[Chronique] Lorem Ipsum… At the Heart of the Battle of Internet Words and Linguistic Capitalism

Our columnist François-Xavier Petit analyzes the weight of linguistics in the current state of our economy in the internet era: from the famous lorem ipsum to SEO, via Google’s vision, what battles are being played out today?

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet… These few words always puzzle me when I see sites under construction or designer models. Not just to know where they come from – a quick search answers this question – but above all to understand what they say about our language drawn into the great nebula of the internet.

In fact, what is really behind the lorem ipsum? Everyone knows this phrase seen here or there, online or not yet, in an “in progress” presentation or on a model. Lorem ipsum is first of all a practice, a professional code to fill in the missing text blocks, while waiting for them to be finalized or validated. Designers and developers use them to calibrate texts and have a first visual of the rendered effect.

History at the service of an object apart from the internet

But what brings us here, to deploy this meaningless text in an internet where, on the contrary, it seemed to me that all the words had to be chosen with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker to obtain the best possible referencing?

First, it is an ancient tradition. This random text was composed by a printer in the 16th century for the same purpose as today: typographical tests (in this case, it was a question of producing a specimen book of text fonts). The passage – even if it is a random text – is to be compared to a treatise by Cicero dating from 45 BC: De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On supreme goods and supreme evils), a work widespread in the Renaissance , a period of rediscovery and enthusiasm for Latin texts. The passage is as follows: “Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit…” (“there is no one who loves suffering for its own sake, neither who seeks it nor who wants it for this which is… “). We therefore identify elements that enter the composition of the lorem ipsum.

Then, the practice of lorem ipsum was developed in the 1960s by the printing and distribution of Letraset sheets, then by the inclusion of lorem ipsum in page layout software. Today, sites offer to generate lorem ipsum, moreover with a certain competition between generators, some inserting humor or references, others refusing them. The lorem ipsum has become an object in its own right.

Language as a code to produce another form of code

So we can interpret. Let us note here that the digital in its relation to language seeks in Latin a universal base – a position it occupied before French then English – but above all a codification, like the Latin of the Middle Ages that the faithful do not did not understand but recited by heart. Language as pure code. And this is perhaps the most interesting: language as a code, precisely to produce another form of code, a crossing point, which separates the signifier (word) from the signified (meaning); which even imposes not to understand so as not to let his mind be distracted by text that makes sense. Indeed, one could imagine taking a passage from Les Misérables to calibrate the text, but the risk is to be carried away by the meaning. At least Latin – and what is more a false Latin – avoids this trap of meaning while deploying real words.

In fact, the interest of lorem ipsum is to have real words (even random) which give the effect of a text to which the eye is accustomed. By using real words and real punctuation, we can also calibrate the spaces between characters in a fluid way, where “blablablablablabla” does not allow it.

Do words matter so little in today’s internet?

However, the lorem ipsum is not free from criticism. Admittedly, it makes it possible to calibrate a text but, at the same time, nobody reads this text. In fact, seeing lorem ipsum immediately indicates that reading is useless. This is what is called the phatic function of a term (like saying “hello” when picking up the phone: it doesn’t mean anything but it’s a code that establishes communication). So to realize the ergonomics of a site, the length of a text or the possible need for intertitles seems rather hypothetical because of the very fact of lorem ipsum. Here the code bites its tail a little.

But I come back to the question at the beginning. Do words matter so little in today’s internet? The lorem ipsum could lead one to think so, stuffing the sites under construction and other figma models with random and interchangeable texts. However, the linguistic dynamics of the Internet seem much more sensitive to words. SEO is enough to be convinced of this: the relevant choice of terms improves (or not) referencing, therefore visibility, traffic, commerce… Certainly, but what words are these? What is the language of the internet?

What is interesting here is the regularized character of lorem ipsum: a text universalized and used as an infinitely replicated code, detaching its meaning from its significance. And there, we hit something. Internet linguistics proceeds by the regularization of words and their codification. The example of SEO given above demonstrates the same thing: it is a question of inserting into its text keywords which allow it to slip into the most frequent requests and thus to increase its referencing. Here again, the text is coded and the meaning (what the sentence means) moves away from the meaning (hanging a good referencing and getting higher in Google). Moreover, SEO writing is a real discipline in its own right.

The words driving value in our “linguistic capitalism”

This regularization of the text appears at other levels. For example, when you have made a typing or spelling “fote”, Google suggests “try this spelling: typo”. Is it because Google watches over our spelling and helps us write better? No – or not primarily – it’s because a badly written word dilutes what could become a keyword if it were always written in the right way (and therefore statistically more represented).

Also revealed here is a whole section of search engines: the fact that it is the words that create value. Michel Serres had already caught my attention by saying this: since Richelieu, the French Academy has published its dictionary almost every forty years. In previous centuries, the difference between two publications was around 5000 words. The next edition will have a difference of 30,000. Words are the engine of value. And it is even precisely the words that have made Google so rich, to the point that the researcher Frédéric Kaplan spoke of linguistic capitalism. In fact, if PageRank classifies the requests, the wealth of the Mountain View firm comes from elsewhere.

Because the queries do not only produce a ranking of sites by relevance. They also open up to advertising. On the other side of the Internet user’s screen, advertisers choose the keywords with which they would like to see their advertising associated, and moreover only pay when the Internet user clicks on the link. But the most fascinating thing is that a complex process takes place in a fraction of a second: that of bidding in several stages.

First the bid on a keyword, and the setting of the maximum price that the advertiser agrees to pay. Google assists this step by offering prices.

Then Google assigns a quality score (scale 1 to 10) based on the relevance of the advertising text to the query). It is, in short, measuring how well advertising works.

Then the third calculation is made, that of the rank of appearance, by multiplying the bid by the score. Thus, a lower bid can be compensated by a higher score. That’s the genius of this algorithm.

A linguistic battle every second in our computers

The Internet is therefore displayed as a vast “stock exchange of words”, to quote again the excellent work of Frédéric Kaplan.

The strength of Google is to know how to classify and listen to the searches of Internet users to develop the score and the algorithm, because it is constantly evolving according to trends and searches.

Language has become a global market, speculative, and fueled by everything Google analyzes, from emails sent via Gmail to the content of Google Docs, to constantly refine the algorithms. So that’s why we regularize the spelling. “Fote” has no value “Fault” has it for placing ads for spelling remediation courses or for buying a Bescherelle. The same is true when Google suggests the end of the sentence. The goal is to engage the Internet user to take a linguistic and statistical path traced by others to enter the lucrative process of the auction.

The Internet invites us to an economy of expression, regularized, coded, put into statistics and auctions, distorted by the need for keywords, by the purchase of an available domain name, as by the “judgment” of ‘an algorithm that estimates that your expression corresponds to such and such a query.

This is why the harmless lorem ipsum, a priori very neutral, is in reality a small window on the linguistic battle which is played out every second in our computers.

We wish to say thanks to the writer of this post for this outstanding content

[Chronique] Lorem Ipsum… At the Heart of the Battle of Internet Words and Linguistic Capitalism


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