Future Tense

Wired Magazine’s 1996 Style Guide for Writing in the Digital Age Is an Artifact in Amber

Spiral-bound Wired Style book on a desk
Annie Howard

In her own bumbling, uncertain way, a mid-’90s Katie Couric saw the future of the internet better than almost anyone. A series of clips posted by the Today show captures the bafflement of talk show hosts trying to understand the nascent medium; the funniest quip by far comes from Bryant Gumbel, whose “What is Internet anyway?” sums up the uncertainty surrounding the web’s launch. But however funny Gumbel’s question is today, it’s Couric who sounds like the jaded, terminally online lost soul of the 21st century. When she says, “I’m afraid that if I subscribe to something like Internet, I would get hooked, and I would never spend time with my family,” she’s expressing both the linguistic uncertainty of the moment and predicting a world in which there was no escape from being online, perhaps the world we’re doomed to inhabit today.

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Since the 1990s, the fate of the internet has been inextricably bound to the language we use to describe it, and in turn to the rest of the world. As new written formats like email, chat boards, and later models of social media have proliferated, the internet has become both a medium and a minefield for these debates, a space for the tech-skeptical and the web’s most persistent evangelists to spar linguistically.

These linguistic mutations continue to remake conversation daily, underpinned by an overreliance on English that leaves vast swaths of the global population inhabiting web platforms less attentive to their specific needs—for example, hate speech in non-English language often goes unchecked until it’s far too late. But questions about how the internet has changed and challenged our notions of speech were already in the open by the mid-’90s. Unsurprisingly, one of the major players remaking digital discourse in this era was Wired magazine, which launched in 1993 and within a few issues established itself as a key player in the Bay Area’s ever-ripening tech scene. As it challenged many expected norms of the English language in real time, the publication released Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age in 1996, edited by linguist and journalist Constance Hale. I recently uncovered a copy of it while thrifting, and was immediately struck by the precision of its historic moment: the instance where writing about the internet was consequential enough to merit this kind of guide. Serving as a supplement to existing reference texts like the Associated Press Style Guide or the Chicago Manual of Style, it sought to chart web terminology as it stood in the moment, peppered with jargon and slang marked by a nascent internet culture.

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1996 was the year the U.S. came online. According to a Pew Research Center study released that December, 73 percent of those polled had been on the “World Wide Web” at least once. A year before, just 21 percent had been online. Furthermore, a little more than half of those polled in 1996 said they had been online within the past week, compared with just 12 percent a year before.

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In that context, a print edition of Wired Style is itself a strange anachronism, a spiral-bound, lime-green-and-black bible of emergent nerd speak, not dissimilar in appearance to The Matrix’s iconic title card. As the book’s introduction acknowledges, “Wired Style is anarchic, fluid, and rule-adverse, so beware: the digital dictions in this book may someday ache for updates and clarifications. Consider this Version 1.0.” That’s why it was available online at hardwired.com, which was meant to serve as the living, breathing language repository that itself manifested the changing norms around it. (Sadly, no mirror of the page seems to have made it to the Internet Archive, with the URL long since rerouted to Wired’s homepage.) Despite the many contradictions of setting these shifting terms into print, a remapping into printed matter otherwise contested by the very nature of the project, Wired Style now holds in amber an era whose (dis)continuities from our own are striking to observe.

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The book’s primary purpose is its cataloging function, providing useful terminology split into chapters on topics like technical jargon, early-web colloquialisms, and emerging terms (words like pixel, screenshot, and homepage) that now scan as everyday in our digital lives. As some of the foremost linguistic experts of their era, Wired editors engaged in “an experiment in non-linear, networked editing” to distill the web’s emergent vernacular into a concise 150-page guide, tearing through “new technical term[s], bullshit buzzword[s], or especially gnarly acronym[s]” to define something meaningful for its readers. The book abhors the overreliance on prefixes like “net-, cyber-, and techno-,” phrases that become a “swamp rather than a springboard” for real understanding, while boosting phrases like jaggies (“Jagged edges of a digitized image”), netiquette, and technopagan that feel hopelessly tied to an internet long since dead.

