“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

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.