Punctuation, as we recognize it, has been around for more than two thousand years. For most of this time the symbols that separate and clarify our letters were hazy in form and meaning, and evolved slowly; when information travels slowly, so too does change. With arrival of printing, however, punctuation refined itself into a formidably rigid system, and with the advent of the internet, it has embraced experimentation like never before.
What does punctuation have to do with the internet? For one thing, the internet largely runs on it: the web depends on runic strings of letters, numbers, and symbols to lay out web pages, post your tweets, and deliver emails to your smartphone. The programming languages that underpin the web have appropriated a range of punctuation marks for their own impenetrable purposes, and many symbols such as ‘#’, ‘@’, ‘&’, and ‘*’ now lead double lives in server rooms and datacenters across the world.
Alongside the machinery that keeps the bits flowing, the human denizens of the internet have been just as instrumental in using, abusing, and transforming the motley collection of symbols on our computer keyboards. Wherever people interact online, whether through tweets, forum posts, or blogs, we’re creating new vocabularies of punctuation and symbols all the time. Marks are elevated or abased, given new meanings or unwittingly reassigned ancient ones: we are making our own unique grammars as we go, over and over again.
Here are just a few of the symbols that have been transformed from humdrum to indispensable by engineers and amateurs alike.
Next At symbol: @