Making L33t Conections Online: r u a n00b or r u l33t?

R yuo a l33t h4x0r? Can j00 pwn n00bs? “1|=\| 0u |{4N r34|) t|-|15t|-|3N\| 0u i5 t3|-| |_337” (Blashki 81).  If the preceding puzzles the reader, I can understand.  My first encounter with l33t—a shortened form of elite, alternately written 1337, leet, or leet speak—left me feeling much the same way about this online linguistic phenomenon grown out of the hacker community.  I was confused, but I wanted to know more.  As a student of English literature and a lover of language, what I found sent shivers up my spine: an alternate alphabet with as many as a dozen options for each standard letter; a wildly shifting substitution-cipher approach to spelling that mixes letters, numbers, and other keyboard characters; a new morphology (patterns of word formation) with its own unique word endings; a dizzying array of acronyms for conversational use.  I had the impression that a whole new language was forming before my eyes, or rather behind my back, for I could make little sense of this new and unfamiliar linguistic arena.  I had been left behind on the information superhighway, and I could not even read the signs!  As I began to investigate further, I soon realized that l33t, while generally not as difficult to decipher as I had initially feared, presents a fascinating and rapidly evolving sociolinguistic development in certain online communities.

From l33t’s origins in hacker and gamer communities to its present-day use in online discussion forums and social networking sites, l33t has been employed to help identify its user communities in an environment with unique linguistic needs.  Remarkable especially for its streamlined nature, online conversation strips communication of all its physically gestural properties—gesture, inflection, and facial expression—so that text must stand alone.  Of course, communication by the old-fashioned written letter also uses only text, but that form of exchange does not operate with the immediacy of online communication where real time, turn-based conversations between two or more persons, some half a world apart, take place regularly.  Furthermore, where letter writing fosters expansive expression, online conversation favors short, concise response (Some Internet communication channels such as Twitter actually limit users to messages of one hundred forty characters).  Under such demands, l33t has become one available tool for satisfying the need for speed and the desire for displays of personal inflection.  Although L33t-users do employ this linguistic tool for a range of purposes—including password creation and word filter avoidance—my research centers on the ways that certain Internet communities use l33t to determine in-group/out-group status and to strengthen social connections, all within the context of electronically written language.  These functions are under continual evolution, even as l33t itself changes in response to the needs and demands of Internet culture.  Some of these ongoing alterations I will explore along with the social marking functions of l33t will include l33t’s cross-pollination—in flow and out flow—with other online linguistic phenomena, and some of the real world repercussions in the classroom involving these changes in language.

To illustrate the social aspects of l33t, I am focusing primarily upon two l33t using communities:, a gamers’ discussion forum, and, a social networking site.  I chose because its user base participates heavily in the gaming community, and they frequently use l33t in their forum posts.  As part of my investigation, I read archived threads extensively and researched posters’ self- generated forum biographies.  I chose as one of my primary locations for observing l33t for similar reasons—the users often include l33t expressions in their posts, although l33t is by no means dominant on either website.  Rather, l33t augments the posters’ usual English communication in ways that are employed to enhance their sense of community.  I spent many hours reading and scouring both these sites for examples of l33t usage that demonstrate this social phenomenon at work.  Actually, such examples are not difficult to find.  I selected conversations for analysis based upon their clear use of l33t as in-group/out-group status identifier or as community affirmation expressions.  In addition to the two principle sites I investigated, I am including one further example of a l33t conversation taken from the comment section of a You Tube video. This example shows an intensive l33t conversation in which creative display is at a peak.

The use of l33t has generally been the purview of young, educated, males who are at least sufficiently affluent to have access to the necessary electronic hardware that gaming, hacking, and being online require. As a demographic, perhaps young, educated, males may not seem to be a marginal group, but the sub-section of this group engaged in early online activities related to hacking and later gaming have been viewed as on the fringes of mainstream culture. L33t may have been fostered in these initially marginalized communities (Even now, online linguistic quirks and creations of hackers and gamers seem to be considered by the academic community as a passing fad or a minor Internet phenomenon of little significance), but the Internet provides a rapid-growth medium for such social developments.  L33t has already transcended its beginnings in hacker and gamer culture and has filtered out into the Internet community at large—sometimes to be embraced and sometimes disdained.   The use of l33t has spread worldwide into diverse language groups (including non-English speakers), and it is rapidly invading the offline world as well.  That means, as they say in l33t, ‘irl’—in real life.

