The internet of words



Ten years ago, an odd request landed in my email inbox. It was a message from my sister, Anne, sent to me through a company called Friendster, prompting me to join her friend network. I puzzled over the missive for several minutes, trying to determine what she was asking me to do. Was this some new peer-to-peer file-sharing service, like Napster? Why would Anne want me, her sibling, to identify as a friend? We were close, but not that kind of close. And wasn’t I already part of her network? We shared the same parents, after all. I mulled over the message a little longer before hitting delete.

I was introduced to the phrase \”social networking\” in early 2006. Two years later I joined Twitter, following a brief courtship with the now-defunct microblogging service Jaiku. Shortly after that, I signed on to Facebook. By 2009, I was fielding follows and friends like a pro.

By then the puzzlement I’d felt at Anne’s Friendster request seemed quaint. The technology had moved on—MySpace and Facebook were then vying for dominance—and so had the language. Some observers still debated whether or not social-media friends were authentic ones, but the argument wasn’t nearly as heated as it had been a couple of years earlier. Along the way, \”friend\” morphed into a verb, like \”Google.\” I couldn’t help but smile when a colleague’s spouse, new to Facebook, messaged that she hoped I’d \”befriend\” her. The word seemed antediluvian.

The Internet of today looks a lot different than it did back in 2004, when 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg introduced Thefacebook. YouTube wouldn’t launch for another year, and Twitter, a year after that—never mind the iPhone, released in mid-2007, or the Amazon Kindle, arriving later that year. The iPad landed in 2010, around the same time as Instagram and Pinterest. That was the year Wired magazine’s Chris Anderson pronounced the World Wide Web dead. Cause? The explosive growth of apps that, he claimed, had rendered Web pages and browsers obsolete. The web wasn’t quite 20 years old. Even print had enjoyed a longer run.

The language looks a lot different, too, having twisted, folded, and stretched in tandem with these changes. Until recently, \”clouds\” were just masses of water molecules aloft in the sky. Today they’re places to store vast troves of digital data. I remember when \”platforms\” were just mundane surfaces for standing on. Now they’re complex systems on which developers build suites of high-tech products and services. Words once confined to geekdom, like \”algorithm,\” have crossed over into the mainstream. And usages are blurring. Upon ordering dinner at a restaurant, the waiter, who introduced himself as a \”server,\” stated that he’d \”get those ‘apps’ right out.\” I had to wonder, did I just download a meal from this guy?

Changes in the language are as much a part of the story of technology as innovative new products, high-stakes mergers and acquisitions, and charismatic corporate leaders. They bear witness to the emergence of new technological realities, yet they also help facilitate them. Facebook wouldn’t have a billion-plus users absent some compelling features. It also wouldn’t have them without people like me first coming to terms with the new semantics of friendship.

Were he still alive, the cultural-studies scholar Raymond Williams might have counted \”friend,\” \”cloud,\” \”platform,\” \”algorithm,\” \”server,\” and \”app\” among today’s \”keywords\”—clusters of terms whose definitional shifts register where social change is \”active and pressing.\” Keywords remind us of the degree to which the story of technology is a human one, grounded not only in the calculi of science and engineering but also in the welter of everyday talk.

There has been a lot of speculation about social media and what it does to us individually and collectively. But now we’re beginning to see a new generation of writers who are conducting extensive ethnographic research about how people use these and other digital tools. Alice E. Marwick, author of Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age, (Yale University Press, 2013) and danah boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale, 2014) are among the finest interpreters of the technological changes we have been experiencing. They point to the first decade of the 21st century as the time when, in the wake of the dot-com bust, the tech industry rebooted around social media. And they chronicle how people are coming to navigate a world dizzy with opportunities for self-presentation and interaction online. Along the way, they manage to defuse some of the panic surrounding recent changes, taking aim at concerned parents, plucky teens, hurried journalists, aspiring celebrities, hopeful entrepreneurs, and others who simply assume social media is either a ticket to the big time or an express elevator to hell.

Marwick and boyd pay considerable attention to what they call \”context collapse.\” These are episodes in which distinct social worlds collide online, causing outpourings of drama. Think of schoolteachers who have been fired for posting online photos of themselves partying with alcohol. Impressive here is the restraint both authors demonstrate in refusing to shame social-media users who make missteps. They deserve empathy and instruction, not vitriol, as they cut their way through a thicket of privacy settings, hardware and software functions, community norms, professional responsibilities, parental expectations, and more.

Both books are reminiscent of Erving Goffman’s sociological classic The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, first published in the United States in 1959. There, Goffman challenged the belief that good people were those who displayed a single, authentic self in all circumstances. Integrity was an impossible ideal, he argued. Different facets of who we are manifest depending on the people with whom we interact and the settings where the interaction occurs. We would spare ourselves psychological angst by owning up to the fact that we manage competing impressions of ourselves all the time. Similarly, Marwick and boyd argue that everyone is at best two-faced online; that’s just business as usual. Social media isn’t to blame, though its tendency to superimpose previously distinct social networks on top of each other does render strategies of self-presentation more apparent than before.

