18. NETSPEEK By William Bowles

May 2001

Have you noticed that with the spread of the Net, a lot of the ‘rules’ that used 2 govern how English was spelt have just disappeared? 4 example, I can abbreviate in any way I like or I can use an acronym like IMHOP (In My Humble Opinion) or BTW (By The Way) when I preface a paragraph. But I’d never write a letter by hand this way or would I? It’s such a long time since I wrote a letter by hand that maybe my writing style has changed.

The history of this process is quite fascinating. I stumbled over the sub-culture of the’online’ at the end of the seventies, when in popular terms at least, the whole thing was still in its infancy. Populated mostly by a lot of social misfits, eggheads, anarchists and the military, but mostly young, many of whom had really strong opinions about almost anything and had discovered the perfect vehicle with which to let everybody else know about them.

Flaming, or running verbally amok when using Email or News Groups (where msgs exchange hands in a public forum like a Bulletin Board), is as old as the Internet. IMHOP, a major reason is the medium itself, it’s transitory, just tiny phosphor dots or liquid crystals that carry information that comes at you and then is just as easily dismissed, simply by clicking or scrolling onto some other collection of phosphor dots which in turn, fly by your eyes.

The net effect is that when people read online, they mostly just scan rather than read the texts, the eye picking up very selectively whatever it is that catches the eye, normally particular words which have strong connections to the reader. So when some kind of public discussion goes on, people scan the exchanges looking for verbal ‘cues’ that enable them to enter the debate, pretty much ignoring everything else. For all they know, the debate that they’ve just stumbled upon, has been going on for years and pretty much everything that can be said has been said already.

This devalues the content considerably but the process has a plus and a minus side. The plus side is that the reader has to go to the information, he or she is no longer restricted to what’s available at a newsstand or bookshop or indeed what’s found in the dominant media. You have to be pro-active. In this sense, the content stands or falls on its ‘credibility’ as well as the reader’s critical abilities to make judgements about the content. The downside is that there’s just too much of it and how do you find the content that might turn you on in the first place?

In addition to this process, the ‘informal’ nature or perhaps it’s just the ease with which one can communicate online, has led to a lot of misunderstandings about what the writer ‘really’ meant to say. Hence the acronyms like IMHOP which tries to add an emotional meaning to sentences. Sentences that are as close as you can get to writing down what you would normnally speak out loud. But writing and speaking are two entirely different processes, or at least they were until the Internet came along. I can 4 example, J @ U in my msg, this lets the reader know that I’m not being serious, a common cause of Flaming on the Net.

One of the problems has been the dominance of the US since the early days, so the ASCII code 4 example, upon which most communications that took place over the Internet was based – used the US alphabet only. This meant that even texts written in French, German, Italian, Spanish and so on, couldn’t be sent accurately over the Internet. And you could forget Cyrillic, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and so on, there was no way you could send it using the ASCII code.

For the European alphabet, we now have some kind of a standard with which texts written in different languages comes across untouched or unaltered but ‘instant’ translations are still fairly rudimentary and the time when everything on the Net can be instantly translated as it’s downloaded, is decades away.

More interestingly for me in any case, is the way online communications transcends backgrounds of race, sex, age, location and time. One effect of this has been that people are more honest online about themselves though paradoxically, very dishonest in the way they’ve gone about it. Telling the truth about urself, is much easier if people don’t know who u ‘really’ r or where u r.

Years ago, I used to visit an online Bulletin Board called ‘Chelsea Square’ run by a blind guy who lived in an apartment building for the blind on 23rd Street in NYC. Chelsea Square ran on his PC with dialup access to about 6 people at the same time. Once a year, the people who ‘met’ on Chelsea Square would meet at a diner on the corner of 23rd & 7th Avenue at the blind guy’s invitation. About 6 or 8 pitched up the one time I went. Most had not met each other except online. I’d never met any of them before and had no idea who the real “Flaming Avenger” was or what she was like. Likewise a young, nervous and clearly abused teenager (online identity: ‘The Mad Crusher’, not his real online identity but u get the idea) was skinny, pimply, shy and extremely lonely. The Flaming Avenger was a diminutive and soft-spoken Polish girl with a thick accent. We debated whether meeting each other in the flesh would destroy the illusions we’d all created thru interacting via our online personas. It did.

But for the blind guy, the online community that he’d created out of Chelsea Square and thru which he met his friends, was an entire world online. Chelsea Square had been running for 2 or 3 years when I discovered it and it had a clear identity created by the blind guy (or Sysop as he was called, short for System Operator, showing its techie roots).

How? Well thru the content he had and the people that came to get it and leave something behind as well. So, 4 example, if u wanted to download a piece of software, u had 2 upload something in exchange. I used to upload my weekly column called New York Online, not only to Chelsea Square but to a bunch of other Bulletin Boards. It’s really how I got involved in this new medium and then a long hop, step and jump to Y-World.

Copyright © 1987-2003 William Bowles unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved. You have the right to reproduce content from this if it is not-for-profit, non-commercial use or for ‘fair use’. For commercial reproduction, please contact the copyright owner.

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