Centre for Internet & Society

On the web, time moves at the speed of thought: Groups emerge, proliferate and are abandoned as new trends and fads take precedence. Nowhere else is this dramatic flux as apparent as in the language that evolves online. While SMS lingo – like TTYL (Talk To You Later) and LOL (Laughing Out Loud)– has endured and become a part of everyday language, new forms of speech are taking over.

“Leetspeak” or “L33t” (derived the word “elite”), for example, incorporate numbers in words, giving geeks their own language. One that they use to bypass firewalls and filters trained to recognize certain words – so in “l33t”-speak, porn becomes Pr0n, and onwards moves mankind.

These mutations are not permanent: Like organisms, they grow to form new constellations of words and expressions demanding that users keep pace. And while purists have bled their hearts out, lamenting the savage attack on the language and grammar that digital technology has spawned, there is also a recognition of the fact that these linguistic developments are not merely experiments – they capture the spirit of a democratized knowledge system and the opening up of the information highway. User-generated content sites like Wikipedia, YouTube and Tumblr embody these acronyms and attitudes, where any attempt at regulation, control or imposition of authority is usually met with the reply – DILLIGAF (Do I Look Like I Give A F***)?

DILLIGAFers – people who live a significant part of their lives online – might scoff at older forms of institutional control, but they don’t necessarily live in a space of anarchy, either. For example, academic credentials, institutional affliations and geopolitical location might not bear the same weight on Wikipedia as while writing a book, but there are other ways in which digital rank can be pulled. Your overall Internet experience, editing history and ability to garner mass support for your views are more important in determining your place in Wikipedia’s hierarchy. Any attempt at pulling rank with assets like money, influence or name are casually discarded with succinct exclamations like WTF (What The F***) and BFD (Big F****ing Deal).
One of the defining characteristics of the DILLIGAF generation is their fiercely independent spirit. While they’re constantly connected and incessantly sharing information, they are also terribly alone. When it comes to searching for information, finding people or exploring the web, personal skills with different digital tools and platforms makes one independent. In fact, one of the deterrents for the less technically inclined to join online communities is the idea that they’re supposed to find their own way as they tread unknown digital paths. Hence, DILLIGAFers often resort to acronyms like RTFM (Read The F***ing Manual) for people (read: the rest of us) who ask for information that can be easily found. And with the rapid Googlization of the world, an obvious question is met with an obvious answer – RTFG (Read The F****ing Google).
Geeks have invented many interesting and creative acronyms to make their voices heard, and while some of the acronyms predate the Internet, they often capture the irony of online and offline existence. SNAFU (Situation Normal: All F***ed Up), an acronym that supposedly emerged in America during the Second World War, often finds its way into describing the complexity of our lives. The dramatic nature of interactions, the struggle to establish trust and the complex structure of experiences all find voice online. FML (F*** My Life), an acronym as well as a popular networking site, is a sterling example of such a space, where people share stories of how things went wrong for them, allowing other users to rate their stories on a sympathy meter.
One of the most delicious ironies of the online space is that while irreverence might find a way into acronyms, unnecessary profanity is looked down upon. If you go around swearing on discussion pages, you will immediately be ostracized, and quite possibly asked to STFU (Shut The F*** Up).

This article by Nishant Shah was published in GQ India on September 4, 2011.

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