The rise and fall of Netspeak

Throughout the evolution of text and social media messaging in the past decade, Netspeak has rapidly fallen in out of vogue, and back in again. 

Language is essential to our social world, and the tendency for groups to develop their own vocabulary as an exercise in group identity has been observed consistently throughout history. The modern example being Gen X and Y's cultivation of Netspeak, largely through social media messaging. In the relative bat of an eye, technology has seen tremendous transformation of the English language (as well as many other languages, but I'll keep it contained to the language I know in the interests of accuracy). Having established itself in the space of a single generation, Netspeak—the term given to the collective jargon and abbreviations typically used online—is a phenomenon in and of itself.

What I’ve been trying to understand, is why the heavy abbreviations and amputations characteristic of Netspeak have been embraced on social media, but not in traditional language throughout history. Why was shorthand so rarely used in the past in traditional handwritten letters? Why were letters so formal, and what’s so informal about technology?

I mean, Franz Kafa did not write to Felice Bauer:


And Sartre did not write to Beauvoir:


Alright, I probably could have used just one example, but they're pretty funny to imagine. My point is, abbreviations really would have been so much more efficient, but they weren’t even considered. In fairness, these two examples (at least, the original versions) come from the hands of writers, who of course would have had a reverence for their respective languages. Also, slang probably belonged entirely to the domain of speech simply because only the wealthy had the means to write and send letters. But beyond this, the reimagined letters lose their weight in their abbreviation. There's something careless about abbreviation, because it doesn't take much effort. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be loved than luvd.

Okay, so then what was it about technology that made Netspeak proliferate?

When my generation (Y) were children, in the times before the internet, we sat before the convex screen of the fat, grey box that was our TV watching Tigger bounce about exclaiming “ttfn!” I like to think this little throwaway niggled its way deep into our brains to one day inform hyper-truncated language of the web. But of course, it could not have been so simple.

Vintage text messaging. Image owned by  krystof.k . Licensed under  Creative Commons .

Vintage text messaging. Image owned by krystof.k. Licensed under Creative Commons.

When we were tweens, we were forced to be frugal with the $5 credit our parents would send us monthly: the nature of our our prepaid plans, common in the late naughties, demanded we stick to a word limit or risk being charged double (2 cents!). In our efforts to squeeze every cent, we turned to the economics of abbreviation.

In our seamless adoption of computers and subsequent online chatting—my cohort's platform of choice being MSN messenger (RIP)—we carried forth our affinity for the abbreviated: the text slang we’d developed together. MSN was like a primitive form of social media: chatrooms such as this offered fertile ground for the rapid growth of Netspeak.

Importantly, it's thanks to the nature of the internet that words began to spread around the globe faster than has ever been possible before. The chief use of slang, it is said, is to show that you're one of the gang, and the internet allows us to belong to a global gang.

Only recently have I begun to reflect of my own use of Netspeak. For someone whose use of Netspeak in messaging has plummeted since the close of the naughties, delving back into the vocabulary has been an amusing exercise in nostalgia, from the uncovering of old regulars like "gtg" to golden nuggets like "focroflmao" (falling off chair, rolling on floor, laughing my ass off—in case you weren't cool enough to have embraced that one). I first began to abstain from Netspeak due to the fear I would develop a bad habit that could negatively affect my academic and professional writing. The emergence of spell-check in iPhone messaging and social media has served only to encourage this abstinence. In both his texts and social media messaging, my friend Tshepo observes a high level of grammatical accuracy. He and I are alike in our texting, however when it comes to social media, I do deviate from him in my more relaxed approach. Even with the aid of spell-check, one can still litter one’s message with bad grammar, spelling and punctuation, which many of mine are. Why? A private message isn’t on display, it’s not a reflection on how you wish to represent yourself to the public. (Needless to say, I'm far more careful with my status updates).

This, however, does not explain the thoughtful spelling and grammar of my texts, which I handle with the same care I would a university essay. Similar to the writers mentioned before, my friend Tshepo attributes this to an appreciation of the aesthetics of good writing. It seems to me, at least within my generation, the text message is increasingly becoming the handwritten letter of the modern age, and the social media message is becoming what verbal slang communication always has been, but simply within a digital medium.

It’s really a whole multitude of factors—not only the gentle influence of spell-check—that has sustained my generation’s decreasing use of Netspeak on digital platforms. What I find interesting is the simultaneous increase of my generation’s use of Netspeak in real-life, verbal conversation.