L33t may now be found in a variety of non-Internet media as well as online.  The l33t word “pwned” was prominently featured in a print ad for the University of Advancing Technology that appeared in the October 2008 issue of PC Gamer.  The NBC show Numb3rs uses l33t spelling in its title, and the showKidnapped recently featured an episode that flashed a screenshot of a l33t email, followed by a brief explanation of l33ts’s origins as part of the plot.   Automobile owners are buying vanity license plates printed with l33t meanings.  A l33t word, “W00t!” has been accepted into Webster’s canon for its dictionary.  Recently, even TV commentators can occasionally be heard to include in their news analyses words and phrases that have become part of the l33t vocabulary: In May 2009, MSNBC news anchor Keith Olbermann began a nightly commentary segment entitled the “WTF!?! Moment,” in which he offered editorial opinion on controversial news items.  This practice prompted comments from posters on the discussion forum.  In response to a thread by poster Archae asking “What do all of you think of Keith Olbermann’s ‘WTF? Moment’ ?,” the poster That Is Quite Enough wrote  “I hope they start doing all the text on MSNBC in 13375p34k cause, y’know I totally love them using crass (as far as mainstream goes) and ‘hip’ internet lingo on news programs to look cool and appeal to the blogosphere crowd!”  Both the mainstream news media use of l33t and the poster’s comment speak to l33t’s implication as a means of signifying community to certain groups.

L33t has its beginnings among hacker communities during the early days of the Internet.  The hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow is widely credited with originating the term l33t or 1337.  Their Windows 95/98 hacking program Back Orifice preferred to access systems through UDP 31337.  These numbers correspond to the letters e-l-e-e-t, or leet/l33t/1337.  The use of certain l33t terminology and the substitution cipher, however, predate these late 1990s events.  The 1988 hacker e-zine Phrack references the even earlier use of “ELITE” as a password.  For a self-proclaimed “1337 hax0r,” the appellation connoted mastery of the arcane world of computer code and the ability to use the complex systems of electronic technology with skill and finesse.   By 1997, hacker newsletters were featuring extensive use of alphanumeric substitution and other display alterations in their text:

We ArE tHe HaX0R bRoThErZ, AnD SiNcE aLl oF yOo aRe LaYmOrS aNd WeRe k-RaD HaX0Rz wE dEcIdEd To TeAcH yOu Of OuR k-RaD wAyZ. ThIs Is OuR fIrzT NeWzLeTtEr, BuT eXpEct AlOt oF uS iN tHe NeAr FuTuRe yOu FuXiNg lAyMoRs!!  NoW rEeD oN tO bEcOmE a LeEt HaX0R!

During this time, more and more aspiring “hax0rs” were coming online, diluting the ranks of this previously elite group with computer-enamored teens who generally had more show than substance in their hacking skills.  These “script kiddies” and AOL chatters were often the object of scorn and ridicule for their apparent beliefs that using l33t was the same as being l33t.  This divide contributed to a sense of sarcasm and mocking irony in l33t that continues to be one of its major features.

Over the next several years, l33t moved out from the hacker community into the gaming world and beyond.  For gamers, l33t became a means for expressing dominance and for trumpeting superior game-playing abilities.  As with the hackers before them, gamers too, used l33t as a marker of community status.  To be accepted in the virtual gaming environment, one must possess “l33t skillz”, both at the game and at decoding the rapid-fire l33t text streams (Beavis).  In both these communities, l33t’s coded expressions not only reinforce ties to the group, they also permit outsiders to be easily identified and allow users to communicate surreptitiously, if they so desire.

