Help! I have acute internet FOMO

Wordy war: A bar brawl is passé. Rather tweet about Hillary Clinton and watch the verbal fisticuffs unfold. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Wordy war: A bar brawl is passé. Rather tweet about Hillary Clinton and watch the verbal fisticuffs unfold. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

If you’re not familiar with the internet, I can highly recommend it. The internet has all the facts. Nobody needs to know anything any more, because you can just ask the internet and it will tell you. I don’t even know why anyone bothers to go to school. What are they doing with those kids for 12 years? I hope it’s just computer classes, because that’s the only thing that will be useful anyway.

The internet is also great because you can go there and, within seconds, be in a violent war of words with a complete stranger. In normal life, you have to work quite hard to foment aggression with a complete stranger. You have to do something terrible to them in traffic or be drunk and try to steal their girlfriend.

Even then there are no guarantees that a high-quality conflict will ensue, because one of you might just be perfectly reasonable and understanding about the whole thing and you’ll end up shaking hands. The internet is much better. You don’t have to go looking for trouble. It will find you, within seconds of your tweet about Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote.

Another pleasing aspect of the internet is that it gives you a wonderful sense of community. Turns out that there are literally millions of people who feel exactly the same way as you about things. And when you find each other, you can gang up and be mean to people who think differently. Trust me, it’s an absolute riot.

One of the things about the internet, though, is that it can feel a tweetch in-jokey. Often one gets the sense that there is a massively fun party happening to which you are not invited. You know it’s going on, because you can hear the sounds of corks popping and people’s voices raised in laughter. It’s just that you didn’t crack an invite.

Logging on to Twitter often feels this way. I myself have a strong suspicion that I am only experiencing about 1% of the internet’s jol. I want to be able to go to the room where everyone is freely buying Viagra and guns but I don’t have the code for the door.

I have become more adept at cracking the code for the internet’s everyday language use, however. You see, people on the internet don’t talk like regular people. They have their own language. They say things like: “Humblebrag much.”

That is a phrase that might seem as if it was created at random by a monkey on a typewriter but in the context of the internet it has a clear and specific meaning. It means: “I see you making an ostensibly self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which you are proud, and I hereby expose you.” It took me 27 words to express that concept, whereas the internet only needs two. Humblebrag much.

I’m fascinated by internet language. I’m not talking about boring abbreviations such as LOL. I’m talking about the way in which the medium of the internet alters the texture and meaning of language, and the way certain phrases have become standardised to refer to something specific. Here’s another example: “So this happened.” An unremarkable phrase in everyday language, noteworthy only for its extreme vagueness.

On the internet, though, you use the phrase “so this happened” to accompany pictures of your wedding. Or pictures of you going to the moon. Or pictures of you meeting Oprah.

The use of the phrase signals unmistakably that you have done something pretty damn terrific. You can only use it if you have done something that is the best. You cannot say “so this happened” and post a picture of you doing something pedestrian. It simply does not make sense. Sorry, but I didn’t make the rules.

Then there are specific words that may have been in slang use previously but that have been given unprecedented currency on the internet. One of them is “fam”, an abbreviation of “family” now used fairly loosely as a term of address.

I’m not sure whether white people are allowed to use it, because it appears to have originated from African-American slang. It might be one of the things we whites aren’t allowed to say, like “yasss queen” (too complex to explain). I have never used “fam” because I am too afraid. Please contact me if you are a black person reading this and would like to extend an official invitation for me to use it.

Another word you see continually online is “lit”, which is an adjective to describe a situation that is exciting or inflammatory in some way. The United States presidential debates were lit. If someone is particularly mean about this column, that will be lit too.

These days it is of the highest importance that things are lit. If protests are not lit, then they are boring and nobody cares. If Parliament is not lit, then it is boring and nobody cares. The world in 2016: witness the litness.

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis has a master’s in English literature from Rhodes and a master’s in linguistics from Oxford University, UK. After a stint at the Oxford English Dictionary, she returned to South Africa, where she has been writing stories and columns for various publications, including the M&G. Her first book, Best White (And Other Anxious Delusions), came out in 2015. Read more from Rebecca Davis

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