to talk to, what do you do? You go camp out by the cheese table or the, you know, fruit or, you know, veggie trays or, you know, drinks or, like, punch or whatever the reception –
Gretchen: They don’t have to be specifically cheese; it can be nuts instead. But you, you go camp out by the metaphorical chee-, by the literal cheese table, which may or may not have literal cheese on it – it could have cake – and you, you get some cheese, and then you look for someone else who’s also getting cheese, and you say, oh, look, we have cheese now! Isn’t that great?
Amanda: And then you talk about the cheese! [Laughs]
Gretchen: And then you talk about the cheese, and it’s really important, and you can, and then you can transition into, so, what are you doing at this conference? Or, so, oh, how did you get here? How was your trip? Or any of these sorts of small talk conversations that we use to kind of get somewhere interesting. But the cheese serves this really useful social function, which is that it’s, it’s an obvious physical thing to do, and it can put you next to somebody who also has an obvious physical thing to do as a physical pretext for doing this thing that enables you to have a conversation. Because you could go to a party where there was no food and no drink and people just hang out with each other, but you would lose the ability to be like, oh, I, I need, I’m going to stand by the cheese because I’m feeling awkward, and I’m going to find somebody else to, to chat with. And when you’re in the middle, like, the whole point of a, of a cocktail reception is that you don’t just talk with one person the whole time, probably. You might want to talk to multiple people, and you might want to meet people. And so if you’re in the middle of a conversation and the conversation is getting maybe a little bit boring or you’re just kind of restless or you’re hungry or any of these reasons, you can say, oh, I’m just going to go get some cheese now, and that’s a perfectly socially acceptable reason to leave a conversation. It doesn’t mean I hate you; you might run into them again and talk to them again, but it’s a perfectly socially acceptable reason to reset a conversation and run into somebody else on your way to the cheese table or on your way from the cheese table or at the cheese table or various things like that. And –
Amanda: Could the, could the lack of cheese table also be technology?
Gretchen: Well, but the, the interesting thing about doing these in virtual spaces like the Gather.Town experiment I did last weekend and like the other types of experiments is you don’t have a built-in reason to leave a conversation. So you join a conversational group and you’re like, okay, cool! And then when you leave, if you want to leave that conversational group, you have to be like, ha-ha, I’m just going to walk around a bit.
Gretchen: Which you can say at a party, but is a little bit less, it’s a little bit more like, oh, I’m just leaving your conversation ‘cause you’re kind of boring now, than, I’m just going to go get some cheese.
Sarah: My husband and I have joked so many times how much we’d like to be able to say, okay, well, this conversation isn’t going to end itself.
Sarah: Because that, you, one of the things that I think happens, especially when you’re so used to com- – for me, anyway – when I’m used to communicating digitally through texts, through Slack, through whatever, I get right to the point. There’s no on-ramp or off-ramp, but when you’re talking to somebody on the phone there’s the, the, the conversational windup that happens over and over and depend –
Amanda: And it’s like, okay, I’m going to let you go, and then like ten minutes later you’re –
Amanda: – still on the phone!
Sarah: Yeah. This conversation isn’t going to end itself! Thanks, bye!
Gretchen: [Laughs] Well, and this happens irl as well. You know, we’ve all been like, okay, well, like, I’m going to go. You know, you stand up, and then you, like, get your coat, and then you have like a ten-minute conversation in the hallway by the door while you’re holding your coat.
Sarah: Yeah! Oh yeah.
Gretchen: And, and you know, sometimes it’s nice, but I, I think that what you were saying, Sarah, about, like, conversations, cutting right to the point in digital conversations, sometimes we underestimate the useful things that digital conversations do bring to us, right? Because –
Sarah: Oh yeah!
