Lurk on your favourite show's subreddit while a new episode is airing and you’ll see it. Open the junk mail section of your inbox and skim the subject lines of promotional emails from hip fashion and beauty brands and you’ll see it. You’ll definitely see it on your Twitter feed; you can even find it among the names of semi-obscure bands on Spotify. Everywhere, and seemingly all of a sudden, lots of people on the internet are typing L I K E T H I S. Or t h i s. Perhaps you’ve even done it yourself. But have you ever wondered where it comes from… and what the hell it actually means?
“It seems to create a sort of ethereal, otherworldly, quiet but also looming sort of voice,” explains Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist and the author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, which hit shelves last month. “It’s also sort of like, vaporwave, sad boy stuff. It was big on Tumblr, and it has that sort of Tumblr aesthetic.”
According to McCulloch, the style of typing began to emerge around 2013, when Tumblr was still a thriving digital community. Like so many internet “things,” it’s since cycled through a number of different platforms, taking on a slightly altered identity within the context of each. “It’s one of those things that had this early life, and then it started resurfacing elsewhere. They cross-over from one network to another,” she explains.
What might have read as sincere and aesthetically motivated on hipster Tumblr is often played for comedic effect on Twitter and Reddit. It functions to add emphasis to the punchline of a joke, or make a basic exclamation like “omg” or “what” a bit quippier on platforms where wit and sarcasm reign supreme. For example, when one Reddit user writes of the huge US reality spinoff show Bachelor in Paradise teaser, “Did they just spoil who gets the Blake date??” another replies, “B A S I C A L L Y.” It’s just funnier that way.
Two early examples McCulloch recalls seeing of this are a tweet from the Twitter user @jonnysun in 2014, and a blog on Tumblr that said, f o l l o w f o r m o r e s o f t c o m m u n i s m. If you’re thinking to yourself that it must be really annoying to type like that, well, you’re right. It is. But today, that might be a boon. It forces the typist to slow down, and that’s something we’re increasingly interested in doing. From food to flowers, “slow” movements have been gaining traction. Perhaps it was just a matter of time before that mentality conquered our keyboards?
Savvier internet users, however, probably avoid slow-down by using a different kind of keyboard setting on their phone or laptop. “When you see the space stretch with the letters between them, sometimes instead of regular Roman letters with spaces between them, you see them as what are called Unicode full-width letters. Those are slightly wider versions with built-in spaces that are produced for use with Japanese characters,” McCulloch explains.
There are other typing trends you’ve liked observed: ~This~ and tHiS. While the latter hearkens back to AIM away messages and early aughts chat room lingo, and is now almost always used jokingly (McCulloch calls it a “Spongebobification”), the former is a more recent development. The squiggles, also known as tildes, tend to add an emphasis that’s more mocking than the spaces. Words I’ve recently seen in tildes include: ~soft boy~, ~personal news~, and ~influencing~, if that helps provide context. Personally, I also have them around my job title in Instagram and Twitter bios, to make me feel like less of a jerk for having my job title in my Instagram and Twitter bios.
In a time where we’re eschewing phone calls to increasingly communicate through the written word, whether online or via text or email, these markers give us a way to communicate intonation. Without them, or emojis or “lol,” it can be hard to tell how someone means something. And on the internet, where trolling is rampant and digital wars have been known to break out over a single poorly-worded tweet, tone can be crucial.
“We don’t say all words the same way. We don’t talk to each other in a robotic monotone,” says McCulloch. “So why not have the ability to play with intonation online? It makes everything richer.”
As internet tropes become increasingly mainstream — from new favourites like 30-50 feral hogs to old classics (well, from 2017) like the distracted boyfriend — these typing styles are also taking on lives far beyond social media. The band A R I Z O N A, for example, uses it to stylise its name. “When we were trying to figure out how to present A R I Z O N A, a lot of the bands we were fond of used caps, like CHVRCHES and LANY,” the band, which was founded in 2015 and is signed to Atlantic Records, tells Refinery29. “We jokingly thought amongst ourselves, why not take it one step further?"
“Hence, the spaces. For us, it was an innocuous joke — but consequentially, using both caps and spaces gives the text a bit of a cushion — lending airiness and opulence that allows it to be commanding sans aggression.”