The Language of Online Life

A word maven reflects on pancake people, cyberbalkanization, and other digital conundrums

Photo: iStockphoto

I think we're producing a race of people who are paper-thin—almost pancake people—who cover a lot of territory.

—playwright Richard Foreman, 2003

A funny thing happened on the road to having information at our fingertips: The Internet disappeared. We now spend so much time surfing, listening, viewing, messaging, gaming, and tweeting that the Internet has quietly but decisively inserted itself into every corner of our lives.

Instead of rattling noisily along the information superhighway, we now glide silently through cyberspace. Let's look at a few new words and phrases that describe some of the things we see along the way.

During your online forays, you've probably come across your share of pancake people, who read broadly, but without depth. Internet pundits once feared an almost opposite phenomenon, cyberbalkanization—the division of the Internet into narrowly focused groups of like-minded individuals who dislike or have little patience for outsiders. That process seems well under way, only now we see the term filter bubble. This refers to search results and recommendations that have been filtered to match your interests, thus preventing you from seeing contrary ideas. The phrase was coined by Eli Pariser, the president of MoveOn.org, who fears that rampant personalization is creating a "unique information ecosystem for every person."

Perhaps filter bubbles explain why the Internet has been a boon to the zombie lie, a false statement that keeps getting repeated no matter how often it's been refuted. Here in the United States, recent repeaters of undead facts include birthers, who believe that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore ineligible to be president; deathers, who believe that health care reform will lead to more deaths, particularly among the elderly; and truthers, who believe that the government perpetrated or allowed the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

What's fueling this self-delusion? Some say it's disconfirmation bias, which is the tendency to accept supportive evidence of a belief uncritically but to actively refute or discount evidence that challenges that belief. This is why the Web is home to all manner of manufactroversies, which are contrived or nonexistent controversies, fabricated by political ideologues or interest groups who use deception and specious arguments to make their cases. A similar species of online nonsense is the nontroversy, a false or nonexistent controversy. Either can be spawned by astroturfing, that is, the activities of fake grass-roots organizations (the name comes from a brand of artificial grass).

Moving from the political to the personal, have you ever seen someone who looks a lot like you? The online equivalent of your doppelgänger is the Googleganger, a person who has the same name as you and whose online references are mixed in with yours when you egosurf, that is, run a Google search on your own name. Hopefully, that person hasn't written any death tweets, such as the one written by comedian Chris King, who tweeted, "@whitehouse I am dying inside. And I am plainly stating to you that I am going to kill the president."

There's probably no quicker route than that to twimmolation, the self-destruction of a person's career or reputation by sending lewd or insensitive Twitter posts. Another surefire way to twimmolate is to indiscriminately tweet too-intimate photos of yourself (think Weinergate). Most such tweeters get themselves into trouble via the DM fail: putting "@" (to designate a public reply) instead of "D" (for a private direct message) at the beginning of a tweet.

There's also no shortage of online rabble-rousers, exemplified by the griefer, a member of a game or other online venue who intentionally and repeatedly harasses others. To the rescue sometimes come digilantes, people who use digital tools and techniques to avenge crimes.

So life online is populated with Googlegangers and griefers, deathers and digilantes, and pancake people trapped in filter bubbles. It actually feels a lot like life off-line, which should come as no surprise. After all, we have met the Internet, and it is us.

This article originally appeared in print as "Pancake People."

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