Gretchen: – like, if somebody just, like, starts a conversation with you like, oh, they call you on the phone and you’re like, okay, who’s calling me, number one? What do they want to talk about? How long is it going to take? You know, am I in the mood for this? [Laughs] Like, there’s a lot of thoughts that have go through your head if you decide, okay, I’m going to pick this up, and, like, maybe it’s thirty seconds of, like, your package has arrived, and maybe it’s like your grandma who wants to talk for like two hours, and you don’t necessarily have the ability to know that before you pick up, and even with call display, maybe it’s just a, you know, thirty-second like, oh, did you get the thing, and maybe it’s somebody wants to talk to you for an hour, and being able to arrange conversations in digital space or, like, in writing before they have to happen can let you sort of say, oh, you want to catch up for two hours? Great! I’m free on Sunday afternoon.
Gretchen: And then you actually have time to enjoy that. It’s not that a two-hour catch-up conversation isn’t great, but you need to have the time and space for it. And also, I find meeting people at conferences so much better since we have the internet and social media because you can arrive into meeting each other with an existing set of shared context, you know? If you’ve been following each other on Twitter for a year and then you finally meet at a conference, you’re like, oh! So-and-so, like, who does the thing, who likes these books, and who likes this stuff, and you live here, and you have these, you know, hobbies or whatever! You have such a cool job! And you can go right into this conversation of people who are already acquainted with each other, and you don’t have to have the, so, nice cheese on this here cheese table; what do you do for work? sort of small talk conversation; you can shortcut that with –
Gretchen: – the sort of combination of the technologically based conversation and the, the physical conversation. And so to me, it’s a really interesting opportunity to be like, okay, well, we, that makes conversations better. Like, I have people who are friends now who we wouldn’t have been friends if we hadn’t been able to stay in touch online in between meeting up with each other.
Gretchen: But that meeting up with each other was a useful sort of consolidation of that friendship, and it took it to a different level than just, like, orbiting each other on Twitter for three years and not having a conversation. So how can you sort of –
Gretchen: – facilitate that more when we’re not able to meet up?
Sarah: That’s definitely something that I am struggling with as a parent, because we have a hundred percent virtual school through the end of January –
Sarah: – so when you’re like, what will take over Zoom? my, my first thought was nothing. Nothing will take over Zoom; Zoom is my day –
Sarah: – Zoom is my breakfast, my lunch, my dinner, my before bed, my early morning. Zoom is my everything at this time, and one of the problems that my, my children are having, who are in middle and high school, is that the, the technological cheese plate is now completely gone. There is no social structure to any part of their day where they –
Sarah: – randomly are assembled with other people and can have –
Sarah: – meaningless conversations about randomness because they just happen to be sitting next to that person in class. All of that is gone, and there’s a formality to the digital instruction with a chat room that’s public, and he, he’ll text with friends privately, but it’s, it’s definitely not the same, and it’s hard!
Gretchen: Do your kids play at, like, Fortnite or anything like that?
Sarah: They do! One of the things that has saved them is Minecraft.
Gretchen: Yeah! Yeah.
Sarah: And, and they’re close enough in age that they play with each other?
Sarah: That they, like, they’re on separate computers and separate floors, and I can hear them yelling at each other.
Gretchen: [Laughs] That’s great.
Sarah: I’ve said, you guys are really loud! Hello! But the, the random social assembly of, like my, my older son articulated, I really miss going to lunch with my friends because we were just going to lunch and everyone had lunch at the same time.
Sarah: And when you’re fifteen it can be really hard to be like, hey, let’s all get together! Because the –
Gretchen: Well, yeah, and, like –
Sarah: – preparation is already done!
Gretchen: – and the fun part about school for most kids is not, like, learning algebra. I mean –
Gretchen: – some people like learning algebra, but generally speaking, the thing that, that kids miss about school is seeing friends, which is –
Gretchen: – you know, a very reasonable, human, social thing to need! [Laughs]
Sarah: Yeah, and it’s hard when you’re not an adult to set up the friendship opportunities.
Gretchen: And, and, you know, even if you could be, like, and, and outside of school, the places where kids would also hang out, you know, whether that’s sporting events or, like, other extracurricular activities, music and –
Gretchen: – you know, theater, and all of these sorts of –
Gretchen: – extracurricular activities, those are also canceled! So it’s not like –
Sarah: Yeah, there’s no breathing together.
Gretchen: – oh, you can’t go to school, but we can go to Scouts.
