Meanland—Digital Dialects and Class

This post was originally published on the Meanland blog on November 19 2012

The common denominator in my two Meanland posts so far has mainly been my complaining about authors complaining about new media. In my first post, I took on Jonathan Franzen’s mouthing off about Twitter. In my second, I delved deep into Don DeLillo’s fear of email. My routine preparation for writing a Meanland post basically involves me asking ‘what old white man has said something silly about the internet, now?’ and really just taking it from there.

It’s satisfying, and, I think, broadly correct, to designate the kind of pessimistic, dismissive attitude these authors have to new media technologies as a generational thing. Epochal, society-changing technology shifts have always, and will always, leave some people behind—often and inevitably the mature and settled. As it turned out, of course, Franzen and DeLillo were saying something just a little bit sensible about the way these technologies have the potential to reshape society and the individual. It’s just fun to take exception to their attitude.

But anyway, when I canvassed around for Meanland material for this post, I was reminded of another outburst made by a well-regarded contemporary author, Zadie Smith, writing in the New York Review of Books on the then recent release of The Social Network specifically, and the Facebook phenomenon generally. Smith is neither old, especially, not male, but her comments have, if anything, an even stronger whiff of the elite and classist about them.

Smith writes about some of the same issues I looked at last time; namely, Jaron Lanier, and his arguments that the architecture of certain digital technologies have the effect of ‘locking us in’, or structuring and delimiting the possibilities for personhood in a digital space. Smith calls the new breed of people inhabiting these digital spaces ‘Person 2.0’, and worries that, with her disinterest in adapting her own personhood to these new forms, she is ‘stuck at Person 1.0’. Except, as she admits, it’s not quite her own disinterest that stops her from adapting, its her own discomfort; not with the technologies themselves, necessarily, but with the 2.0 people.

She writes:

‘I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX.

When I read something like that, I have a little argument with myself: “It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.” But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?’

Alexis Madrigal, in a response to Smith’s piece written for The Atlantic, rightfully notes that there is an ‘aesthetic revulsion’ at the heart of her, and other authors’, response to digital technologies:

‘so much bad writing, so many misspellings, so much butchered language and LOLs. The lack of proper punctuation! The stupid exclamation points!!!! There is nothing literary about the simple communications between most people on Facebook or Twitter.’

Which is an idea no less interesting for being simple; that it’s the sheer un-literary-ness of digital communication that is the immediate problem authors like Smith and Franzen have with digital technologies, not their putative effects on the individual and society. Or perhaps they feel that the un-literary forms found in digital communications reveal, and fortify as they reveal, society’s underclass.

Modes of speech and dialects are always at the core of the way a class defines itself. David Foster Wallace wrote a typically sensitive analysis of this very thing, in his article about the usage wars for Harper’s Magazine. In ‘Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage’, Wallace gives an anecdote about the speech he used to give to those of his English students who, for reasons of class, or race, or what-have-you, had yet been unable to apply themselves to the forms of standard written English. As Wallace admits, the arguments in favor of proper English usage are ‘baldly elitist’. Standard written English was:

‘invented, codified, and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males and is perpetuated as “Standard” by same.. (it is) the shibboleth of the Establishment and an instrument of political power and class division and racial discrimination and all manner of social inequity.’

But, as Wallace tells his students, it is necessary to learn and understand the rules of SWE to be heard in society. SWE is ‘the dialect our country uses to talk to itself’.

It makes some sense that it would be authors, especially, who would see in the shifting of dialects and modes of speech represented by Twitter, and Facebook—and the ‘lols’ and ‘omgs’, and ‘rofls’—a real threat to their livelihoods. I wonder if experienced and educated authors worldwide trembled in fear, a little, when they heard that a Twitter feed would be published as a book (Justin Halpern’s awful Sh*t My Dad Says). I wonder what they make of the Japanese phenomenon of the cell phone novel. When one’s vocation is premised on the standards of written English (or any language), no doubt one is especially sensitive to changes to that standard. If lolspeak becomes our lingua franca something fundamental about our society’s arrangements of class and wealth and privilege will have changed.

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