Internet Dialects and Online “Space”

I know I’ve been posting a lot lately about the Internet and digital literacy, but this time, it’s based off on one of the more recent Idea Channel videos:

To summarize, many online “speech communities” from specific groups and interfaces have their own linguistic patterns, expressions, and focuses. In the language of the video, they have “dialects,” just as different geographic regions have different wording, slang, and linguistic personalities.

For example, as the video shows, the /b/ forum on 4Chan feels and sounds coarse, chaotic, and (to some) unfriendly. Or Tumblr tends to use many .gifs based off of the .gif-friendly interface.

As I think of these topics, I often turn to the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and his conception of the “public sphere.” While the details often differ depending on the theorist or the argument, the public sphere is essentially a space where people from different backgrounds can meet and discuss topics in a united context. Imagine a park, bringing together a web of people, or a coffee shop, open constantly to the public.

A handy diagram to give some clarity. [Image from main.nc.us]
A handy diagram to give some clarity. [Image from main.nc.us]

For Habermas, one of the key principles of the public sphere is its “universal access.” Here, many others attack him, as access to the public sphere often requires certain things, like a reliance on shared symbols and rules, a level of education, and material access. Many also critique his assertion that this public sphere must be rational, a carryover from the historic genealogy that Habermas uses. Action- and meaning-defining discourse may be happening, they arguem even if it is not “rational.”

Thus, while the Internet may seem like a “public sphere” of sorts, it clearly isn’t because it lacks this universal access. You need a connection, something many people do not have, and the Internet lacks the order and unity that a public sphere seems to imply. Its borders and spaces have no geographic limitations. Some exist beyond the realm of legislation. Professional or educational websites coexist with amateur, joking, obscene, pornographic, criminal, and chaotic spaces. Many different languages and symbols collide, and many users don’t “discourse,” but troll or produce random content, like “YouTube poop.”

My vocabulary is deliberately spacial and organic here. Like our living spaces, the Internet is a lived-in space, changed by those who live in it. Or, to go back to language, the Internet is always in a constant dialogue with itself, as the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin might have seen it. It builds meanings, connotations, and references constantly through the shared use of its symbols and spaces. Memes change. Expressions change. Words emerge, like “smol” or “lol.” The Internet and digital technology, in Bakhtin’s language, is the new novel, alive and changing.

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