April 1997

Defining Style and Culture in the Digital Age

Book Review: Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age
Edited by Constance Hale
San Francisco: HardWired, 1996
ISBN 1-888869-01-1
170 pages
$17.95 (USD)

Reviewed by Kevin Hunt

With the publication of Wired Style, Constance Hale and the editors of Wired present us with what amounts to a dictionary of cultural literacy for the digital age. The book comprises a series of sections with such prescriptive titles as "Be Elite," "Capture the Colloquial," and "Screw the Rules, "in which Hale and company round up, define, and explain the technobabble, colloquialisms, and neologisms bandied about in discussions on the Net and in print. In short, they've set out to document what they see as "the context that gives [their] community its allusions, metaphors, and mythologies." And in the process of doing so, they transcribe this cultural detritus into style and usage prescriptions that are quintessentially Wired. The question is, who do they speak to and for?

Most readers will find in Wired Style a useful tool for deciphering much of the arcana and acronyms we encounter when both participating in and reading about cyberspace. For example, one of the more helpful sections, "Acronyms, FWIW," shades light on some of the more obscure acronyms used as online shorthand in newsgroup and email correspondence--JADP (just another data point), SMTOE (sets my teach on edge), WTFIGO(what the fuck is going on?--, and in esoteric technical discussions--CISC (complex instruction set computer), FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt), RSI (repetitive strain injury). Another helpful section is "Go Global," in which the editors do a good job of persuading us to break free of a US-centric perspectives and consequently rethink how to "express it internationally" when presenting phone numbers, or prices, or dates and times, or non-English words, spellings, and acronyms.

The guide also serves as a reference point for resolving the more mundane microlevel style issues that some readers will encounter in their writing. For instance, how do you break a particularly long URL that won't fit on a single line of text? (Answer: break between discreet units before a punctuation mark, and don't hyphenate it.) Or, is it "back up" or "backup"? (Answer: as a verb it's "back up," as a noun or adjective, "backup.")

Yet while these and other functions of the guide serve as a useful reference or starting point for assessing style and usage issues in the late 20th century, it's important to remember that this is Wired's style guide. Wired speaks to and for a specific community, and in many ways an elite and privileged one at that. The danger lies in viewing this community as the Net community, and consequently of viewing this guide as the standard of usage, style, and literacy for all who participate in and create discursive transactions in the digital age.

In the introductory remarks to the section titled "Be Elite," Hale acknowledges this danger when she writes:

"Any literary endeavor must stoke the collective culture of its audience. In the digital age, that audience has been fragmented; we can no longer speak to a homogenous mass audience or to one standard of literacy. Instead we speak of smaller, self-selected groups--neighborhoods, communities of interest, elites" (p. 13).
Unfortunately while acknowledging the reality of accommodating multiple and perhaps disparate communities, Hale and company at times have a tendency to prescribe Wired's style as the style for communicating in the information age. The "Voice is Paramount" section of the guide provides several examples of this prescription. Here Hale seems to conflate the voice that Wired celebrates--which she describes as "in your face," conveying "quirky, individualist spirit of the Net"--with a mythological, democratic voice that frequently shows up in email threads. For example, Hale quotes John Seabrook as describing this email voice as "honest in that it has typos and rawnesses and other signs of passion unrestrained by rhetoric or institutions. It truly is in the best sense the voice of the people--or so most democracy-lovers want to believe" (p. 9).

While Hale, Seabrook and others might believe that the raw, unrestrained voice of the rugged individualist is "the voice of the people," others beg to differ. Linguist Susan Herring, for example, has studied how the sort of confrontational, machismo voice that Seabrook describes can be oppressive and silencing to women, who prefer a more attenuated, less "in-your-face" mode of discourse.

In any case, the publication of Wired Style should raise issues of how language functions. When we speak of electronic culture, or virtual communities, are we talking about a single, monolithic culture speaking in a monologic voice? Or are digital media fostering electronic forums with room enough for multiple communities, multiple cultures, and multiple voices? Being conversant in the lexicon and language conventions outlined in this guide is a means of acquiring a certain amount of cultural capital, which translates into power. The literacy practices outlined in the guide can be used to draw boundaries for determining who can participate and who gets left out of the conversation.[TOC]

Kevin Hunt ( is the book review editor for CMC Magazine.

Copyright © 1997 by Kevin Hunt. All Rights Reserved.

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