This element of secrecy and the covert nature of hacking makes early l33t a sort of linguistic argot, an anti-language used by underground or outlaw groups to conceal their communication from outsiders. As a hacker code, for example, l33t was sometimes used as a way to avoid word filters set to exclude certain taboo phrases or as a method of avoiding “the prying eyes of keyword searches” (Carooso).  L33t could also be employed in creating stronger passwords. Finally, leet adds to its characteristic differences a pervasive sense of irreverence and playfulness.  Blashki describes leet as “highly metatextual [and] characterized by increasingly complex layers of signification with each subsequent use of the term coined in the discussion and constant reference within the word itself to its previous iterations” (83).  This dynamic can be seen at work, for example, when one l33t user begins with ‘OMG’ and another follows with ‘zOMG’ or ‘omgwtf.”  Additional iterations could include ‘OMG11!!!one!!1 or OMGWTFBBQ!!1.  Similarly, ‘lol’ (laugh out loud) becomes ‘lols,’ ‘lulz,’ or even “lollerskates.”  ‘Rofl’ (rolling on the floor laughing) can become ‘roflcopter’ and tl;dr can morph into ‘teal deer,’ with each subsequent offering raising the level of irony or emphasis.

Continuing its gradual infiltration into the wider Internet culture, l33t has fed into and incorporated elements from other nascent systems of online communication along the way.  Lolcat speak, and the rapidly churning world of Internet memes (self-replicating units of information—cultural tidbits and catchphrase—that pass from one person to another through various media including text and oral conversation), many based on video games, have each contributed to l33t’s expanding vocabulary.  L33t’s flexibility—as well as an emphasis on speed—also encompasses a vast array of acronyms, many blended in from gaming, text messaging, and IRC (Internet Relay Chat).  Some of these acronyms have become quite widely used and may be recognized by even the most casual Internet user.  Who has not seen ‘LOL’ (laugh out loud) or ‘OMG’ (oh, my god)?  Dozens of other acronyms are available to the l33t user, and increasingly, to the average Internet user as well.  Some express positive emotion (lol, rofl, roflmao); some give information about the users’ activities (afk—away from keyboard; g2g—got to go; brb—be right back); some express irony, disdain, or anger (wtf—what the f**k, stfu, gtfo); some embody longer messages (tl;dr—too long, didn’t read; kthxbai—OK, thanks, bye).  Online dictionaries house hundreds of acronyms, and it is these shorthand expressions that have been the source of some of occasional negative press reports concerning l33t.  Acronyms such as ‘pos’ (parents over shoulder) and ‘nifoc’ (naked in front of computer) have raised concerns; however, these are a minor element of what l33t has come to encompass.  L33t’s fluid edges and the rapidly shifting tastes of its users make any attempt to draw a discrete boundary around l33t next to impossible. Nevertheless, through all these infusions, l33t retains its defining features: visual creativity (both iconically and as signifiers), irreverence, sarcasm and irony, and a sense of exclusiveness and competence.

These elements shape the bonds of camaraderie among those who use l33t to affirm in-group status or to recognize out-group poseurs.  Users need information about the disembodied presences on the other end of a line of text in an online message or conversation: Is it a n00b or is it a l33t user or player?  Blashki suggests that users may also employ l33t as a means to express their humor and creativity, their disdain for convention, their sense of irony, and as a means to stake out their marginalized territory apart from the world at large.  This mostly younger group seeks to maintain its sense of exclusivity and mastery over the realm of the Internet and computer-mediated communication—an environment that many older persons find less familiar.  L33t may be one way the younger generation shows that it does not “wish to be constrained by the rules and boundaries of previous generations” (82).  L33t allows such users to express textually their departure from convention through their alteration, personalization, and control of the very language they use to maintain the new boundaries they set for themselves.

Creating community online has become a process with almost as many manifestations as users.  In this regard, Blashki observes that among the l33t-using members of the university discussion board that was the focus of her study, “certain ‘rules,’ or boundaries, were imposed (although unwittingly) by the group to determine correct usage and to monitor ‘trolling’ (abuse)” (84).   In that group and many others, l33t users claim that l33t is a joke, but their use of it and their reactions to it belie that assertion.  Rather, l33t seems to be quite serious linguistic business.  On and, l33t commonly performs a role in defining relationships among users.  These sites exist as two points on a spectrum of Internet life where community is being created by various means.  Each of the two sites contains both hierarchical and egalitarian characteristics, but in differing proportions.  Certainly, no one sets l33t use up as an official yardstick for acceptance or rejection.  Instead, the ways that l33t comes to be used and perceived follows a more rhizomatic process.  Described by DeLeuze and Guattari, a rhizomatic structure operates similarly to the biological development exhibited by tuberous root systems that spread underground to form new nodes of growth, all without any hierarchical direction (Colman 231-2).  Rhizomatic growth results in what DeLeuze and Guattari call plateaus, assemblages of the networks connections of growth that do not depend upon a “point of culmination or an external goal” (Lorraine 206-7).  These plateaus arise and resonate organically, and their observable points of emergence may appear in multiple places at once without visible connection.  Such a model well suits the increasingly general appearance of l33t in many, many Internet communities (and its growing appearance in non-Internet environments as well).

