Monday, April 16, 2007

the case for lowercase

"PLEASE CALL ME TO DISCUSS." Stockbroker Gordon’s email to me has been typed with the Caps Lock on.

Great Aunt Frances is fond of using uppercase for her email too; if you keep the sentences brief and the punctuation minimal, email messages revive the now-defunct art of composing telegrams. Perhaps she's even found a discount ISP who charges her by the word.

If I may quote my great aunt:

"FUNERAL SUNDAY.. VERY SAD..KEEP IN TOUCH ALL SAME HERE LOVE"

Brief. Sad and succinct. Evocative. Except for the stray adverb and the stuttered periods, Aunt Frances's uppercase lets us know the gravity of the message. You can almost hear the STOPs.

And when Gordon writes, "PLEASE CALL ME TO DISCUSS," I’m convinced that I need to pick up the phone. Today. Before the stock market crashes. Or more likely, immediately after it crashes. He's not exactly shouting at me (which would be the original interpretation of an all uppercase message, back in the heyday of email etiquette manuals), but he is typing loudly. I can visualize keycaps flying off the keyboard as he hammers out his message to me.

Back in 1985, I remember Rand Corporation's Norm Shapiro and Bob Anderson writing a monograph called Toward an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail. You can still buy it from Rand for $20 if you’re so inclined. Or you can just download it like I did.

If your ISP doesn’t charge by the word.

Norm and his co-author not only advised us to “Shoot with a rifle, not a shotgun” (good advice whether you’re hunting varmints or hammering out email); they also warned us, “Never say anything in an electronic message that you wouldn’t want appearing, and attributed to you, in tomorrow morning’s front-page headline in The New York Times.”

Aha! So this is how The New York Times has been coming up with those headlines; I knew I’d seen them somewhere. They just added initial caps and forgot the attribution. But I’d been under the misapprehension that the Rand report was the one that cautioned against profligate use of uppercase. It wasn’t. Yet plenty of email etiquette manuals did, back when the whole idea of manners in cyberspace didn’t make most people roll their eyes.

In their email style manual, the Yale University Library web site cautions:

“Do not capitalize whole words that are not titles. Capitalizing is generally interpreted as SHOUTING to your reader.”

SHOUTING. How quaint.

But I’m certain that neither Aunt Frances nor Gordon are really shouting. I’m not sure how the Caps Lock key has become stuck on their respective keyboards, but I do realize that accidents of this sort are more common than one would think.

I once had a bad laptop accident involving my Sony VAIO, a 12 ounce bottle of Widmer Hefeweizen with a lemon slice, and a smallish tub of sweet and salty pickled ginger. I’ll spare you the details, but I’ll elaborate only so far as to say that even after I used the hotel room hairdryer and all the towels in the room to mop up my poor laptop, I was still typing things like, “tgV&JKM.:: HD:jslDXXF” when what I meant to say was “Hi Jon, Greetings from Redmond.”

By then, the pickled ginger had rendered all the hotel towels a bright purple-pink and I’d figured out why I never use those hotel room hair dryers. Surely an instrument that is insufficiently powerful to dry my keyboard would never be able to dry my hair. And how could such an ineffectual hair dryer smell like that?

Uppercase-only email messages now seem almost as old-fashioned as the injunctions against them. It is far more common to receive a quick email dashed off in all lowercase, typed in the dual-thumb method on a Blackberry.

A few people (and I'm not naming names here) have decided they're through with uppercase for good and insist on signing their names -- which would involve just a couple of capital letters at best -- all in lowercase. In fact, they correct you if you dare to fix things up.

“If it’s good enough for e. e. cummings, it’s good enough for me” they seem to shout louder than an all-caps signature ever could.

Even though it sounds like I'm disparaging those lions of lowercase, they’ve had their effect. Now I’m doing signing off in lowercase too, lest I seem unfriendly or overly formal.

cathy. cathy. cathy.

Cathy’s never going to seem like a formal name anyhow. Even my mother believes I should’ve reclaimed the more dignified and seemly Catherine by now. Catherine the Great. Catherine de Medici. Catherine of Aragon. Cathy’s a cheerleader’s name, the name of a perky girl who can do a proper cartwheel and evince school spirit at the drop of a megaphone.

A quick look through my email tells me that I’m not the only one self-conscious about the capitalization question.

lowercase=fun, informal, friendly
uppercase=loud, stuffy, carpal-tunnel prone

Lately though the lowercase trend has become more pervasive than just in my email or riffling through the output of mid-century poets. Last week I took Muni down to Civic Center to meet Francoise and her niece Clemence at the Asian Art Museum. The Asian Art Museum – as you would expect – maintains the permanence and dignity of capital letters chiseled in granite. Muni does not.

Or, more accurately, Muni no longer does.

I didn't notice the change at the Castro Street station, where I embarked (do you embark onto Muni? Sounds less sticky than the actual experience feels). I was too busy eavesdropping on the girl explaining to her boyfriend that Harvey Milk was “a senator or something from around here” to catch the altered signage.

Nor did I catch the Church Street sign as it passed by the window. Muni wasn't crowded yet and I scarcely paid attention to what was going on as we rumbled under Market Street.

At Van Ness, finally, I noticed.

Was that van ness I espied on the station sign? I remained alert. Perhaps I mis-saw. Perhaps I’ve had one too many Robo-tini.

civic center. Indeed. The perfectly respectable CIVIC CENTER stop had become civic center.

civic center indeed.

I shivered slightly. Lowercase in public places has always seemed so self-consciously hip, like those Mac vs. PC ads that make you love stodgy old John Hodgman rather than that smarmy hip guy that Apple expects you to love. Legislated hipness.

I like conventional signage. I’m sorry. Lowercase seems so transient. So flaky. So outdated from the get-go.

Not that this latest move surprises me. Muni’s always exhibited signs of multiple personality disorder. Look at their weird op-art logo. And Streleski – you’d think that a municipal transportation organization that embraced lowercase signage wouldn’t be so quick to fire Ted Streleski (or should I say “ted streleski”) when they were alerted to his past hijinks. But they did. They dropped Mr. Streleski from their programming rolls like a hot ball-peen hammer.

Muni: Make up your mind! Radical not-so-rapid transit organization or quaint refurbisher of cable cars? Adjunct to the mental health system (after all, Muni harbors more genuine crazies than Camarillo does) or symbol of urban elitism? Muni: Major character in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or backdrop for Clint Eastwood and Don Johnson? Which will it be?

Gordon and Aunt Frances: You keep going with the uppercase.

As for me, the jury is still out about capitalization. I guess it’ll depend on what I spill on my keyboard next.

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