“I say, can anyone hear me?”. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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How capital letters became internet code for shouting

And why we should lay off the caps-lock key.

The rules of “netiquette” are not exactly static or undisputed. Are emoticons appropriate in formal emails? Are “trigger warnings” thoughtful or over-the-top? Are you irritating everyone you email with your “signature”? The uncertainty that typically surrounds these questions makes it all the more remarkable that there’s one convention that is incontestable: Typing in all caps is internet code for shouting, and it is rude.

People have long used capital letters to set text apart and convey its importance, but upper case letters haven’t always signified loudness. The first bloggers may be responsible for that development: Linguist Ben Zimmer pointed me to old “Usenet newsgroups” – the precursors of the forums and Reddit threads that dominate the Internet today – where people hashed out what capital letters would mean online. In 1984, one user had to explain: “if it’s in caps i’m trying to YELL!” In one of the best clues into the evolution of this convention, another user, Dave Decot, summed up the situation as he understood it in 1984:

there seem to be some conventions developing in the use of various emphasizers. There are three kinds of emphasis in use, in order of popularity:

1) using CAPITAL LETTERS to make words look “louder”,2) using *asterisks* to put sparklers around emphasized words, and 3) s p a c i n g words o u t, possibly accompanied by 1) or 2).

We’ll probably never know exactly why it was convention number one that caught on, but there may be something intuitive about using capital letters for emphasis. Professor Paul Luna, director of the department of typography and graphic communication at the UK’s University of Reading, told me we’ve been using caps to convey “grandeur,” “pomposity,” or “aesthetic seriousness” for thousands of years – at least since Roman emperors had monuments inscribed, in all caps, with their own heroic accomplishmnets. Writers have used capital letters to convey anger in print, too. Linguist John McWhorter pointed out two examples from the days of typewriting. It becomes apparent in pianist Philippa Schuyler’s biography, Composition in Black and White, that she “was quite fond of using caps to yell” – as early as the 1940s. In the 1970s, Robert Moses used all caps to convey his rage at a draft of Robert Caro’s biography, The Power Broker. “I myself would have used caps to ‘yell’ on a typewriter when I was a kid in those years, also,” said McWhorter.

“All-capitals provide visibility – maximum size within a given area,” said Luna. And that works online, too. “All-caps in an email looks like shouting because when someone is shouting, you’re aware of the shout, and not the nuance,” Luna told me over email. “ALL-CAPS FILL THE SPACE, so there’s an element of feeling that the message is crowding out everything else.”

If typing in all caps is a lazy way of yelling – a crutch for the angry and inarticulate – then the keyboard is complicit: The “caps lock” key makes it unreasonably easy for us to be rude (even, sometimes, inadvertently). “Caps lock” has, in fact, inspired more controversy than most keys. Getting rid of it is one of Matthew J.X. Malady’s top suggestions for improving the keyboard. “The key is a nuisance, its prime real estate leading us to depress it unintentionally and often unwittingly,” he complains at Slate. The “caps lock” key has inspired larger-scale protests, too. In 2006, Belgian software developer Pieter Hintjens launched the “CAPSoff” campaign, aiming to get the offending key kicked off the keyboard altogether. Though the project was welcomed by outlets like The New Scientist, Wired, and The Chicago Tribune, “That campaign ended many years ago,” Hintjens told me over email, admitting that it “didn’t make any real change.” The CAPSoff campaign may not have achieved its mission, but it’s never too late. I say we should revive Dave Decot’s third suggestion: spacing words out to show anger. Not only does it take more time – upping the chance that you’ll calm down before you press “send” – hitting the space bar between each letter is kind of therapeutic. It fits with the new, nicer internet of 2014 – the internet of Upworthy and Viral Nova, cute cat videos and eBay altruism.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Warren K Leffler at Wikimedia Commons
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"She wore a USB cord instead of a necklace": whatever happened to Cyberfeminism?

The movement was young, energetic, educated, and art school-heavy. Above all it was “positive”: both cyber-positive and sex-positive.

Sometime in the late 1990s, I met someone else called Joanna Walsh. The fact that this is also my name drew me to study her closely. We were about the same age. She worked in the tech side of the arts world, with which I was also connected via a loose network of zines, "comix" and journals. Instead of a necklace, she wore a USB cord. She knew how to program. She was a cyberfeminist. 

Cyberfeminism had been a word since 1991, coined separately by the British philosopher Sadie Plant (once profiled painfully in the Independent on Sunday as the “IT girl for the 21st Century”) who was then running the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit with fellow philosopher Nick Land, and by the Australian art collective VNS Matrix

In September 1997, the First Cyberfeminist International meet-up took palce in Germany, and the artist Cornelia Sollfrank writes that its members "agreed not to define the term" cyberfeminist, but to understand it through negative. As a result, the Old Boys Network, a cyerfeminist alliance founded at the event, wrote “100 Anti-Theses” in languages from Croatian to Indonesian. The theses defined cyberfeminism by what it is not: “cyberfeminisme n'est pas une pipe… cyberfeminism is not post-modern… cyberfeminismo no es rock'n’roll” - as a gap, a lack, but also posited this newly-available "cyber" space as a place into which bodies could be projected, and within which they could be remade.