Gretchen: It’s like, oh, you –
Sarah: No breathing.
Gretchen: – can’t go to anything. Not to take everything back to Because Internet, but I’m reading this book –
Sarah: No, please do!
Gretchen: [Laughs] Reading this book, Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place, which I cite there when I’m talking about third, third places, and third places get this sort of weird reputation because Starbucks sort of co-opted Olden-, Oldenburg’s language to talk about Starbucks as a third place? Starbucks is not a very good third place.
Sarah: No, it’s not!
Gretchen: It’s, and his original definition of them is places where you can go to sort of formlessly hang out with people, and so it, it could be a coffee shop if, if it’s your local coffee shop and you recognize the other customers and the barista knows you and you, you go in and you see people and you recognize them and you, and you have locals, or it could be your local pub if you recognize people and you do that, and the, one of the interesting things that, that struck me when, when Oldenburg points this out is that third spaces are often kind of shabby. They’re often kind of –
Gretchen: – unloved. You know, like when I was a kid in high school it was like, this group of friends has, like, this staircase. Or, like, this cubby –
Gretchen: – under this staircase, or this corner beside these bleachers, or, like, this table is our table, and it’s an unremarkable table, and it’s an unremarkable staircase, you know? Or you have, like, maybe you have a community center and you have, like, a bunch of old-timers, old men who get there and they play checkers or something like this, and it’s like an ugly community center, but it’s important for this particular group of people. And the parts, like, like, or, like, you know, back in, back in the ‘90s or whatever, like, teenagers going hanging out in, like, mall food courts or something like that, where it’s like, nobody else wants to hang out in a mall food court, but if it’s important to you socially, it’s, you’re, you’re there because of the people.
Sarah: Right. You’re not going to go hang out at your house ‘cause, you know, parents. They’re there.
Gretchen: Well, or if you have, like, a community center that’s, like, too fancy –
Gretchen: – or, you know, a public library that’s too swanky, it can make you, like – or a, you know, a fancy place where, like, you have to keep buying things to stay there, or where there’s, like, too much adult supervision ‘cause they don’t want you to break the chairs by leaning back on them like every teenager wants to.
Gretchen: You know, you –
Gretchen: Like, it’s, it, it, it impinges on your ability to really treat it as a third space if it’s too fancy and there are people who are trying to, like, preserve its fanciness. Part of the, the charm and part of the utility to you is that no one else cares you’re there. It’s difficult to sort of reconcile that with the corporate nature of a lot of social networks.
Gretchen: And the ones that are really beloved as third places – you know, like LiveJournal was a third space for a lot of people, even though it kind of –
Sarah: It was shabby, wasn’t it? [Laughs]
Gretchen: It had decay!
Amanda: It’s, I mean, LiveJournal’s ugly and has never tried to be anything but ugly.
Sarah: Oh, I was on Diary-X, and it was plain and shabby.
Amanda: I had a Xanga.
Sarah: Whoa, yes, you did! Awesome!
Gretchen: And so, like, and those, I don’t know if any of those social networks ever made, like, money? [Laughs]
Sarah: No. Like, Geocities was ugly on purpose!
Gretchen: Right! But in some senses, the ugliness keeps – and I’m thinking about this in terms of, like, Tumblr now, which, like, Tumblr now is not – Tumblr was a, was an important third space for me, you know, in the early 2000s, and I think it was for a lot of people, and even Tumblr now is still a third space for a certain number of –
Gretchen: – people, even though it’s kind of like people think of Tumblr as a bit passé and, like, oh, it’s not, like, as cool or whatever anymore. It’s still got this sort of, the peop-, for the people who are on there, it’s still a community, and it’s, it’s even better when, like, they’ve stopped really releasing updates for Tumblr? Like, they haven’t, they haven’t updated the site in years. They started doing some updates in the last couple months and it’s really weird, ‘cause they haven’t updated in like five years.
Sarah: I know! It’s like watching, like, a very large sleeping mythological creature, like, shiver in its sleep. Like, are you okay? What are you doing?
Sarah: ‘Cause I love Tumblr because I can cultivate so effectively what I’m seeing, and –
Sarah: – I keep seeing people talking about how, I love Tumblr so much ‘cause no one’s here.