The study of l33t in its communities calls upon the analytic tools of sociolinguistics: the study of language in its social context.  Sociolinguists recognize that language is not “a simple, single code” but a deeply “variable phenomenon, and that this variability may have as much to do with society as with language” (Trudgill 32).  Researchers in sociolinguistics concern themselves with the ways in which language reflects users’ physical environments, social environments, and values, recognizing that changes in any of these factors may produce “corresponding linguistic change” (27-9).  L33t is a linguistic change that has grown in the rich soil of an altered physical and social milieu—the computer-mediated environment—and in this context, l33t performs many of the same functions that language always performs.

At its most fundamental, the function of language is to express the thoughts of speakers.  Most languages have a range of styles for expression that vary in formality.  At the outer end of the scale in informality is the linguistic style termed slang (Trudgill 83).  Slang develops, in part, as a way for speakers to stretch the capacity of their language to accommodate their thoughts.   Such change is an “unstoppable given in linguistics” (Pinker 149).   Slangs commonly evolve among those who “consider themselves members of a select or separate group. […] [The slang] tests who belongs to the group and who is an intruder, [and is] fully intelligible only to only the initiated.”  According to Peter Farb, these groups often have extremely severe standards for the use of such slang—more than “any schoolmarm or grammarian” (78).  In describing the study of “special parlances,” classical languages, “craft jargons, secret argots, and the like,” John Gumperz observes that these linguistic constructions may result from “seemingly intentional processes of distortion.  He cites the examples of tribal secret languages and the child’s play language Pig Latin, which both may involve “phonetic and grammatical elements […] systematically reordered.  Similarly, Gumperz explains that “thieves’ argots, the slang of youth gangs, [and others], obtain similar results by assigning special meanings to common nouns, verbs, and adjectives” (117).  At a somewhat more complex level, the restricted use of classical languages such as Latin and Sanskrit can be noted.  Historically used by scribes and clerics to record legal, historical, and theological documents, these languages have served a comparable purpose in maintaining a restrictive “social status . . . where their use is limited to a relatively small [group of] elites” (117).

From creative informality to playful distortion to exclusionary restrictiveness, each of the preceding observations about sub-languages or academic languages applies, at least in part, to l33t use in online communication.  In part, these attributes account for how l33t contributes to building a sense of community among users.   They give clues and cues about themselves through their linguistic choices, including the shifting attitudes of l33t users toward its use.

The methodologies for my investigations into l33t usage in and are a combination of discourse analysis and conversation analysis.  Discourse analysis seeks to look at a text not only for what is in the text but also for what assumptions are made by the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader.  What inferences and gap-filling are necessary to process the text?  Discourse analysis charges that the reader, not the text, must necessarily be responsible for the process of interpretation.  This practice of interpretation that takes so much for granted is part of how a discourse “establish[es] and consolidat[es] solidarity relations among members of a particular social grouping,” and the ability to process such a text is “an important sign that you ‘belong’” (Fairclough 83-4).  The tools of discourse analysis are description, interpretation, and explanation.  Description covers the experiential and relational values of the words used (i.e., the ways that euphemisms may be used to avoid unpleasant relational associations), the types of metaphors used, pronoun choices, and other features of the text itself.  Interpretation examines the situational context, including possible intertextual histories; it asks who is involved and which direction the power is flowing in the text (146-9).  Evaluation seeks to situate the text’s discourse as part of a social process determined by social structures.  Discourse analysis sees the discourse “as part of social struggle, within a matrix of relations of power” that encompass the societal, the institutional, and the situational perspectives (163).