Nineties cyberfeminism drew heavily on contemporary feminist postmodernist theory, including the work of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigary. As with any radical movement concerned with identity politics, there was a tension between repurposing or remixing stereotypes and the near-impossible task of destroying them and creating new archetypes. The work of trans cyberfeminist Sandy Stone is indicative of much of the movement’s gender-fluid stance: the Old Boys Network's founding aim was to “contribute[s] to the critical discourse on new media, especially gender-specific aspects,” by members who self-select “if you call yourself a woman.” 

"A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century” by VNS Matrix.

As Sadie Plant explains in her book Zeros and Ones—and as Elena Ferrante demonstrates through her (anti?) heroine Lila in the Neapolitan novels, who is an early coder — computing was once considered “women’s work’”. Like Plant, MIT Professor and digital theorist Sherry Turkle described women as digital natives, particularly suited to its “bricolage” methods. The VNS Matrix art collective, by contrast, saw women as biological infiltrators of “Big Daddy Mainframe”. 

Like other strands of 1990s feminism, whether they were prefixed with “Riot” or “Spice”, Cyberfeminism was “girl”-oriented. Zines were called gURL, and Geek Girl, and in 1995 Linda Dement made a “Cyberflesh Girlmonster”. The movement was young, energetic, educated, and art school-heavy. Above all it was “positive”: both “cyber-positive” and “sex-positive”. Cyberfeminism’s enthusiasm, its refusal to self-define, could be exhausting, but is it exhausted? The OBN's calendar takes us up to 2003, the function feminism timeline to 2005. In 2012 a reassessment of the movement titled Cyberfeminism 2.0, was published. What happened in the interim?

What happened is, we all became users. The internet is so embedded in our lives as to make the prefix “cyber” tautologous as “road traffic” or “free gift”, but use of a medium implies neither expertise or control. Not only have women become notoriously scarce in programming, but, as technology becomes more complex, everyone is losing access to the basic means of production. JR Carpenter, a digital artist who continues to make “handmade” web pages, expands on Lori Emerson’s 2014 Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound:

“‘The iPad works because users can’t know how it works.’ Reading the web on an iPhone, iPad, or similar device, readers do not have the option of viewing the page source. The iPad provides consumers with access to materials created by others, but cannot easily be used as a tool in the handcrafting of new materials.”

As internet consumers we are all feminised, invited to complete ourselves through purchase: “The boundary between empowerment/subjectivity/agency and market-driven formation of self, which in fact has never been clear, becomes more nebulous,” wrote Radhika Gajjala’s and Yeon Ju Oh in their introduction to Cyberfeminism 2.0. “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” declared Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto, published in 1991, Cyberfeminism’s year zero. But who are our cyborgs now? Default-female Siri and her cohort of servers with a smile? The internet’s “Mechanical Turks’”, mostly women in low-pay jobs whose hand-input is disguised as technology? 

The net can be an echo chamber of reinforced thought as, from Twitter to porn sites, users seek out communities that reflect their offline opinions. “Networked knowledge,” wrote David Weinberger  in a recent essay in the LARB, “is inextricable from its social context,” and can even offer a new, improved platform for offline prejudice. In April, the Guardian catalogued what everyone already knew: that’s it’s primarily their women (followed by non-white) correspondents whose work attracts trolling, abuse and threats.

An unusual feature of Cyberfeminism was how quickly it began to bemoan its own demise. Gashgirl/Doll Yoko/Francesca da Rimini of VNS Matrix wrote as early as 1997:

“after 6 years of surfen sibapussy g-slime as one of the vns matrix pussy posse i don't feel particularly inspired to comment anymore on cyberfeminism/s [if u dont have nothing new to say don't repeat yrself]… cept to say that as far as i rememba things vns matrix never *seriously* wanted to rule the world ..or women to dominate the net...necessarily.... .. but, as artists, we were serious bout usin strategies like irony 'n inversion of cultural stereotypes to raise some of the many issues around women and technology.”

As such, though the internet has been of inestimable benefit as a platform and network for feminist activists (at least those who can access the equipment), “online feminism” is not absolutely identifiable with Cyberfeminism. 

Like Ginger, Posh, Baby, Sporty and Scary, cyberfeminism never did "tell you what I want, what I really really want" but, during a brief window of blue-sky thinking as to what the net could be, artist Cornelia Sollfrank writes that “simply attaching the happy 'cyber' hype to the term feminism in the early 90s opened up immense potential. The synonym for an unreflective, euphoric understanding of new technologies, which 'cyber' definitely is, breathed new life into the debates around gender and feminism.”

Now, Cyberfeminism remains live because rejection of definition is its founding feature. Many 90s cyberfeminist groups and artists are still practicing, including Subrosa, Studio XX, and forums on OBN and elsewhere remain active. Members of the CCRU and VNS Matrix can be found working in academia and the arts, and contemporary theorists include Professor Radhika Gajjala who writes particularly on "subaltern" and south Asian "Cyberselves".“Cyberfeminism does not express itself in single, individual approaches but in the differences and spaces in between,” writes Sollfrank. “All continue to write the story.”

But now, when I use Google to search for “Joanna Walsh”, even in conjunction with institutions with which we were both linked, the only name I find is my own. 

This piece is part of our themed Internet Histories week. See the rest of the stories here