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.
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?