Gretchen: And they’re saying this to some people!
Sarah: Yes! And people are like, yes, I know. No one is here; it’s great! Except for us!
Gretchen: That’s like saying, oh, I love our, like, you know, corner under the stairwell.
Sarah: Yeah, which no one says out loud, but it’s an important place.
Gretchen: It’s nowhere central – no! But it’s an important place, and, you know, and I think for, I think for a lot of teens, TikTok is being that space in quarantine, or Snapchat is being that space in quarantine, or Fortnite or Minecraft or these kinds of, you know, and a lot of adults don’t even – like, there’s a bit of sort of voyeurism in how adults look at TikTok? But they’re all, they’re like, oh, what are the teens doing? What are, what are the kids up to? But I –
Amanda: I feel so uncomfortable with TikTok. Like, I have a lot of friends that span a large age range? Like –
Amanda: – I have a friend named Gale who’s in her fifties, and she is the only person who calls me on my phone and the only person who I will answer my phone for and not have to worry.
Amanda: But I also have a friend, Emma, who’s twenty-two, and I feel like it should be illegal for me to be her friend –
Amanda: – but she’ll send me TikToks, and I’m like, Emma, why are you sending me this stuff? And she’ll mention, like, Snapchat. I was like, I’m thirty-one years old; I don’t have a Snapchat. I don’t know what to tell you.
Gretchen: And, like, I think there’s a certain amount of, like, corporations making their TikTok because they want to advertise to the youths or whatever, and, like, when the advertisers get hold of a social network it’s less fun.
Amanda: Oh, yeah, it’s like, who let the parents here?
Gretchen: Right! Like, who let the parents get Facebook and, like, now we have abandoned Facebook to the parents and it’s fine.
Gretchen: But, like, I don’t, I don’t want to get in, like, infringe on the fun of the kids on TikTok. Like, let them have their fun; let them do their memes about, like, the history papers they’re annoyed with having to write. Like, I don’t, I don’t need to infringe on that. I don’t – not everything needs to be for me. [Laughs]
Gretchen: And I do, I do watch TikToks when they get reposted on other social networks, but I’ve kind of been like, I don’t know – like, it, it does feel weird, and I think it’s okay that it feels weird, because I’m not going and hanging out with teenagers; even when we could hang out with real people, I’m not going and hanging out with teenagers in, like, the playground at the local high school –
Gretchen: – ‘cause that would be really creepy of me! [Laughs]
Sarah: That would be a bit creepy. Have you seen author Alisha Rai on TikTok?
Gretchen: Oh, I have not! I read her books, though!
Sarah: She’s really good at it.
Gretchen: Oh! Maybe I should follow her.
Sarah: She is – and I was asking her about it, ‘cause she’s in her thirties, and I’m like, how are you fluent? And she’s like, I don’t know, but I’m really, I really get this. I’m really enjoying it; this is so much fun. And I’m like, you, you go with your multigenerational linguistic talent! ‘Cause I don’t speak that language at all!
Gretchen: [Laughs] I mean, yeah, like, maybe ‘cause of the – I had TikTok for a while and then I deleted it ‘cause there were privacy issues, and maybe I should get it again –
Gretchen: – so I – ‘cause it would probably help me, like, the, the algorithm is quite good at helping you find things, so maybe it wouldn’t show me teenagers at all and it would show me people like Alisha Rai, which would be fine, and I would not feel like a creeper.
Amanda: But I, I definitely more rely on, I only care about a TikTok once it shows up on my Twitter feed. Like, just – [laughs] – put it on there and I’ll see it.
Sarah: Once it’s slipped the surly bonds.
Gretchen: Yeah, like, I felt like an old person on Tumblr because I was – [laughs] – a few years older than the average user on Tumblr in the 2010s –
Sarah: Oh yeah.
Gretchen: – and I’m like, oh, oh no! [Laughs] But the thing that, the thing that gets me, that also gets me is reading books that try to represent, like, text messages and do a bad job at it? [Gasps]
Sarah: Oh God, thank you! Formatting text messages in a book is so hard, and it’s so awful when it’s just jarringly bad.