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A page in the Wired Style book defining terms including icon, implementation, internet, and internet protocols
Annie Howard
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Beyond its indexical features, Wired Style is also a paean to effective writing. That wasn’t necessarily obvious to skeptical readers: In a New York Times letter to the editor, one reader complained that the book “preaches to the barely literate choir,” arguing that “misspellings, missed words, poor usage and hopelessly tangled construction reflect most surely on the perceived intelligence of the writer,” criticisms of webspeak that persist into the present. Despite this dissent, this book inverts the argument: Language actually has to be more effective online if it’s going to stand out in the fast-proliferating churn of new content. Thus, Wired Style’s task was not merely to provide authorial guidance to fluid virtual conversations, but to champion “the quirky, individualist spirit of the Net” both online and in print, which the editors likened to the heady, drug-fueled style of writers like Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.

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While its critics could bemoan Wired Style’s exhortation of informal but sharp writing, implicitly condemning internet discourse writ large, the book reads as the creation of literary geeks first and foremost. In “Voice Is Paramount,” the book’s opening chapter, Hale tells readers that Wired “celebrate[s] writing that jacks us in to the soul of a new society.” The image, beyond its cyberpunk inflection, shares a messianic appreciation for novelty and good craft that would fit comfortably within countless other moments of mass social upheaval, like the hippie fervent that served as a precondition for the early countercultural flavor of the tech sphere.

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Other cultural artifacts from the web’s early days further bear out Hale’s argument that people still needed sharp writing and a keen perspective to cut through the digital noise. In the fascinating 1999 documentary Home Page, early web cybercelebrities gain traction through new mediums like blogging and personalized websites. In a visit to the hot-wired office, labeled “the nerve center of the digital revolution,” we meet hot-wired editor-at-large Steve Silberman, who explains why the Gen X sensibility found a home online, where unvarnished self-expression could capture people’s attention in new and surprising ways. “Now, it doesn’t even matter what the mainstream culture is doing, because you can cut right to people who are interested in what you’re interested in, and put yourself up there unedited,” Silberman said. “Unedited data is a pearl beyond price.”

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As the editors acknowledged, even Wired sometimes slipped into the clichéd writing it otherwise critiqued. The book discusses the Wired Magazine Phrase Generator, created by an engineer to poke fun at “our overreliance on certain shibboleths.” As with contemporary parody accounts like @thinkpiecebot, the Phrase Generator’s nonsensical creations (“Object-oriented video is surfing the wired discourse of the technopolis”) suggest an enduring truth about language: Certain linguistic patterns are often impossible to shake. In this, we can understand why fears about the web’s power to remake language become overblown.

Wired Style anticipated a future where meta debates around language and its mutating forms online always hover at the edges of our digital conversations, a trend in gestation when the book was released. In some ways, we are still learning how the ways we speak online can jump off the screen and back onto the page, or into direct conversation. As Laura Miller recently put it in her review of Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, a book widely praised for capturing the jagged, irreversible slipstream of social media discourse at its headiest: “The splintered, multivocal, interactive flow of social media feels inimical to the single, sustained voice of the novelist, intoning for page after page, unretweetable and impervious to our DMs.” However much we still struggle to understand language’s multivalent purposes across different forms, there remains ample terrain for pushing against its limits wherever we are tasked with expressing ourselves.

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Even if Hale and her collaborators could not prepare us for a quarter-century of linguistic unruliness, they did at least warn us of the internet’s soon-to-be omnipotence. (To its credit, the book anticipates the existence of an “IPhone”—only here, it’s a generic term for the emergent tool of internet telephony, and a specific trademark then held by VocalTec Inc.) Twenty years before the AP Style Guide would formally declare an end to the capital-I Internet, suggesting a common familiarity with a tool now used by billions globally, Wired Style already saw the future we inhabit today. While the guide’s lowercase-i “internet” referred only to “a network of connected networks running TCP/IP,” a generic term distinct from new Internet spaces being rapidly populated in the mid-’90s, the book came with a warning, all too obvious now: “As the Internet subsumes every physical network in sight, the distinction is disappearing.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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