Are There Dialects of the Internet?

A number of weeks ago a friend of mine sent me the following YouTube video posted by the PBS Idea Channel:

(Note: It’s pretty long so you don’t have to watch the whole thing, but it’s pretty great and I think it’s worth a few more minutes of not doing your homework)

In the video, Mike Rugnetta, the host of the show, poses a kind of interesting question: does the internet have dialects? At first I thought of the idea that the internet has its own sort of language or dialect within the English language, but what Rugnetta is talking about here is something more complex: dialectsย withinย the internet itself.

I was so intrigued by his video that I decided to write my linguistics term paper on this topic. I’d like to think that I have been an active member of a few online communities, both as a creator and as a viewer, and I think that gives me enough experience with language and the internet to at least have some say on the topic.

But as I have been trying to research for this paper, I’ve found that it might be harder to argue for than I realized. First of all, when referring to dialect are we referring to accent, vocabulary, syntax, semantics, or is it something more than these linguistic terms? Rugnetta talks a little bit about the idea that a dialect is much more than how someone speaks, but how they use that language in communities of practice.ย I don’t know about any of you, but I have definitely experienced nuanced differences in the way different online communities behave and interact and even how they utilize language together. The issue I am still having, however, is finding a way to properly explain this in an academic paper.

I could talk about the use of certain vocabulary terms within internet communities (i.e. the denotative and connotative understandings of the word ‘nerd’ in the Vlogbrother’s community versus a sub-community on Reddit). I could talk about how certain communities value grammar in ways that others might not (though, let’s be honest, this is the internet and there will always be prepubescent trolls in the comment sections who have never even heard the term “comma splice”). But how do I properly represent those communities that most definitely share ideas, values, and concepts of reality, but their members are so diverse that the actual language they use is not necessarily connected?

The internet is a pretty big place with a lot of different communities, and trying to determine whether or not those communities have their own “dialect” is a pretty big task that might not fit neatly into a ten page term paper. That being said, I’m still really interested in how language is used in online communities and if or how it functions within different communities. I’d like to think that the internet, as a whole, says something important about how we understand and function within community. One thing I want to know, though, is what does our use of language online say about the types of things we care about or find worth forming a community around? And what separates those online communities from a good old fashioned book club or discussion group?

I don’t have any real answers just yet, but I’m having a lot of fun thinking about these sorts of questions, and I would love to hear your thoughts on language and the internet. Do you use a different “dialect” within different online settings? If not, have you ever stopped to think why? Let me know in the comment section below!

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