The coming of a new tool for communication – a new space – will provide its users/inhabitants with plenty of customisation possibilities for making the new environment their own, individually and in niches, cliques and subcultural realms. It welcomes, induces, a form of dialect, though one that is carefully nourished and does not belong to a geographical location or a cultural concept or remnant of historical value: it is a brand-new, fun, playful means of expression. The globalised urban environment has the Urban Dictionary, a mainly English-language wiki-like catalog for categorising and explaining instances of language deterioration (as some might call it) and abbreviation lingo (clearly with added fun and pun). Digital driven dialect is often similar but text-derived, combining informal linguistics with keyboard smarts to make clever abbreviations, platform-specific etiquette with the pleasure of digital typography’s visual innuendo. Digital dialect is not just code for the online crowd, an away-from-keyboard sort of thing, a smart and fast way to communicate and establish insider status in specific online realms; but a language with sub dialects in its own right. Digital dialect can be like gang colours in type form, Mendeleev’s periodic table for the code crowd, lazy fast-track communication for angsty teens and trolls alike. And in a digital-communication era where the keyboard is king, it is the ancestor of a visual summation that would later result in the mainstream use of the emoticon and the emoji – and, in short, text-to-image world domination in DIY abbreviations. Slang, even the digital kind, became emotional. Digital slang could be a linguistic provocation, but let’s not let it be just that. Language in the form of signs and symbols certainly became more expressive in the digital age: digital slang provides a playing field for experimenting with text and type as idea, message, update, signal of choice, in it’s own right.
Image: The @ symbol, acquired by MoMA.
The @ symbol represented the general public’s first encounter with the concept of a virtual mailbox. In the 1990s, it was often used as a symbol for innovation, easily used as a vague but promising symbol for connectivity on a global scale before the Internet had become a mainstream tool for communication, before the actual symbol had become an everyday keystroke used to communicate by email with colleagues, friends and family.
Image: Tumblr text posts.
With the customisable look of Tumblr blogs and the surge of online GIF tools, the Internet was swarmed by adolescent inspirational quotes, slogans and textual meanderings. Usually these are presented in shiny, bright 1980s design, rotating, bouncing, and challenging for the more aesthetically minded visitor to stomach. With the help of sites like Giphy, the use of these textual images has become so widespread that there seem to be plenty of visual variations but very little actually being said, resulting in an immense number of similar phrases seeking to capture millennials’ brainwaves with what amounts to digital neon. It was perhaps not to be expected that grand poetic gestures would become the fad of the moment, but even so, the repetition is remarkable. The GIF and PNG texts have come to resemble the classic anarchy symbol that was commonly used by ’80s and ’90s teens, scrawled in Magic Marker on backpacks and textbook covers by high schoolers the world over. But they are a lazier, compulsory, superficial version, all about shared aesthetics (and not afraid to admit it).
One of the earliest digital memes set the tone for the mainstream spread of humorous image-text combinations: as a joke, a somewhat tiresome one, people pasted naive, misspelled cat contemplations over images showing cats either in mild trouble or looking helplessly goofy. The traditional LOLcats memes started with the ‘cheezburger’ joke and have since appeared in thousands upon thousands of versions. As the visual style of the memes became better known in mainstream digital culture with the quicker-than-ever spread of images on Facebook and message boards, the tone generally became grimmer, the content more cynical. What remained was the classic use of misspelling – and (kept alive, one imagines, solely by genuine cat lovers) an everlasting flood of new LOLcats.