The intersubjective approach of conversation analysis seeks to understand how conversation participants create their shared understandings through turn taking.  The methodology also focuses on “adjacency pairs” (e.g. greetings and expected responses) (Drew 197).  These sorts of “normative frameworks” contribute to participants understanding of one another’s contributions to the conversation, including the possibility of deviancy from expected norms (198).  Standard conversation analysis employs a set of notation symbols to mark aspects of a conversation outside the sentences and words—things such as facial expression, gestures, and laughs, gasps, or sighs.  Since the Internet conversations I am analyzing have none of these, that element of conversation analysis is not relevant to my discussion.  What that means for the conversation participants is that they must rely much more on the power of their words and symbols alone to communicate what would ordinarily come from various physical interactions in a conversation.  Elements from both discourse and conversation analysis have implications for understanding l33t use in the discussions and conversations I have collected.

One such conversation occurs in the comment section of the You Tube “M33T TEH L33T,” where posters exercise mastery over keyboard and online culture with a notably creative display of l33t.  Responding to a mash-up video that combines scenes from a first-person shooter video game with an overdubbed comedy script, posters work to outdo one another in visually elaborate l33t postings and sardonic wit.  As with other examples I will discuss, the conversation quickly becomes as much about l33t and being l33t as it does about the video they are posting to.  Their conversation includes visual play with individual l33t words and spellings (‘pwns’ becomes ‘pwnz ,’ then ‘“|>¥/¥/n5,’ ‘l>0wnzorx3r5,’ and ‘[0VVNZ.’) and elements of l33t’s characteristic mocking sarcasm : “WTF 1s 3v3ry1 +aL|<1n L33t 5p3a|<      Th4ts 4W50|V|3 cUz I <33 L33t 5p3ak    c4n U |23D +his   Ur 4n 1337z0r” (trans. ‘Why the fuck is everyone talking l33t speak? That’s awesome because I love l33t speak.  Can you read this? You’re l33t.’).  In this longer posting, the writer harkens back to similar sentiments expressed by early hacker ezines that ironically point out the difference between using l33t and actually being a l33t user.  Taken as a whole, this You Tube l33t display of l33t serves its participants as a platform to exhibit their individual l33t skills and to create a communal work of textual art, connecting to one another across cyberspace in the process.  (See detailed conversation and analysis in Appendix A)

With less emphasis on the display aspects of l33t and more on its use as a marker of group status, the conversation “hay” conducted on October 2006 by forum members on offers a fascinating portrait of l33t in action.  In this extended exchange, a newly registered member—3vil—makes an initial post written nearly entirely in l33t and other fractured English.  This forum is devoted to gaming and gamers’ talk; l33t expressions are plentiful among the forums’ posts.  Many posters’ screen names use l33t (bu11eTJuNkiE, Sil3ntKill3r-1S, D3TON8R).  Nevertheless, other posters respond to 3vil’s post with derision and virtual laughter, castigating him for using l33t.  Several factors come into play during the incident, including the flow of power in a social hierarchy.   My conversation analysis of the interchange highlights and scrutinizes a notable paradox of the conversation: Even while condemning 3vil for his particularly inept use of l33t, the complaining posters sometimes choose to use l33t expressions themselves. (See Appendix B for detailed conversation and analysis).

The discussion between 3vil and the gamernode forum posters continues, with increasing levels of profanity, sexual insults, and lots of l33t, eventually spanning ten pages of conversation, all taking place within two hours of real time.  The interchange finally ends when a forum moderator bans 3vil from any further posting and locks the thread.  While the posters on gamernode could have chosen to reject 3vil on the basis of several factors, including age difference (he claims to be about thirteen years old; most of the other posters are in the eighteen to twenty-five age range), the selection criteria they focus upon is 3vil’s use of l33t.  Gamernode is a forum for gamers, and as such, would be a place where l33t might be expected.  Other forum threads further illustrate that the group of posters who chastised 3vil for using l33t do not object to 3vil’s usage because they eschew l33t on the forum absolutely, but because 3vil neglected to accept their standards and refused to acknowledge his status as a newcomer who must gain acceptance in the community.  In an earlier thread entitled “Counter strike 2 and Half Life 3,” the regular poster Dr. Aaron peppers his posts with l33t expressions, including ZOMG, liek, O rly?1?, lmao, teh, roflz, and suxing.  In the same thread P-Thunder, another of 3vil’s primary denouncers, types “omfg im blind3d.”  Others posters in that thread use l33t expressions: woot, rulez, Kthx, noobs, and omgwtfbbq2; no one objects to any of these uses of l33t.  In these discussion threads, the l33t words and spellings serve as in-group markers and as indicators of comradeship in the community of gamers.    In the case of 3vil, however, he had failed to gain the respect of the group and had further exacerbated the situation by his combativeness.  For 3vil, l33t became a means of exclusion from the group rather than inclusion.