Another touchstone is the media scholar Joshua Meyrowitz’s seminal No Sense of Place. Marwick and boyd share its sensitivity to how new media can alter patterns of access to social information. In 1985, Meyrowitz showed how television gave children unprecedented glimpses into adult worlds, leveling the hierarchy by exposing adult secrets. Today, parents, educators, and police officers are only too happy to return the favor, re-establishing their authority through the prying eyes of social media.

The common ground in Status Update and It’s Complicated is plain to see. Marwick and boyd are friends and periodic collaborators, each acknowledging the other in her book. Their connection brings a lively continuity across the two volumes, despite the focus, respectively, on technology workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, and young people living throughout the United States.

Neither Marwick nor boyd mentions Raymond Williams, and keywords aren’t on their agendas. Yet words are breakout stars of both books, bound up with nearly all of the conflicts, confusions, and controversies prompted by social media.

The title of Marwick’s book indicates as much. Outwardly, Status Update is a verbal noun phrase, referring to the act of letting social-media contacts know what you’re up to. Those contacts are not the only ones receiving an update, however. The meaning of the word \”status\” is in for a makeover, too, now that people can broadcast almost any aspect of their lives.

Williams recognized those types of changes well before today’s social media erupted onto the scene. Including an entry on \”status\” in his compendium Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, first published in 1976, he viewed the term as a synonym for hierarchy, albeit a tepid one encroaching upon the more loaded word \”class.\” But Williams wasn’t able to connect the dots between that and the sense of \”status\” as condition, a more general meaning referring to the state of affairs of someone or something. Marwick connects those dots admirably. In a world of status updates, condition is currency. Carefully invested, it can yield something she calls \”status signals\”: likes, shares, retweets, endorsements, connections, comments, klout, karma, friends, follows, and other reputational tokens.

Of course, it’s never as simple as that. Marwick goes to great lengths to show how the myths of egalitarianism and meritocracy, prevalent among the early architects of the Internet and still circulating within Silicon Valley, are mostly just that, myths. Status doesn’t simply accrue from hard work, much less from the strategic management of one’s status updates. What counts is \”the right kind of status,\” observes Marwick. Better to be an entrepreneur than an Internet celebrity or fanboy, at least among those in the Valley. It’s like the distinction between old and new money, retooled for the social-media age. And with that, Marwick delivers on Williams’s argument that status has everything to do with class distinction. It just refuses to cop to it.

\”Brand,\” \”celebrity,\” \”authenticity\”: Status Update is chock full of candidates for keywords. The same is true of boyd’s book, with its one-word chapter titles: \”Identity,\” \”Privacy,\” \”Addiction,\” \”Danger,\” \”Bullying,\” Inequality,\” and \”Literacy.\” Social-media use among teenagers may be a complicated cocktail, but the complications don’t happen just by mixing up technology and adolescence. Another ingredient—words—must be present as well. And not just any words, but words that are muddles of established and emergent meanings.

Consider \”privacy,\” or rather the often-heard claim that young people have abandoned it in their rush to embrace social media. Have they, truly? boyd reminds us that teens have long sought access to public life, once through frequenting soda shops or shopping malls, now with Facebook and beyond. That is one way they start laying claim to a society they’ll one day inherit.

Yet, as boyd also reminds us, since the 1970s curfews, restrictions on access to community facilities, and the spread of disconnected cul-de-sac neighborhoods have conspired to keep kids at home. Their parents may have enjoyed greater freedom back in the day, yet many now see the world as a dangerous place. Little wonder, having come of age with the image of 6-year-old Etan Patz and other missing children plastered on milk cartons. Despite what you may have heard, today’s teenagers are compelled to lead deeply private lives.

They’ve compensated by flocking to social media. But don’t confuse \”being in public\” with \”being public,\” argues boyd. Teenagers are savvier users of privacy settings than they’re generally given credit for. In the 1980s, they might have changed course on a conversation when authorities approached them at the mall. Now they have a repertoire of techniques to combat unwanted eavesdropping online. \”Social steganography,\” for example, is a kind of double talk they use to smuggle secret messages back and forth, under the guise of ostensibly public status updates. (The risk of boyd’s book, if any, may lie in authorities’ using it to crack the code.) This is privacy turned inside out.

And a fitting complement to the entry for \”private\” in Keywords. There, Williams recognized that \”withdrawn from public life\” was on the verge of becoming an obsolete definition. More important was the sense of \”independence\” and \”intimacy\” the word conveyed—although boyd prefers another idea, \”agency.\” Either way, her informants seem to grasp the new semantics of privacy better than adults, at least on a practical level. Privacy might look dead if you treat it as a matter of location. Keep an eye out for its key qualities, however, and you’ll find its pulse is strong.