Amanda: I know; people text differently. Like, you can –
Amanda: – obviously spot a bad text replication, but I text differently than my brother texts.
Gretchen: Well, that’s one of the things that, that irks me in a book is sometimes they, like – especially in a book that has a lot of texts – they’ll, like, decide on one style for all the texts, and then all of the characters will text the same way with, like, no capitals, and you’re like, no! Some of these people probably use capitals. It’s just that not all of them do!
Amanda: Yeah, like, Emma doesn’t use caps, but I use full punctuation and grammar every time.
Gretchen: Yeah! Like, people have different sorts of styles. Like, one of the ones that got me, and this was from Hank Green’s book An Unremarkable Thing? Is that what’s it called? A Beautiful Thing? [An Absolutely Remarkable Thing]
Amanda: Unremarkable, I think you’re right.
Gretchen: Unremarkable Thing, and it’s, it’s a really interesting book because you can tell that Hank Green has this very intimate understanding of what it’s like to become famous because of the internet? You know, justifiably? But he’s also like a, I don’t know, in his forties, writing, trying to write from the perspective of, like, a twenty-two-year-old, and at, there’s this one point where he has the character – and I don’t know if this is, like, him or the copyeditor or whatever – has the character text OMG, but in all caps? And I’m just like, no. I, I can’t do this. You’re not twenty-two in like the late 2010s and writing OMG in all caps unless you’re shouting or doing it emphatically, or you have this, like, deliberate style, you were writing omg in lower case.
Amanda: It’s lower case now.
Gretchen: That’s, that’s just not what this age is doing, and I don’t know if this was, like, the author originally had one thing and then a copyeditor was like, but it’s an acronym! Shouldn’t it be in all caps? Like, I, I had a lot of, like, interesting discussions – [laughs] – with the copyediting process for Because Internet because I was trying to create something that people could cite when they were talking to their copyeditors? Other authors could cite when they were talking to their copyeditors about why they needed to put stuff in lower case.
Sarah: Ohhh! Yeah, you know!
Sarah: No, no big! It’s easy to change a copyeditor’s mind, sure!
Gretchen: And look, if you give them a whole book, copyeditors like books!
Sarah: That’s true! You’re not wrong!
Gretchen: [Laughs] I could write a blog post to do it, but I feel like if you give them a whole book, like this was published by a real publisher and everything, author Gretchen McCulloch says!
Amanda: One of my favorite –
Gretchen: And I had my people say, I was able to use this to convince my copyeditor blah-blah-blah, because – I, and I, I said, you know, we, we are going to lower case social acronyms in this book, so it’s okay to keep them, like, it’s okay to keep NASA capitalized, because that’s a proper name, proper names get capitalized, so it, as an acronym, can stay capitalized. But if it’s a, a, if it’s a social acronym, where it’s an acronym for a common phrase, rather than for, like, an organization or a, you know, a, like, some sort of body? [Laughs] Or a technical term? If it’s a, if it’s an acronym for a common social phrase, social acronyms are getting lower-cased unless they’re emphatic for, for shouting. And I spelled this out explicitly in the book so that if it gets to any translations, that’ll get preserved. And I also did that because the, I wanted the copyeditor not to correct that, because I wanted to make it very explicit in the text, and also to give other people, especially, like, YA authors –
Gretchen: – a thing that they could cite to push back against an editor who’s saying, but it’s an acronym; it should be capitalized, and be like, no, no, no, look –
Gretchen: – it’s a social acronym. Here’s this, you know, here, here’s this, like, external source to validate the thing I wanted to do already.
Amanda: My favorite, like, texting nuances that I think is fascinating is the use of, like, punctuation? Like the dreaded period at the end of a one-word answer. Like, the – [laughs] – the feeling that that conveys –
Gretchen: Oh. Okay.
Amanda: Okay – period.
Gretchen: Okay, period. [Laughs] Okay, but also, fuck you!
Sarah: Fine, period.
Gretchen: [Laughs] Yeah. Sounds good.
