Internet Language and Group Identification

Term Paper, 2015

11 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Main Part
Internet Language: Jargon or Slang?
Internet Language and Group Identification

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

5. List Of Further Reading

1. Introduction

The Internet has enabled people from all over the world, with different backgrounds and different social status, to communicate with each other. Through instant messaging and other platforms it has become possible to have written conversations with another person. Therefore, the Internet has become an important part of communication and over time different ways of communicating and expressing oneself on the Internet have developed. This has different reasons and meanings. To understand this, various aspects have to be taken into account. In this paper, I will focus on the social factors of the question what Internet language is and how it developed and continues to develop.

First of all, I will examine to what extent Internet language is jargon or slang and the reasons for this. In order to do that it first has to be looked at what the differences between the two types of language usages are and special attention has to be paid to who uses these varieties and how they are used by these people. It also has to be looked at where on the Internet these forms are used and what the meanings of the use of such a language are to determine what Internet language actually is. In the second part of this paper, I will continue to discuss my findings of the first part in terms of the social aspects of Internet language and its meaning for the construction of identities and judgment of others. Therefore, my paper will focus on the question of what social identity (or construction of identity and identification with a certain social and age group) has to do with different language usage among different groups of Internet users. I will argue that language use on the Internet functions as a method of social identification with and among certain user-groups and differentiation from other groups.

2. Main Part

Internet Language: Jargon or Slang?

To determine whether Internet language is jargon or slang, we first have to define these two words. Flexner defines jargon as “the technical or even secret vocabulary” of a subgroup. This means that it is used by specific parts of the population, which are “members of a specific occupation, trade, profession, sect, class, age group, interest group or other sub group of our culture” (6).

Slang on the other hand is explained as:

[…] a body of words and expressions frequently used by or intelligible to a large portion of the general American public, but not accepted as good, formal usage by the majority. (6)

Flexner continues to say that a word cannot be defined as slang by its “etymological history”, it has to be looked at who uses it and what meanings are conveyed or how it is perceived by others (6). This basically means that slang expressions are also not used by everyone and the context in which they are used has to be understood, which has the consequence that only the ones who know the meaning of these expressions can comprehend what is being communicated. He says that slang is among others made up of words and expressions from jargon which have gained more popularity over the years and therefore are used more often and understood by more people. Slang can then also pass on to become a part of standard speech (6-7).

In his text, Flexner emphasizes that we all belong to several subgroups which developed and keep developing their own personal jargon. Since some of this specific jargon can become slang, it can be said that slang originates from the subgroups that use their specific jargon (14-15). Taking this into account, it is clear that in our everyday lives we are all divided into several different groups which use language differently. To fit into a group people take up some of the jargon of a specific subgroup and through that make it more mainstream, they turn it into slang. And the other way around, specific members of a subgroup keep on developing their specific expressions and language use in order to distinguish themselves from other subgroups or even the people who try to belong to their subgroup:

A sub-group vocabulary shows that we have a group to which we “belong” and in which we are “somebody”- outsiders had better respect us. (11)

Marta Dᶏbrowska says slang is often used by groups who have “a critical approach to the current situation they find themselves in.” She adds that it is no surprise that slang is then often made use of by younger people (47). Young people in general strive more to distinguish themselves from other subgroups (e.g other age groups, other interest group).

All of this can also be found in Internet communities and different Internet user-groups. On the Internet we all belong to different subgroups, just like in real life, and the different groups also have their different jargons. But some expressions can become more widely used and accepted by more people and therefore go over to Internet slang. This means that these expressions become more mainstream and more generally understood, they gain popularity among a wider range of people within a subgroup, but also among other groups. Furthermore, as the process moves along slang expressions of the Internet can also become a part of standard language. As Flexner says: “New objects, ideas, or happenings, for example, require new words to describe them” (7). This is the reason why jargon and later slang start to develop in the first place. Since the Internet has been accessible to a larger part of the population for a while now, more terms from specific Internet jargon have been accepted and adopted into slang and also standard speech.

To conclude, it can be said that what we call Internet language developed out of different types of jargon used by the members of the different subgroups (gamers, hackers, but also different age-groups…) that developed it and continue to develop it in order to distinguish themselves from other subgroups. This happens, because some of the expressions used by these groups can gain more popularity and therefore become more widely used by the “average” Internet user who again belongs to one or several group(s). The reason for this change in popularity is that the ones who belong to more than one of these subgroups begin to spread words in other groups or someone tries to belong to one group and therefore starts adopting this group’s language. Another reason can be the lack of words to express experiences with the new technology, so they take over some of another group’s specific jargon. This is how specific expressions used by only a small group can become a more widely used slang that is still limited in the amount of people using it, but can then also be taken up in the standard form of a language. But most members of the different subgroups on the more professional or experienced level, basically the real “Internet insiders” continue to have their own expressions, because they want to distinguish themselves from others even more. This different language usage also has to do with social backgrounds, identity and what is seen as correct and incorrect by the general public. I will examine this in the second chapter of the main part.