The conversations I have collected from illustrate a parallel facet of l33t usage as an expression of social camaraderie and cohesion.  This social networking site centers its activities on collecting news and other items of interest from all over the Internet and bringing them together for members to read and discuss.  The discussion is only occasionally turn-based; sequential comments dominate among perhaps dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of entries under a single heading.  The community forms around posters’ individual contributions to the extended comment list.  L33t and l33t-related expressions do not constitute a principal proportion of the language used on, but they do frequently pop up—usually in terms of exaggeration or of sarcasm.  In these cases, l33t often becomes a point of commonality in a group with extremely diverse interests.  The following brief examples show l33t used as a marker of community solidarity in a submissions:

Posters discuss a news item reporting a story in which “Parents Fight Over Which Gang [their] Toddler Should Join”:

amdforever:  I wanted to post a witty digg comment here, but I am just completely SPEECHLESS right now.  WTFBBQ

oblique63: dugg for wtfbbq

J0415:  mmmm…bbq…mmm…

MrMacMan:  mmmm…wtf…mmm…

Four different posters participate in this conversation, each making only one comment, yet, using l33t-related expressions, they manage to create a text that displays their sense of community and common culture.  The initial poster incorporates the l33t acronym WTFBBQ to express dismay over the topic of the article under discussion.  Three others follow up, but they do not comment on the gang parents.  Instead, they divert the conversation to focus on the l33t.  Oblique63 writes “dugg for wtfbbq,” meaning that (s)he approves of the l33t irony in the comment and repeats it for emphasis.  J0415 takes the game a step further, honing in on just the “bbq” and playing with its food associations as well as intensifying its l33t significance.  MrMacMan continues with the food motif begun by J0415 but returns to “wtf,” bringing the conversation full circle.  Each poster reinforces the previous one’s l33t acronym, with a light dash of ironic humor.

In another exchange, “Miraculous Direct Note Access can completely change music,” posters respond to an article about new music manipulation software that corrects vocal imperfections:

ginestony:  So Hanna Montana doesn’t actually sing good??? oh noes!

Onyxblaze: Well

In this very short exchange, l33t usage gets a positive reception.  In response to poster ginestony’s l33t expression “oh noes!”, Onyxblaze types “well.”  With this one word, Onyzblaze diverts the topic of the thread from the news article to ginestony’s usage of l33t.  Onyxblaze corrects ginestony, but not for the l33t, rather for the incorrect use of the adjective ‘good’ where the adverb ‘well’ should have been used.  The correction pointedly ignores the l33t and in doing so, emphasizes its value in the exchange.  The l33t word works here to promote community.

In a further parallel example, users play with l33t’s creative flexibility in the following excerpt from “Sometimes you just post too much information on Digg,” a thread that discusses a screen shot revealing some disturbing information about a poster who wears diapers:


jon30041: Aw damn, and I’ve got all that chocolate to eat still… Blech!

Beanstudd2: I just went LOLLERSKATING!

Building on the basic l33t acronym ‘lol’ (laugh out loud), the first poster intensifies the ironic laughter with “LOLLERCAUST,” pulling in an illusion to the holocaust with reference to the beyond-belief information in the article.  The third poster in the chain retains the ‘lol’ word base but returns the tone to a more playful one with “LOLLERSKATING.”  In this exchange, the article becomes secondary once more to the camaraderie of word play featuring l33t.

Communal sequences such as this one occur regularly on, and some display a high degree of awareness of the linguistic process that they posters participate in together.  Active manipulation of the language, using l33t and its ebbs and flows into the larger online linguistic culture, becomes a mutual exhibition of cultural sophistication and mastery for the diggers.  The collections of l33t expressions and Internet memes used in such a digger conversation enter a realm of spiraling self-referentiality that reflects the intensely interconnected virtual world these Internet denizens inhabit.

