Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 1 December 2013

SOCIAL MEDIA AS LITERACY AID – AND AN INFLUENCE ON WRITING STYLE? by Gill Stewart



I sometimes wonder what the impact of social media has been on functional literacy.  Do we write more or less now than we used to?  Is that writing better, worse, or just different?

Horace - Roman poet who deplored the falling standards of youth
I know many of us groan when we see the numerous spelling and grammar mistakes on Facebook, Twitter, etc., but surely these media are encouraging people to communicate in writing when they would not otherwise have done so.  Letters would have been anathema to them.  Even now they may be communicating more with copied cartoons and photos, but they are also adding their own captions and comments so they are writing.  These are people who would have been reluctant writers at school and non-existent ones thereafter.

So, what impact has this had?

On the level of literacy?  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that in terms of quantity of people communicating via the written word, it has increased.  As to quality, that is a different question.  Certainly The Mail thinks that standards are falling (no surprise there, then!).  A recent article claims ‘the massive rise in social media use among the young is having a major impact on writing skills’ [Mail Online, 27.11.2013]. However, when reading the detail of the article I see they are more concerned with quality (correct spelling and grammar) than quantity (actually writing).  And they say nothing at all about actual communication, i.e. whether the writing is doing what it is intended to do and telling us something.

Others have a particular dislike of texting, claiming that it reduces all communication to bite-sized chunks, with little or no regard for grammar and a definite encouragement towards abbreviation.  I, on the other hand, would tend to agree with the suggestion that texting is developing its own kind of grammar.  It may not be standard grammar, but it is understandable to the people who use it and can be very evocative.  LOL has evolved into something much subtler and sophisticated and is used even when nothing is remotely amusing… [it] signals basic empathy between texters, easing tension and creating a sense of equality… Texting, far from being a scourge, is a work in progress.’ [Time Ideas, 25.4.2013]

Writing is a tool of communication, not an end in itself.  It is a tool that has been changing just as language has been changing since man (and woman) first changed from grunts to words.  This harping on about the decline in our grammar and spelling reminds me of the Roman poet Horace who complained at length about the falling standards in the youth of his day.  And that was about, er, two millenia ago…

Which brings me to another point.  What has this upsurge of writing in the social media done for our style of writing.  And is it, er, now acceptable to include ‘er’ in a sentence?

Clearly, the general tone on social media is chatty and informal, which is fine because this is an informal sphere.  However, my personal experience is that this style is moving over into e.g. work sphere.  Work e-mails may well be more formal than FB, but they are very much less so than internal memos used to be, never mind letters.  Letters are still used occasionally, but it really is occasionally – and are often sent as an attachment to a fairly informal e-mail, so you are getting both streams of communication at once.

Whole books have now been written as a series of e-mails and Instant Messages, e.g. Meg Cabot’s ‘Boy Meets Girl’.  And they are fun and enjoyable not because of the format but because they have a good story-line, believable characters and create a world we want to enter.   If they don’t have these latter three qualities then they will not be a good read – the format cannot make them good any more than it can make them bad.

So – is the rise of social media harmful to literacy because it encourages communication in bite-sizes?  Are books un-read because you can read a summary on-line?  Are spelling and grammar deteriorating to the point of no return because no one cares any more?  Or is this the way it has always been – not progress or deterioration, but just change?

11 comments:

  1. An interesting post, Gill and it's something I've been thinking about, too. I remember when I first began writing I didn't use contractions, everything was written out in full, as I'd been taught in school, until I realised people hadn't written like that since the 19th century! Styles of writing evolve and will continue to do so. I have to admit I've not learned text-speak but I don't use texting for conversations in the way young people do. I mourn the demise of letter-writing, for which I believe emails are to blame but emails and posts on social media such as Facebook are a way of communicating and in the end, I believe it is our human need to communicate with each other which is so important - whatever form it takes.

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  2. Thanks Mary. I too have a secret yearning for letters (although I rarely write them myself). How are biographers of the future to research their subjects when so much of social media is so ephemeral?

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  3. Great post, Gill, and much to consider. I think language is always going to change and evolve, no matter the method of communicating. I don't mind it mostly but hope that we don't forget all grammar completely. But anything that gets people communicating by the written word must surely be a good thing.

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    1. I agree (and sorry I didn't see you when you were down in the South West at the weekend). Communication is the key.

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  4. This is a really interesting subject, Gill, well done for raising it. While I get aereated (sp?) about bad grammar and spelling, I do also recognise that language is living, changing thing, and all the better for that. I'm more concerned where different spelling changes the meaning of the sentence (horde/hoard; curb/kerb; rain/rein/reign; their/they're/there) that on, for example, textspeak (which can be very inventive). I'm sure `i get too hung up on 'correct' grammar sometimes. Sigh. If only that were not so...

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    1. I hadn't thought of the complications of different spellings and different meanings, Jenny. You're right, I really dislike it when people write 'there' and mean 'their' (or v.v.) whereas when someone types 'some1' or 'l8' I just think that's a sensible use of the restircted number of characters on Twitter or text.

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  5. I'm right with Jenny here, especially on the spelling/meaning angle. That said, while I don't have an issue with text speak as such, I do wonder whether we aren't either using it instead of correct grammar - and, indeed, are forgetting what that is. Though I suppose some would argue it doesn't matter!

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    1. Yes, does it matter? Isn't grammar there purely to get meaning across? So sa long as you get the meaning across the grammar doesn't matter. And then there is the whole debate about Scots English and whether saying 'yous' is a really useful way of separating singular and plural second person - or just bad grammar?

      I found myself explaining to one of the stalked off-spring that when i said 'you' I actually menat 'yous' so that meant more than one of you and gave a completely different slant to the sentence.

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  6. U r so right in wot u say. Joke over! I think one of the saddest things in all this has been the marriages/relationships/hopes/dreams ended by text or email - communication, but ....? And the funniest the Italian jellato (sic) and candid (sic) fruit I had for pudding at a restaurant last night!

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    1. Love it, Linda. But ending a relationship by text or e-mail just means you're not the kind of person one would want to have a relationship with anyway - or that's wot i think :) x

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