If standard definitions haven’t kept pace with the practicalities of privacy in a social-media age, neither have dictionaries, the places where those definitions are sanctified and stored. Dictionaries change all the time, of course, and are therefore artifacts of a living language. Yet there’s always a sense in which they’re arriving late to the party. In early 2014, Merriam-Webster added these and other ostensibly new words to its roster: \”hashtag,\” \”selfie,\” \”big data,\” and \”social networking.\” You’d be hard-pressed to call any of them new. Dictionaries are dated by default.

But what about the more intuitive senses of words—those you just kind of get, rather than fully comprehend? One of the many important contributions of Marwick’s and boyd’s books is the recognition that change isn’t registered in language only after the dust has officially settled. These processes run parallel, not serially. New senses and meanings must be functionally available as new technologies arrive on the scene. Otherwise, those technologies would be unintelligible to users, or mistaken for something else.

Once the words \”computer\” and \”calculator\” referred to people, those who performed mathematical operations. (While today computers are strongly associated with men and male engineering, more often than not, those people were women, as the cultural-studies scholar Anne Balsamo has pointed out. In the early 1970s, \”computers,\” machines, were sometimes marketed as \”calculators.\” By the end of that decade, the two terms would cease being synonymous. Imagine explaining to someone living in the 1940s that computers were handheld devices with nanometer-sized transistors inside, with which one could shop or play Flappy Bird while making a wireless telephone call. There’s no reason to believe we’re living through semantic changes that are any less profound. Words are a significant part of the drama of the social-media age.

About that word, \”drama\”: It crops up repeatedly in Status Update and It’s Complicated. \”Dramatic\” also made an appearance in Keywords, where Williams traced the migration of the word from the arts into more general usage. W’s^??? (That’s \”what’s up?\” for those untutored in txt. Segregated from most mainstream dictionaries, txt is the ubiquitous second-class citizen of English-language usage. Maybe one day it will get an upgrade, too.)

The Oxford English Dictionary is of little help here. The first three entries refer mainly to theater. The fourth encompasses a more expanded view, \”dramatic quality or effect; colorfulness, excitement.\” The remaining two are for the offshoots \”drama-documentary\” and \”drama queen.\” It’s worth noting that entries 4, 5, and 6 are listed as draft additions, the first two from 1993, the last from 2006. That’s right—the OED hasn’t fully accepted the existence of drama queens, even after almost a decade in the hopper.

It’s not that \”drama\” means something other than \”dramatic quality or effect.\” Marwick and boyd both use the term in something close to that sense, to refer to all the accusations, name-calling, slurring, and rumormongering that happens online. What may be new are the dramatis personae. \”What bubbles up [online] is inevitably that which has already received tremendous attention through views, comments, and likes,\” argues boyd. \”To maximize attention,\” social-media companies create \”algorithms to perfect the gossip machine.\” People make drama, in other words, but they’re not the only ones stirring the pot. Algorithms do, too. They’re the electronic equivalents of drama queens. Take note, OED: Here come the drama machines.

A few weeks ago, I sent a bunch of Yo requests out to my social-media friends. Yo might well be the reductio ad absurdum of messaging apps. It allows you to send the two-character communiqué—Yo—to anyone you’re connected to. You don’t even need to type it. Suddenly, Twitter has become the long form at 140 characters—never mind SMS, practically epic poetry at 160. None of my friends has joined me on Yo. One mistook my request for a sign I’d been hacked.

It could be their refusal to Yo stemmed from social-networking fatigue. It might also have had something to do with words. Critics have scoffed at Yo, calling it a \”fad,\” \”annoying,\” and questioning whether it allows for bona-fide communication. But they seem to be missing the point. Yo isn’t about what’s communicated. It’s more about the fact that two people are interacting at all.

That \”ritual\” view of communication, as the late historian of technology James W. Carey dubbed it, stresses how engagement through words and symbols can reaffirm social bonds, regardless of the content. It’s why we greet friends in passing with a casual \”How ya doin’?\” and expect little in return. By the same token, getting the brush off can send you into a tailspin. The ritual understanding of communication had fallen out of favor in the late 19th century, when electronic media helped legitimize the idea that \”communication\” meant the transmission of meaningful messages across space. Is all the hubbub surrounding Yo an indication we’re starting to come full circle?

New technologies disrupt, but they aren’t the singularly disruptive force some would have us believe. Many of their purported disruptions result from their entering into contexts where language shifts are already under way, causing friction. Social media didn’t alter the meanings of \”status,\” \”privacy,\” or what have you. The meanings were already transforming. Social media just helped make the changes more visible, and maybe accelerated them. That is why Williams called words \”elements of … problems.\” Like Marwick and boyd, he recognized the vernacular was no less an engine of change than technology.

Author Bio: Ted Striphas is an associate professor of communication and culture at Indiana University at Bloomington. He is the author of The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture From Consumerism to Control (Columbia University Press, 2009). Twitter: @striphas.