Conversations on Internet discussion forums often involve repeated exchanges between the participants, and in the case of the one between 3vil and the gamernode posters, a nearly real-time, turn-based interaction.  In that environment, members form acquaintances with one another through interaction over time.  Group status becomes a factor, and the hierarchical move from ‘newbie’ to accepted member must be negotiated.  In other Internet posting environments, however, participants rarely interact with one another directly in a turn-based conversation. Instead, they post serially in response to a particular topic.  This style of posting can be found on, where members of this social networking site seek out, post, and comment upon articles of interest that they have gathered from the Internet at large. digg members are not a community in any traditional sense; they are a community only of the moment.  Generally, a member reads the article, then posts a comment if he or she desires.  Part of the process may be reading through the comments of other posters and adding to the discussion, but rarely does one receive a reply from any of those who have already posted.  Although brief exchanges do occasionally occur, the nature of the article-reading format means that posters are unlikely to return to an already read article to re-enter a conversational chain.  The exception to that is the ‘digg’ button.  Through this feature, posters can click an on-the-fly thumbs-up or thumbs-down judgment upon anyone’s post, thereby raising or lowering that poster’s status on the thread. In a public conversational sphere such as, these evaluations are not made on the basis of wealth, age, or other traditional markers of status; on no one knows whether another person is rich or poor, young or old.  These age-old hierarchical divisions are irrelevant in the digg atmosphere of egalitarian posting.  Rather, digg posters value originality, wit, sarcasm, pop culture literacy, and Internet savvy, and that these qualities will gain a poster positive ‘diggs,’ or kudos bestowed on site through a clicked show of approval (or disapproval). Through the many hours I have spent reading, I observe that the coin of the digg realm is a user’s ability to say something clever.  Within that requirement, diggers appreciate novelty, but they also enjoy inventive recycling of Internet pop culture.

Although l33t is not a dominant feature of digg conversations, the argot does show up from time to time.  Since digg is related to neither hacking nor gaming as its primary focus, the l33t seen on this site more freely incorporates the other streams of Internet linguistic originalities such as the so-called ‘Internet memes’ than does the l33t on the gamernode forum.  These memes intersect with l33t in vocabulary (also in its original connotation: as an elite user) and especially in their use of sarcasm and their self-aware usage.  This ever-evolving mixture of l33t and memes occasionally burst forth on digg when the digg posters engage in the surprising and fascinating exercise of meta-posting their l33t-memes.  These highly reflexive and self-referential conversations allow the digg members to demonstrate their mastery and ultra-literacy with Internet pop culture and with digg itself.  Posters carry on this internal economy of exchange with social purpose, intellectual purpose, and with communicative purpose.  They build the sense of camaraderie among themselves in their community space; they show their abilities to process and artfully employ the whirl of information available on the Internet, and they communicate with one another as humans have always done.  However, communication in this conversational space—absent the usual face-to-face interaction—means that display of one’s cache of cultural capital becomes all the more valuable.

The Appendix C excerpt from “What Scientologists Have to Say About Scientology,” a very long serial conversation, illustrates just how facile the digg members are at maximizing their cultural capital within their ad hoc community.  The article that began the discussion is entitled “What Scientologists Have to Say about Scientology.”   The conversation took place in May 2008, during the period when the Internet non-group ‘anonymous’ (‘anonymous’ cannot be called a group because that term implies some sort of central cohesion, which ‘anonymous’ denies) began its campaign against Scientology.  This action sparked much interest in the sect, and the digg thread received over four hundred comments.  About halfway through the comment series, a number of posters deviated from the posting about the Scientology article and began playing a posting game that displays their awareness of the structure and content of digg itself and, mockingly, their own participation in it. The asterisks bracketing each post, a convention taken from computer gaming, indicate an action.  The digg posters pull in references to typical digg posting styles, computer games, Internet and non-Internet pop culture, politics, and gaming.  Many of the posts contain statements that rewrite clichés, memes, or l33t acronyms.  Through this play, the posters display their awareness of how these elements fit into what might be considered a typical digg thread.  Anyone reading digg for any length of time will see comments of these types over and over, although in specifics, rather than the archetypes.  These examples will include, just as the first few posts indicate, movie quotes, pop culture references and others.  Taken together, the conversational stream represents a sort of spontaneous community theater—a display much like the l33t postings on “M33T THE L33T” in that both demonstrate their participants’ mastery of the linguistic medium of their communities.

