The Art of Screaming Online

Nobody, not even on the Internet, likes to be screamed at, which has led to the slow disappearance of an Internet lingo tradition: the ALL CAPS shouty-phrase.

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Nobody likes to be screamed at, not even on the Internet, which is leading to the disappearance of an ancient , which has led to the slow disappearance of an ancient form of typography: ALL CAPS. While there's no actual yelling with voices involved, reading a sentence using only capital letters feels like GETTING HIT IN THE FACE BY A VERY ANGRY PERSON. And on this here Internet, just like in the out-loud talking world, that's something you reserve only for very serious, very angry, or very urgent occasions.

It wasn't always that way. Back in the rogue Internet days, before the Internet had other styling, including bold or italics the caps-lock key was used with more abandon, as a way to indicate emphasis of any sort. The tradition trickled into chat rooms and AIM boxes, turning into the de-facto way to scream at people online not only because of its history, but also because block letters look harsh, making it hard for a reader to parse. "Text in all caps reduces the shape contrast for each word," explains the UXMovement blog. "High shape contrast makes each word easy for users to recognize." One woman even got fired for sending an ALL CAPS email to her coworkers for causing "disharmony in the workplace."

But as we've acquired more ways to more accurately express our emotions online, through new linguistic trends —  like getting exclamation point happyadding extra letters to our words, using periods for emphasis, or replacing language altogether with emoji and stickers — ALL CAPS has gotten angrier. If a typist uses all capitals, it means the worst. To that end, the U.S. Navy has decided to end its 160-year-old tradition of writing communications with a string of capitalized letters and words because sailors felt they were being yelled at, reports The Wall Street Journal's Julian Barnes. Not even young sailors — men and women who are quite used to getting yelled at on a regular basis — can handle that on the regular.

The CAPS styling as a way of yelling had been losing acceptance since before the navy decision. When writing angry emails, doesn't a period seem more terse than WRITING LIKE THIS? "It does seem that ALL CAPS is fading away — except in communicative forms where we expect shoutiness, like DRUDGE REPORT BREAKING NEWS ALERTS (FLASHING SIREN)," linguist Ben Zimmer told the Atlantic Wire. But people don't even like seeing it in those places, unless it's absolutely necessary. Reuters often has to explain its continued use of ALL CAPS for its breaking news tweets. A Reuters ALL CAPS tweet about the Supreme Court health care decision took Zimmer by surprise — he wrote about that scarring experience here.

On the other end, when used in non-angry situations ALL CAPS has turned into a joke. "Because it's increasingly disfavored, shouty ALL CAPS can, when used sparingly, be used for humorous effect," notes Zimmer. It's often used in LOLspeak, for example. Or, when overused by people who have nothing to shout about, people stop taking it seriously. Like this recent Matt Drudge tweet:

Drudge, known for his love of the shift-key on the Drudge Report got many sarcastic responses for that one. And whatever sense of nail-biting anticipation Drudge was going for was actually counteracted because people are so used to seeing this kind of loud headline writing from Drudge.

It has gone so far out of style that certain keyboards have started abandoning the caps lock key. Though, that seems a little extreme. "I don't think we have seen the end of ALL CAPS to signal yelling, surprise, or other strong emotions," added University of Michigan linguist Anne Curzan. "ALL CAPS gives us a way to capture emphasis, whether that is yelling or surprise or some other kind of strong emotional response." We all need to yell sometimes.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.