Amanda: Does it really sound good? I, I don’t think – I think I’m in trouble now!
Gretchen: Well, and, so, it’s interesting because people, you know, I could, we could do a whole episode about the period, but the, the kind of nutshell version is people get very angsty when they’re told that the periods that they have thought of for their whole lives as sort of like emotionally neutral can have this additional interpretation, but, you know, I, I wrote an entire book that uses periods like almost in every sentence, like in almost every sentence, except when there’s, like, a question mark, or maybe an exclamation mark occasionally. Like, I wrote a whole book using periods, and it’s not passive-aggressive. But the, the thing that’s interesting about them is when they’re used – so if you’re sending someone even a multi-sentence text message, you can put periods between the sentences in a multi-sentence text message and that’s fine, but when you’re sending someone a short phrase –
Gretchen: – a period often indicates a falling intonation, and that can work okay if you say, like, wow, that sucks, period. That, that period is kind of reinforcing or, like, I’m so sorry, period. Like, it can reinforce the sort of deepening tone of voice and also sort of emotional heaviness –
Gretchen: – and the challenge comes when you have a message that’s positive and a period that’s adding that sort of additional weight or, you know, falling intonation, and then you get a sort of clash, where “sounds good” would ordinarily be kind of flat or rising, but “sounds good” with a period is like, oh no, there’s a tension there. So it’s not that it’s always passive-aggressive; it’s that there’s, there’s certain circumstances in which it kind of clashes with the emotional balance of the message.
Sarah: Oh, that’s interesting.
Gretchen: [Laughs] It’s, in some senses it’s kind of like the inverse lol? So if you put a period with a positive message, it makes it sort of passive-aggressive, but if you put it with a negative message, it just sort of reinforces the negativity? If you put lol, L-O-L, with a negative message, it makes it sort of sarcastic or humorous or teasing. Like, if you say –
Gretchen: – I hate you, lol, that doesn’t mean I hate you and I’m laughing about it.
Gretchen: That means I’m joking about hating you. But if you put lol with a positive message, it undermines the positive message. So if you say, I love you, lol, that is not as sincere.
Sarah: Nooo, that is not! No!
Gretchen: It’s really, really not sincere!
Amanda: Will you marry me? lol
Gretchen: Right! Like, oh – like, some, some things you want to have happen with a straight face, even though they’re very positive. Or even if you say something like, good morning, lol. That means, like –
Gretchen: – it’s two in the afternoon and you’re just rolling out of bed: good morning, lol.
Sarah: Yeah. Or good morning!
Gretchen: Which is –
Sarah: What, what time is it? What day is it? What year is it anymore? We don’t even know.
Gretchen: Right, exactly. So it’s, you know, it’s not that you, it’s not that you can’t say good morning, lol, it’s that the context in which you’d say it is not as sort of, it, it has some sort of a subtext to it.
Sarah: Right. What books are you reading that you want to tell people about?
Gretchen: So one book that I’m really enjoying right now is a new translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley? And the really cool thing about this – I know, I know it’s really not category romance, but – [laughs] – it is, what she does is she takes the, the female characters a lot more seriously in Beowulf, and she also sort of illuminates how bro-y it is.
Gretchen: And so, like, the first word of Beowulf, which is sort of one of the, the ones that gets thrown about in translation a lot is “hwaet,” which can get translated as, you know, “lo” or “hark” or “listen” or these kinds of things. There’s a translation from 1999 by Seamus Heaney that translates it as “so,” which, again, I think is, it’s kind of an interesting storytelling thing to do –
Gretchen: – and Headley translates it as “bro.”
Sarah: [Laughs] I’ve seen this on, discussed on Tumblr and on Twitter, and it is –
Gretchen: Oh my –
Sarah: – fascinating!
Gretchen: It’s amazing! And I, so I, I came across it in the, like, New Yorker article reviewing this, and I was like, I need to purchase this immediately. And I’ve actually been reading the whole thing out loud –
Sarah: Oh, awesome!