The conversation from which I have excerpted only two small sections continues for dozens of additional posts.  The posters cover everything from spelling to masturbation, all in the same self-referential meta-comment style.  During the course of the conversation, at least three posters say that they plan to take screen shots of the thread and post them to as stories of interest:

Hydroseeds: *Takes a screen shot of thread and creates “This Is Why I love digg” submission*

Jeepy: *takes picture of comment thread to repost as funny digg inside joke*

Jbassfretless: *expects to see a screen shot of this upcoming on digg within the next 24 hours and feels empty inside at the knowledge that i will undoubtedly digg it when it comes*

A poster named anagoge does exactly that under the title “This is why I love digg,” subtitled “I love it when digg gets self-referential.”  That thread includes several posters’ comments about their recursive screen shot posting:

Cloned: I’m going to take a screen shot of this story and submit it to digg, then so on and so forth until digg explodes.

Ninjasenses: Wait, is digg becoming self-aware? (x-files music)

Brainmodder: *comment about digg getting stuck in a self-referential loop*

Each of these posters recognizes and acknowledges their participation in this multi-layered bit of public textual theatricality.  Another poster sums up what they all imply with their involvement: Arcesius says, “None of us really come here for the news.  It’s all about the feeling of social connectedness.”  The digg posters, just like the l33t-using You Tube posters and the gamernode posters all use their newly fashioned tools of language to navigate their online social sphere.

What happens, however, when the l33t and the memes filter out fully into the mainstream, when they become part of the larger culture?  Educators are already beginning to confront the emergence of l33t-style language in classrooms.  One junior high school teacher in Minnesota reports that “25 percent to 40 percent of her students use some text-message abbreviations [shorthand acronyms] and slang in their in-class writing” (qtd. in Walsh).  In “I Think, Therefore IM” the New York Times reports that “to their dismay, teachers say that papers are being written with shortened words, improper capitalization and punctuation, and characters like &, $ and @” as this “breezy form of Internet English jump[s] from e-mail into schoolwork” (Lee).   Teachers have reacted to these developments in various ways.  Some try to enforce traditional standards and forbid the use of any alterations for fear that students will become too comfortable with their Internet shorthand and substitutions.  Others view the situation as an opportunity to engage students in discussions about language and writing.  Either way, both students and teachers confront a widening divide over language use as evident from the experience of Pennsylvania social studies teacher Henry Assetto who found students “astonished” when he objected to their use of l33t-type acronyms and other Internet slang.  Teachers, too, find themselves “stunned” at students’ use in papers of “terms that cannot be expressed verbally,” e.g., emoticons such as smiley faces used to punctuate essay points (Lee).  In response to the rise of this linguistic phenomenon, researchers at Kent State University have begun to study instant messaging (which employs generous use of l33t-style acronyms) for its potential as a new language.  In preliminary findings, Dr. Christina Haas and Dr. Pamela Takayoshi observe that the constructions they studied in instant messaging are “informal, explicit, playful, both abbreviated and elaborated, and …emphasize meaning over form and social relationships over content” (“Instant Messaging”).

The conclusions of the Kent State University researchers parallel what I have observed about l33t-usage in Internet communities: Social aspects of the language dominate over its actual content, including in its use as a vehicle for creative display, for the expression of sarcasm, and as an in-group/out-group marker.  Regardless of the future developments in the classroom, Internet users of l33t and its related linguistic forms will continue to find new potentials in their creations.  Again and again, in conversations on the very boards that complain about its use and misuse, l33t is decried in one line and casually employed in the next.  The passage through this ubiquitous self-policing seems to be the price for entry into these communities. Above all else, l33t in its various forms has become a lightning rod for online (and offline) discussions about language.  Although the Internet is changing the way we communicate, the need for speakers to navigate their relationships to others, face-to-face or online persists. In its ongoing evolution as a tool of communication, l33t offers its users a means of solving an old problem in an innovative way.  The rapidity with which the Internet spreads new ideas, linguistic ones too, makes understanding these new onramps to the information superhighway a necessity for those who want to keep abreast of the cutting edge.

Appendices A, B, & C Note: These sections are arranged in columns which will not post properly on the blog.

Works Cited

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