Everyone's a Writer

A new book about Hebrew found online examines the changing nature of writing in the Internet age, and doesn't seem too worried about the language being in danger.

"Writing on the Internet is like breathing or walking," says Dr. Carmel Vaisman, who earned a Ph.D. from Hebrew University for her research on language, gender and play.

"Hebrew Online" (Keter, in Hebrew ), which Vaisman wrote with her colleague, Illan Gonen, who is completing a thesis on the Aramaic of Kurdistan's Jews, offers a calm and methodical review of the ever-shifting role of Hebrew on the Web. Loaded with information and perspectives on trolls, spammers and people who post nasty comments, as well as sites like Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter, the book can be read continuously or opened up at random. A useful dictionary with various Internet-related terms is provided in the back as well.

"We are completely different from each other. Ilan is better with language and I'm better with sociolinguistics," says Vaisman, explaining the difference between herself and her research partner, whom she met in 2005 while wandering through blogs.

Apart from her academic pursuits, "I dance Rueda, which is Cuban salsa," Vaisman says. "I also do multi-sensory meditation, am a martial artist and am interested in science fiction. I was born in Romania and am the owner of the greatest dog in Tel Aviv."

Gonen, who is writing a doctorate in Semitic linguistics at Cambridge University, says he enjoys rock climbing and also volunteers for Hoshen (the educational arm of the country's LGBT community ). He is Israeli born and is now learning Romanian, part of a quest to connect with his roots.

From their book, it emerges that the main characteristic of the Hebrew written online is that it more closely resembles spoken slang, free of the rules of standard Hebrew. Perhaps it may seem necessary to immediately discuss the threat to the Hebrew language by a powerful enemy - the Internet - and indeed an initial glance at the book surprised me on this point. While I came across language purists who said their blood boiled upon hearing unusual grammar constructions, in conversation with the authors it became apparent that this was more of a joke, a touch of irony.

Vaisman and Gonen are researchers; they do not get worked up when they come across various linguistic phenomena.

"I don't care how you talk, the main thing is that there is communication," says Vaisman. For Gonen, certain slang "sounds grating to me only if it is used in an academic text." Leafing through the book, the authors appear to have a sarcastic attitude about the fears of language purists, referring to them as "moral panic attacks."

'An existential space'

Asked if the book has a message, Vaisman responds with a definitive yes. The message, she explains, is changing how people understand the nature of writing: who is writing, and what and whom they are writing for.

"We are in the midst of a significant shift in how people perceive the term 'writing,'" she says. "The prevailing view is still that whoever writes does so because they have something interesting to convey or because they have a talent for writing. But this is a perception that belongs to the culture of the print world - where writing is limited, among other reasons, because of financial costs and not everyone's work gets printed.

"On the Web, however, there are hardly any restrictions in terms of available writing space and possibilities," Vaisman continues. "It costs nothing, and it's not a problem to include everyone. The Internet is an existential space. Just as every person has the right to breathe and walk and occupy space in the world, they also have the right to write. Writing is like breathing, it is a means of being present online. I write, therefore I am. But no one should expect that it will necessarily be something interesting, or new, or even of any value."

So writing found online does not necessarily reflect literacy?

"It reflects a new kind of literacy. Not just the ability to read and write, but media literacy, computer literacy and new skills - such as creating a collaborative text," Vaisman says. "Command of certain complex maneuvers is also desirable, such as touch typing."

Gonen: "On the Internet, the language moves to the fore. What appears online is the language, but not just in the sense of how we speak, but embodying our self-perception, how we present ourselves."

Is there a connection between literacy and intelligence on the Web?

"I don't think so. I wouldn't advise my female students who surf dating sites to rule out men who send them messages with spelling mistakes," Vaisman says. "They might not be keyboard athletes, but they are not necessarily stupid."

One of the most blatant phenomena found online today is the manifestation of hate. Expressions of hate on the Internet shed light on the terrible rifts within Israeli society, for example derogatory phrases and generalizations about the left, the media and the ultra-Orthodox, among other groups. "No wonder they hated us abroad and carried out the Holocaust," one person posted, in an anti-Haredi rant.

According to Vaisman, "The hatred bursts out online because there is something separating the hater from the hated, the attacker and the one being attacked," she explains. "The intermediary of the Web provides distance, which intensifies the hatred - to a level beyond what most would perhaps reach in a face-to-face encounter, where you see the victim in front of you and see the expression on his face.

"There has been speculation about online hatred in Israel, explanations of why it is so blunt. But the hypothesis regarding anonymity was debunked, because there is also hatred on Facebook, where the detractor's identity is known," she continues. "It was also thought that this might be another Israeli phenomenon, because we are, after all, very direct and straightforward people, but it turns out that expressions of intense hatred can also be found online in Germany, England and France."

"Hebrew Online," by Carmel Vaisman and Ilan Gonen (in Hebrew ), recently published as part of Keter's Modern Hebrew book series, edited by Ruvik Rosenthal