Gretchen: – as, as part of my, you know, one of my online book clubs. I’ve just been, been reading it out loud over the course of like a week or two. And it reads aloud incredibly beautifully. The writing really flows as a reading-aloud text? There are parts that kind of remind you of Hamilton; there are parts that kind of remind you of, like, this is like a rap battle between these two characters –
Gretchen: – which is really sort of, that, that’s where oral literature exists in present-day English? Like, it exists in the domain of rap battles and, you know, Hamilton musicals and this type of stuff. It doesn’t exist in, like, trying to perfectly reproduce, like, Old English, you know, half lines and, and stuff like this. And yeah, it just, she does such a good job at it. [Laughs] I’m, I, I’m really pleased. It’s, it’s been so worth it. And, and it’s, it’s got sort of an interesting mix of, like, old, older style stuff and, you know, more social-media-ish slang, so.
Sarah: So it’s basically your catnip.
Gretchen: Yeah! It’s, it’s doing a lot of really interesting things, and I got to go, I, to a talk, you know, online talk between, with her and Emily Wilson, who translated The Odyssey a couple years ago, who also did a really cool, like –
Oh! She also has this really interesting bit in Beowulf where she’s talking about, so Beowulf’s mother, who in many representations is represented as like a monster or a hag or something, and there’s actually nothing in the text to say that she is? That’s just a thing that, like, centuries of male translators have been bringing to the text with their own preconceptions that of course a woman can’t be, like, a warrior or wield weapons unless she’s a hag. And one of the things that’s really interesting that, that Headley brings out is that there’s this word “fingrum” in the, the Old English context, which is sometimes translated as “finger” and sometimes translated as “claws,” and Headley’s like, look, but Beowulf, but Grendel’s mother – sorry, not Beowulf’s mother – Grendel’s mother is represented as using a knife, and as anybody who’s had a long fingernails manicure can tell you, using a knife is practically impossible when you have long fingernails; therefore, she can’t have claws.
Sarah: Ohhh yes! Of course!
Gretchen: [Laughs] I, I, this is kind of like the experimental archaeology or whatever, the experimental aspect of this, which, if you’ve never had long fingernails, you don’t think about this, and you’re like, oh, of course she can have claws, ‘cause, ‘cause how could she, you know, like, she’s this, this, this woman who’s, who’s having a, you know, battling this warrior, so she must be a monster, but, like, she, she can’t have claws, she physically can’t, ‘cause how else would she wield a knife?
Sarah: Thank you so much for doing this interview, and thank you so much for Because Internet. We had the best time, like, reading it and texting each other and talking about it, especially because, as Amanda pointed out, we come from different parts of internet history.
Gretchen: Yeah! Well, I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and it was – [laughs] – you know, it was really fun to see it show up on Smart Bitches, which I definitely had not anticipated!
And that brings us to the end of this week’s episode. Thank you to Gretchen McCulloch for hanging out with us! We had the best time. And if you would like to find out more about this book or any of the other ones we mentioned, I will have links to all of them in the show notes at smartbitchestrashybooks.com/podcast, and I will also have links where you can find Gretchen, her work, her writing, and her podcast, which is super cool and definitely worth checking out if you like language nerdery like I do.
Thank you again to the Patreon community for being wonderful and helping me develop questions and guest ideas. If you would like to join the Patreon community, it would be wonderful. Have a look at patreon.com/SmartBitches!
As always, I end with a bad joke. This one comes from CHoward, who is awesome, and it’s a silly joke, which is my favorite kind. Are you ready? [Clears throat] All right. Take cover; warn your family members: bad joke incoming.
What do you call a sad strawberry?
What do you call a sad strawberry?
A blue berry!
[Laughs] It’s so silly! It’s related to my other favorite terrible joke which makes me laugh every time I think of it: what’s red and smells like blue paint? Red paint. [Laughs more] What do you call a sad strawberry? A blue berry! Okay, sure!
On behalf of everyone here, we wish you the very best of reading. Have a wonderful weekend, and we will see you back here next week!
Smart Podcast, Trashy Books is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. You can find more outstanding podcasts to listen to at frolic.media/podcasts.
This podcast transcript was handcrafted with meticulous skill by Garlic Knitter. Many thanks.