My first computer was the TRS-80 Color Computer (or Trash-80 Coco) as we liked to call it. My next computer was the Commodore 64, and then the Tandy 1000.
MS-Dos was an operating system that fit in either 12 or 28 Kbytes of memory. It was basically a file manager and a simple program loader. There was no GUI, no mouse and only one application program could run at a time.
File names were limited to 8 characters and a 3-character extension. For example, your address book could be saved as AddyBook.txt, so you knew it was a “text” file, or words on a page. Don’t worry about getting confused with all of the clever abbreviations you had to create and remember for all your stuff; you only had 256kB, the equivalent of ~190 pages of plain text – and NO IMAGES.
There were also commands: “dir” to list the files in a directory, “del” to delete a file and “exe” to run a program. We had to memorize “copyconabc.txt” for a blank file and Wordstar, our primitive word processing program, made us ^KD to save a file. Look familiar, LOL?
Was Microsoft dramatically foreshadowing our future communications constructs? Were they training us for SMS and Twitterspeak?
We were so excited to be liberated by the Macintosh, where we had an intuitive GUI interface, no special language to remember and WYSIWYG fonts. Computers evolved exponentially from there and now we have Terabyte drives the size of a deck of cards. We can name files anything we want and include the date for chronological storage. We can search by any word in the document, so we no longer have to remember anything. Try to recite the phone number of the first three people in your “favorites”; You don’t know them. I promise.
Yet our language has regressed to abbreviations and acronyms and we have once again limited our characters – to 140 to be exact. Why would we do such a thing after being freed from the confines of Wordstar ^QP?
The reason is, three features of early mobile phone messaging encouraged the use of abbreviations:
- Text entry was difficult, requiring multiple key presses on a small keypad to generate each letter
- Messages were limited to 160 characters
- It made texting faster
Once texting became a dominant form of communication, it took on a life of its own. Just like other languages that develop over time, texting developed its own grammar and syntax, and is now often used outside of its original context, particularly with all of the acronym confusion. At least it provides mindless hours of entertainment.
Take LOL for instance. It doesn’t actually mean “laughing out loud” in a literal sense anymore. LOL has evolved into something much subtler and is used gratuitously, often when nothing even remotely amusing has been said. LOL signals basic empathy between texters and eases tension in a conversation. Instead of having a literal meaning, it does something else — conveys an attitude. LOL has become grammar.
So next time you want to be ironic, use LOL, and in my next blog post, I’ll tell you how to be passive aggressive using emoticons.