L33terally speaking

March 7, 2008

L33terally speaking

It was three lone keystrokes — a colon followed by a hyphen and a parenthesis – posted 25 years ago by professor Scott E. Fahlman on the electronic bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon university, that laid the foundation to an emerging web-based lexicon. The digital sideways Smiley aka 🙂 was born.

Since then, a plethora of emoticons (icons depicting emotions) evolved, alongside a new dialect that branched away from computer labs to hackers’ lingo and web games to the chatrooms, forum talkbacks, blogs and text-messaging realms. That digital lexicon called and pronounced Leet (derived from the word “elite”) can be spelled L33t, l337 or 1337 and uses numbers, letters and diacritics. A total of 68 character keys on an English-based keyboard gives the common user an expanded range of possibilities to which only screen size is the limit. Well, you probably get the picture, which, in this case can be worth more than a 1000 characters.

However, in a digital era in which smaller is better – mobile phones with integrated video capabilities, web and email services, are becoming smaller and slimmer – we find ourselves forced to communicate and keep in touch within a screen frame that keeps shrinking.

Commonly dubbed as Leetspeak, this mixture of words is intentionally misspelled (most commonly derived of typos), cuts down vowels in favor of phonetic pronunciation and may use adjectives instead of verbs – thus creating a literally foreign jargon used by our uber-techy younger offsprings.

Children today are exposed to the Internet early on, sometimes even before they can read and write. Universal symbols and emoticons make it a friendlier environment for them to take their first steps into cyberspace as well as into reading and writing. They use social networking sites to connect and communicate with their classmates as well as with virtual friends half way around the world.

In a series of essays titled Microsoft speaks L33t on Microsoft’s web site offers parents guidelines and suggested rules for Internet etiquette and online communication.

The 2005 independent film You, Me and Everyone We Know, in one of its sub plots, touches upon these issues:
Left home unattended, a teenage youth strikes an online IM chat with a stranger, which consequently leads to his seven year old younger brother getting himself naively involved in a scatological dialog with that stranger through a series of copied and pasted cybersex chat excerpts, keyboards icons and words he can barely spell.

The scene, which might have won the film its Camera d’Or award at the Cannes film festival as well as roaring applauds from the audience, clearly highlights the environment and jargon into which today’s children grow with such ease. Further more, and not in so many words, it depicts the ease of access of children to cyberspace, the potential danger of unsupervised Internet chats and Instant Messaging, and the consequences of lack of parental control and communication (when in a later scene the young boy actually meets the chatroom stranger in a park).

Some two and a half years ago, in a parents’ orientation session at our then-Freshman daughter’s university, in her first question to the dozens of parents that filled the large lecture hall, the Dean of Students asked how many of us heard of MySpace, Friendster or Facebook. Judging by the show of hands, not everybody was familiar with these social networking sites, and so we were all urged by her to ask and talk to our children about their world wide web.

At this digital age, parental awareness and open communication are still key elements in our relationship with the next generation.

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