How to Be Liked by Everyone Online
By PAMELA PAULDEC. 19, 2014
I’ve never liked the idea of being followed. Late at night walking from the subway, I’m always on the lookout for lurkers. Once I had an actual stalker, who, in an unsettling twist, was also my next-door neighbor. The thought of his eyes beetling after me through his front-door peephole still gives me the creeps.
Followers are for religious leaders, for gurus, for motivational speakers, and I am none of these things. Even as a child, I was more bystander than Queen Bee; girls with followers scared me. Followers can turn on you; they travel in packs.
Yet now I am told every day, sometimes by the minute, that someone is following me, and that this is good news. Person You’ve Never Heard Of is following you, Facebook announces with a ping. Guy You Went Out With Just Once 10 Years Ago is following you, Twitter says. You have 15,000 followers. This, we are meant to understand, is favorable and flattering.
The Internet — once again — has upended social and psychological norms. Linguistically speaking, what was formerly undesirable or just unpleasant is now highly sought after. To be “linked,” in a previous life, suggested something illicit — an affair or a possible crime associating His Name with Yours. But in Internet World, linking is a professional asset.
Similarly, the word “enable” had a dubious cast in the common parlance of therapy and gossip: an enabler was someone who handed the broody tippler a fresh cocktail; to enable was to unleash the codependent. Now it’s a technological upgrade; simply click here to enable this useful app.
In his new book, “How to Speak Money: What the Money People Say — And What It Really Means,” the writer John Lanchester coins the term “reversification” to describe the phenomenon. “I mean by it a process in which words come, through a process of evolution and innovation, to have a meaning that is opposite to, or at least very different from, their initial sense,” he writes.
Mr. Lanchester shows how reversification operates in the realm of finance. For example, in real life, “leverage” means using a lever to move an object, usually a heavy one. But in finance, leverage generally involves the use of borrowed money. To be clear: lifting a heavy object is not the same as taking out a loan. Similarly, in finance, a bailout is not emptying water over the side of a boat as one might do while at sea, but rather, injecting public money into a failing institution on Wall Street. It is pouring things in, rather than pouring them out. It is, in essence, the opposite.
The same thing has happened to online lingua franca. Break something in real life: not recommended. Break the Internet: you’re a star.
Parents may as well throw in the towel. The Internet is busily undermining a whole curriculum’s worth of painstakingly installed childhood lessons. Having the kindergarten teacher describe your child as “disruptive” is never the sign of a happy parent-teacher conference. Indeed, applying the word “disrupt” to any behavior in people under the age of 18 is bound to involve bodily damage, psychic distress or — later on, perhaps — the buying and selling of hard drugs.
And what has become of the sweet little word “share”? For children, sharing is a rare selfless act, a giving of oneself and one’s Halloween candy, a sacrifice. Even for adults, sharing has historically been considered a commendable activity, no matter the tangled motivations. Sharing in Internet parlance? Pure egotism. Check out my 6-year-old on the viola. Don’t you wish you were this attractive at 41? It’s such a drag maintaining waterfront property during the winter months.
Not all words have acquired opposite meanings. Some have simply become skewed, occasionally with sinister implications. In the past, to comment on something was a neutral endeavor, somewhere along the spectrum between a remark and an aside. Now the “comments” section on the typical website is a cesspool of human resentment, outrage and character assassination. Racism, misogyny and ant-Semitism all take refuge therein.
There are other fresh ways to twist Internet parlance to another person’s disadvantage. Tagging someone used to be a playful maneuver made in the course of afternoon recess. If you run after and tag me, I’m It. Even allowing for the absence of athletic prowess or social standing in the schoolyard, this is generally all in good fun.
To tag someone online is a far nastier enterprise. Anyone can resurface disparaging photographic evidence of youthful folly and post it on a social network, “tagging” it with the unsuspecting’s name. That terrible eighth-grade encounter with Sun-In, the year you spent wearing berets, the sweatshirt with the air-sprayed portrait of Duran Duran — all of it now permanently engraved onto the World Wide Web. Worse, you can be caught in a full range of discomfiting situations — at parties when you said you were staying in, drinking with everyone else from the office, hanging out with an old boyfriend.
Words that have perfectly lovely meanings in the real world will inexplicably lose their luster online. Most people think long and hard about their favorite movie, novel, people and even color. Online, favorites are not so special. To “favorite” (now a verb) something on Twitter is to say, in effect, “I saw this thing and liked it O.K., but not enough to retweet it.” Or a tepid “I see you wrote something about me and I will acknowledge that by favoriting. But expect nothing more.”
To have something liked online is not as great as having something actually liked. It doesn’t even necessarily mean someone enjoyed it — it might simply mean, “Got it,” or more wanly, “This provoked some kind of feeling, however minor.” Another letdown: Being a star in real life signifies tremendous professional success or, at the very least, celebrity; to “star” something on Gmail means you need to write back.
I feel bad having to share all this in this way, disrupting your newspaper reading and breaking up the morning routine. I don’t mean to link you to the problem. But it’s important to flag the issue, enable people to understand it, and allow readers to comment, even if they don’t like what I have to say. It may not be your favorite aspect of Internet life; it’s not mine either.
A version of this article appears in print on December 21, 2014, on page ST10 of the National edition with the headline: How to Speak Internet
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