Lorem Ipsum..the battle of words online

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

Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sitting Amat…these few words always baffle me when I see sites under construction or models designed. Not just to find out where they come from – a quick search that answers this question – but above all to understand what they have to say about our language drawn in the Great Nebula of the Internet.

In fact, what is really behind lorem ipsum? Everyone knows this phrase that appears here or there, online or not yet, in an “in progress” presentation or on a form. Lorem ipsum is first and foremost a practice, a professional code for filling in missing blocks of text, while waiting for them to be completed or validated. Designers and developers use it to calibrate texts and get the first visual image of the presented effect.

History at the service of something apart from the Internet

But what brings us here, to publish this senseless text in the Internet where, on the contrary, it seemed to me that all words must be carefully chosen from a Swiss watchmaker for the best possible reference?

First, it is an old 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 about producing a sample book of script fonts). The passage – even if it is a random text – should be compared to a treatise by Cicero dating from 45 BC: De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On Higher Goods and Higher Evils), a work prevalent in the Renaissance, a period of rediscovery and enthusiasm for Latin texts. Le passage est le suivant « Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit… » (« il n’existe personne qui aime la souffrance pour elle-même, ni qui la recherche la veuille qui What are…”). So we define the elements that go into the composition of lorem ipsum.

Subsequently, the practice of lorem ipsum was developed in the 1960s by printing and distributing Letraset papers, and then by including lorem ipsum in page layout software. Today, sites offer to create lorem ipsum, moreover there is a certain competition between generators, some introduce humor or references, others reject them. lorem ipsum has become an object in its own right.

Language as code to produce another form of code

So we can explain. Let us note here that digital in its relation to language seeks in Latin a universal base – a position which it occupied before French and then English – but above all notation, like medieval Latin which the faithful did not understand but recited by heart. Language as a pure symbol. And this is perhaps the most interesting: language as a symbol, precisely to produce another form of code, a crossing point, separating the signifier (word) from the signified (meaning); Which forces even incomprehension so as not to let one’s mind get distracted by a logical text. Indeed, one could imagine taking a passage from Les Miserables to calibrate the text, but the risk is that the meaning will be skewed. At least Latin – and moreover pseudo-Latin – avoids this meaning trap while spreading real words.

In fact, the interest of lorem ipsum is to have real (even random) words that give the text effect that the eye is accustomed to. Using real words and real punctuation, we can also flexibly calibrate the spaces between characters, as ‘blablablablablabla’ doesn’t allow.

Are words of little importance in the Internet today?

However, lorem ipsum is not without criticism. Admittedly, it makes it possible to calibrate the text but at the same time, no one is reading that text. In fact, seeing lorem ipsum immediately indicates that reading is futile. This is called the phatic function of a term (like saying “hello” when picking up the phone: it doesn’t mean anything but a code that establishes the connection). So in order to perceive the ergonomics of a site, the length of the text or the potential need for inter-addresses seems somewhat hypothetical due to the fact of lorem ipsum. Here the code bites its tail a bit.

But I return to the question at the beginning. Are words of little importance in the Internet today? lorem ipsum can lead one to believe that, stuffing under construction sites and other figma models with random and swappable scripts. However, the linguistic dynamics of the Internet seem to be more sensitive to words. SEO is enough to convince this: choosing relevant terms improves (or doesn’t improve) the signal, and thus visibility, traffic, commerce… sure, but what are the words? What is the language of the Internet?

What is interesting here is the structured character of lorem ipsum: a generalized text used as an infinitely recurring symbol, separating its meaning from its significance. And there, we bumped into something. Internet linguistics begins with the organization and codification of words. The SEO example above shows the same thing: it’s a matter of entering text keywords that allow them to slip into the most popular requests and thus increase referrals to them. Here again, the text is encoded and the meaning (what the sentence means) moves away from the meaning (good reference comment and Google elevation). Moreover, SEO writing is a real discipline in itself.

Words that drive value in our ‘linguistic capitalism’

This organization of the text appears at other levels. For example, when you type or spell ‘fote’, Google suggests ‘Try this spelling: typo’. Is this because Google monitors spelling and helps us write better? No – or not in the first place – because a poorly written word dilutes what would become a keyword if it was always written the right way (and thus more statistically representative).

A whole section of search engines is also revealed here: the fact that it is words that create value. Michel Serres had already caught my attention by saying this: since Richelieu, the French Academy publishes its dictionary about every forty years. In previous centuries, the difference between the two publications was about 5,000 words. The next version will have a difference of 30,000. Words are the engine of value. And even the words themselves have made Google so rich that researcher Frederic Kaplan talked about linguistic capitalism. In fact, if PageRank ranks the requests, the Mountain View company’s fortune comes from elsewhere.

Because queries don’t just produce a ranking of sites by relevance. They are also open to advertising. On the other side of the internet user’s screen, advertisers choose the keywords they want to see their ads linked to and moreover they only pay when the internet user clicks on the link. But the most amazing thing is that the complex process happens in a split second: the bidding process takes place in several stages.

First, bid on a keyword, and determine the maximum price the advertiser is willing to pay. Google helps this step by providing prices.

Then Google assigns a Quality Score (a scale of 1 to 10) according to the relevance of the ad text in relation to the request). In short, it is a measure of how well an advertisement is working.

Then the third computation, which is the appearance rank, is made by multiplying the bid by the result. Thus, the lower bid can be compensated with a higher score. This is the genius of this algorithm.

A language battle every second in our computers

So the Internet is presented as a vast “word exchange”, to quote again the excellent work of Frederic Kaplan.

Google’s strength lies in knowing how to categorize and listen to Internet users’ searches to develop the result and the algorithm, because they are constantly evolving according to trends and searches.

The language has become a global market, speculative, fueled by everything Google analyzes, from emails sent through Gmail to Google Docs content, to constantly improve its algorithms. That’s why we regulate the spelling. “Fote” has no value as “Fault” has to place ads for spell-fixing courses or to buy Bescherelle. The same is true when Google suggests the end of a sentence. The goal is to engage the Internet user to take a linguistic and statistical path that others will follow to enter the profitable auction process.

The Internet invites us to the economy of expression, structured, coded, statistics and auctions, distorted by the need for keywords, by buying an available domain name, as in the “rule of” algorithm that estimates that an expression corresponds to such and such a query.

This is why the harmless lorem ipsum, very neutral a priori, is actually a small window into the language battle being played every second in our computers.

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