Language and the Internet

(Axel Boer) #1

The medium of Netspeak 39

conventions of letter-writing developed. And when they are miss-
ing, something needs to replace them. A rapidly constructed Net
message, lacking the usual courtesies, can easily appear abrupt
or rude. A smiley defuses the situation. (Incidentally, the same
problems can arise with faxes, especially quickly handwritten ones,
though as yet smiley-type conventions have not made an impact
Whatever their function, and despite their limited use, smileys
are one of the most distinctive features of e-mail and chatgroup
language. But they are not the only mechanism devised to get round
the absence of kinesic and proxemic features. Verbal glosses are
also used, often within angle brackets, as in the prosodic examples

<Eagle smiles sympathetically at Gunner>
<Spoon nods in greeting>

This convention is widely used in virtual worlds for all kinds of
kinesic effects, such asand. Abbreviated words
are also found in some groups, notably=‘grin’, used to react
to a message thought to be funny, or to convey teasing. The con-
vention has developed a small system of its own: bigger smiles are
symbolized by,, etc., and a range of acronyms based
on the letterhave been devised, such as=‘very big
grin’,<gd&r>=‘grinning, ducking and running’ (as a music-hall
performer might do after a bad joke).
These features of Netspeak have evolved as a way of avoiding
the ambiguities and misperceptions which come when written lan-
guage is made to carry the burden of speech. They are brave efforts,
but on the whole Netspeak lacks any true ability to signal mean-
ing through kinesic and proxemic features, and this, along with
the unavailability of prosodic features, places it at a considerable
remove from spoken language.^23 Absent also are other linguistic

(^23) This gap is probably the chief reason why, as Wallace puts it in her discussion of Internet
anonymity, ‘it is so easy to lie and get away with it’ (1999: 51). In face-to-face interaction,
only the most skilled liars can keep their deceptions out of their facial expression and
tone of voice. In Netspeak, nothing could be easier – though participants can still give
the game away by their unconscious use of other linguistic features (see p. 166).

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