The other night, someone slid into my DMs. That’s not to brag — this was a perfectly innocent conversation, one that quickly took a bird’s-eye-view of itself: “Why don’t millennials use uppercase letters?” this Gen-Xer asked me, adding that the stylistic convention was the surest way to tell my generational cohort apart from hers.
To be honest, I fumbled for an answer. I’d never thought too hard about the erosion of capitalization (and other forms of punctuation) in the age of texting. I’m not convinced it comes down to when you were born and if you remember a world before the internet. My assumption was that the messages typed with our thumbs are simply less “official” than resumes and Washington Post columns. Then again, teens and 20-somethings seem more likely to stick with lowercase than, say, our old-ass president, whose schizophrenic mode of capping is entirely determined by his mood at a given moment.
Trump clearly puts a lot more thought into which words to capitalize than how those words are spelled, which gives some insight into his central anxiety: how to sound important. He Wants His Tweets to Have IMPACT. Meanwhile, the rest of us might prefer to downplay our thoughts and feelings, hoping not to make waves. Just as ending a text with a properly placed period has come to signal terse anger, a rigid adherence to capitalization may seem aggressive — or a bold refusal to jibe with others’ casual affect.
Lowercase is not without its risks, of course. In 2013, smarting from a Wall Street Journal piece that wondered if Samsung had eclipsed his company’s “cool” factor, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller emailed his ad agency, TBWA/Media Arts Lab, saying they had “a lot of work to do” in terms of Apple’s reputation. The email he got in return — later made public in the discovery phase of litigation between Samsung and Apple — shifted blame back onto the golden mega-client, angering Schiller, whose reaction to the missive could have been heightened by the fact that it was written sans capital letters, and even addressed him as “phil.” Commentators were puzzled by this informal if not downright cutesy aesthetic, a wildly inappropriate choice for the delicate conversation.
In many other contexts, however, lowercase is a practical, low-key solution to the issues that come with cap-saturation. Avoiding caps when selecting an email address can spare you some headaches later on. New York converted their formerly all-caps street signs to initial-cap-only, turning “BROADWAY” into “Broadway” — making them easier to read, first and foremost, but also reflecting “a kinder, gentler” city. And with a shift to lightning-quick digital communication, any profusion of capital letters takes on a sonic dimension: All caps, we all understand, is the equivalent of shouting in someone’s face. Better to operate at a low murmur, so as not to stress your perpetually worried friends.
Besides, do our DMs and Facebook chats and Slack rooms really flow according to the structure of sentences? To me they’re weaving, continuous — studded with micro-interjections and curving back to earlier points, before the long digressions. And while we see it as a scrolling transcript, in some sense archival, we also know it’s ephemeral, doomed to eventual extinction. Barring an investigation of the Apple-Samsung sort, these dialogues will never be pored over by a third party who needs the guideposts of grammar to understand what they’re reading. When we develop a rhythm with another person online, or on our phone, we create a language unique to that dynamic, and it rarely calls for rules. Instead the edges soften and blur, smoothing out the chop, so that we almost forget who said what, or when they said it.
Lowercase could also be a little rebellion. On a laptop, it saves you the trouble of hitting the “Shift” key, though on a phone, you have to make an effort to “correct” an auto-capitalized letter. It’s not laziness; it’s intentional. If you want an “i” instead of “I,” if you want to stay diminutive, you need to say so. For me, these days, it’s second nature. Why? On the one hand, I never want to be taken too seriously. On the other, I want to take up less space in a crowded world. It’s funny: My handwriting is block capitals, never lowercase, which an expert told me is a measure of confidence — either quite a lot or not enough. Online, I’d rather be confidently small. That way I have the room to grow.