What We Talk About WHEN WE TALK ABOUT CAPS LOCK

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Happy International Caps Lock Day, everyone! NO, SERIOUSLY.

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Flickr/Zawezome

Today is International Caps Lock Day, which is -- after National Punctuation Day and International Talk Like a Pirate Day -- among the best of our fake holidays. Today, like all the best holidays, gives us an excuse to do something we ordinarily would not: to type EXCLUSIVELY IN CAPITAL LETTERS, which is the effective equivalent of shouting, which is the effective equivalent of provoking and/or annoying EVERYONE YOU ENCOUNTER ON THE INTERNET. [Editor's note: SO YOU CLAIM.]

Because ALL CAPS, we all know, is aggressive. It is rude. Etiquette -- er, netiquette -- therefore strongly advises against its use. For example:

Typing in all capital letters on the Internet is considered rude because it is difficult to read and comes across as very aggressive (LIKE SHOUTING!). If you take away nothing from this 'how-to' other than knowing that typing in "caps" is widely despised on the Internet, consider it time well spent.

But on this day -- this INCREDIBLY AUSPICIOUS DAY -- it's worth noting how quaint all these earnest appeals seem as delivered on, and to, the Internet of 2012. That's in part because, the web having evolved beyond bulletin boards, they are now redundant. But it's also because we've evolved, in some sense, beyond "netiquette." As the web moves from a novelty to a way of life, we no longer have to patiently teach each other how to Internet. Which means that we are freer to experiment with conventions. Which means that the default suggestion of all-caps writing can go from "YES I AM SHOUTING AT YOU HAHA SORRY BUT NOT REALLY" to something more interesting and nuanced: irony, sarcasm, implication. Shouting, BUT NOT REALLY.

Which is a nice little hack. For centuries, writers -- frustrated, perhaps, at the mayhem that can come from irony gone wrong -- have proposed things like irony marks and sarcasm codes. For centuries, those proposals have been rebuffed by readers who like a little ambiguity in their words. We've resisted making irony explicit because we've sensed, in some way, that explicitness itself can be a little bit rude -- and that blunt text can imply a blunt reader. The magic of writing, whether the thing being written is an essay or a tweet or grocery list, has always been its peculiar mix of meaning and mystery. All-caps text preserves a teeny bit of that alchemy. It tells readers, "I'm up to something." But it also tells them, THE SOMETHING IS UP TO YOU.


Hat tip Chris Heller

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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