Internet Language and Group Identification

As I have already mentioned in the first chapter, this part will be focused on the social aspects of language use on the Internet and what role it plays in the identification of a person with a certain subgroup. Different language use is in a way also always linked to social status and background, as well as to age, gender and different interests or professional situations. As was already pointed out, Internet language is made up of different types of jargons used and developed by different groups on the Internet, for example gamers or hackers. Concerning hackers, Crystal states:

Hackers are plainly very aware of their identity as members of an Internet culture (more precisely, a collection of subcultures), dating from the earliest days, proud of their common background and values, and conscious of their expertise. (73)

This already shows the importance of identification with a certain group and the wider context in which this group is seen or what this group stands for. Users belonging to several subgroups, but maybe none in particular (the mainstream, most “normal” Internet users) might take up certain expressions and generalize their usage or they might even develop their own jargon and form a new subgroup. They do that in order to fit into a certain group and get the feeling that they belong, but also to distinguish themselves from other subgroups. Crystal explains that there is a “strong personal, creative spirit” in Netspeak and that Internet users are constantly looking for new expressions and words to describe the experiences they make with this new technology (71).

In this context, it is important to come back to the different age groups, because the younger generations generally tend to change and take up new expressions faster and use non-standard expressions more frequently. The reason for this also is their “behavior in opposition to legitimized institutional culture” and their “relaxed attitude to language norms” (Dᶏbrowska, 65). These young people play a big role in shaping Internet language and they very much identify themselves with their way of speaking and try to be different from other youth groups before them. Many of them also belong to several subgroups, thus spreading new expressions rather quickly among each other. Since the highest number of Internet users and especially instant messenger users are teenagers and young adults, it is clear that this “young average age of its [Internet Relay Chat] users, […] has a great influence on the language used” (Schulze, 67).

Therefore, it can be concluded that younger users tend to follow trends faster and knowing, for instance, specific expressions and usages of certain emoticons that are “in” at the moment while talking to friends on a social media platform is a “tool of socialisation as well as an important in-group marker” (Dᶏbrowska, 72). Lauren Squires even mentions that not understanding or being able to use the right kind of language has been portrayed as an obstacle in using the Internet and first has to be learned to become an Internet “insider” (469). The youth strives to set themselves apart from people of other ages, but also within their age groups, they want to distinguish themselves from others with different backgrounds through a different language use.

Squires also introduces her findings on the topic in her article “Enregistering Internet Language” and states that most of the participants of her study claimed not to use Internet language (479). So here we can see that there are Internet users who distance themselves from Internet language. She goes on to say that

Participants attribute internet language primarily to four broad categories of speakers: youth, females, the lazy or inexperienced (those who do not put forth the effort required to type in standard fashion, including novice internet users), and the uneducated/low-status/unintelligent (479)

This indicates that Internet users themselves attach great importance to the usage of a certain language and the underlying social meanings of this usage. It becomes very clear that all the participants are well aware of the fact that through the different types of language usages we can be distinguished and assigned to a specific group in society by others, but whether we can identify ourselves with it also depends on how we want to be seen by others. Therefore, this creates another reason to assume that through different language usage, user identities are created among people on the Internet, within their own Internet group, and on the Internet in general or at least to distinguish themselves from the mainstream and other users.

It is interesting that there is not only a differentiation in language use made between different age groups on the Internet, but also between “novice internet users” and users who are already familiar with the medium, as well as different genders and education levels. It becomes clear that the question of social identity and identification is more complex and also always depends on how the specific subgroup is perceived by others and what is expected of its individual members. This goes along with the establishment of certain “rules” of how to use language and what is seen as right and wrong, but also with changing ideologies in society about what is important and right and what is not. Crystal mentions this notion of the establishment of certain rules in order to communicate “correctly” on the Internet in certain groups (e.g. chat groups) and the sanctioning of users who do not follow these rules (75).

Naomi Baron argues that “commonplace depictions of the character of email” cannot be applied to the messages written by all kinds of members of different groups (e.g older and younger users) it always depends on the context in which a certain message is written and what meaning the writer wants to convey (“Why Email Looks Like Speech”, 2). She goes on to say that “[t]echnology often enhances and reflects rather than precipitating linguistic and social change” (6). This also shows that the Internet has a strong influence on a changing language use that has to do with a change in society, part of which is a changing perception of belonging and identification with a certain social group. What social group we want or try to belong to then also has to do with how we construct and see ourselves, but especially with how we want others to perceive us. Baron suggests: “This ‘public face’ we display to others is shaped by individual bent as well as by community norms that are in vogue at the time” (8). This means that we (in our presentation to others) are not entirely “uninhibited”, but also always guided by trends and social expectations. Whether someone is male, female, old or young, rich or poor, through their language usage people can already establish a certain identity, which is even easier to achieve on the Internet, as it cannot usually be seen who the other person we are talking to really is. Donath describes this when she says “[…] in the disembodied world of the virtual community, identity is also ambiguous” (29).


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Internet Language and Group Identification
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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internet, language, group, identification
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Katharina Gerhardt (Author), 2015, Internet Language and Group Identification, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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