I admit it. I like texting. I don’t know if it is the writer in me, the social media maven, mom, or bon vivant, but I am hooked. It took me a while to embrace it, but I have found the direct access to those I care about quite appealing. I can receive a quick text at work when my son gets home from school—or a little casual banter with a flirtatious friend—without the formality a phone conversation entails. I guess it’s part of the “instant,” byte-sized culture we are creating.
So, I suspect that’s why I haven’t stopped thinking about Stanford University professor Andrea Lunsford’s five-year examination of college students’ writing in the Stanford Study of Writing. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. What she discovered might surprise you. The reality is that the most popular technological tools and social media platforms continue to receive plenty of sanctimonious slander—from Facebook’s narcissistic drivel, to PowerPoint’s bullet-point prose, to Twitter’s unintelligible prattle. But in true train-wreck fashion, we just can’t seem to stop looking.
As many traditional academicians, such as University College of London English professor John Sutherland have moaned, social media and texting are “dehydrating language into bleak, bald, sad shorthand.” However, the new media guard thinks differently. The truth is that communication is evolving and morphing as breakneck speed, and we are right smack in the middle of maelstrom. Granted, it’s hard to achieve the perspective needed to make sense of it all. Professor Lunsford suggests:
“I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization. Technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.”
The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing happens online, and it almost always involves text. Moreover, they are writing more than any previous generation, ever—in history. They are immersed in a complex, often confounding, new space where writers and their audiences are now enmeshed. “The consumer has become the producer,” says Professor Clay Shirky. The rules of the game have changed, and communication mores have been literallyturned upside down.
Lunsford pins her findings to the pervasive psycho-sociological trends defining our culture. She says, “More than earlier generations, young people today are aware of the precarious nature of our lives. They understand the dangers that await us. Hence, writing is a way to get a sense of power.” Interestingly, comparing the Stanford students’ writing with their peers from the mid-1980s, Lunsford found that the writing of today’s students is about three times as long today—they have “the ability to generate more prose.” I guess expressing ideas about hard things requires hard words. And when grappling with hard things, “I don’t think it can be worked out in 140 characters,” Lunsford contends. How ironic.
Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom. Lunsford calls this “life writing.” Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up. The fact that students today almost always write for an audience—a real switch from the prior generation—gives them a different sense of focus and message impact. It’s almost as if we are narrating our own lives. In interviews, students defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading, organizing, and debating. It’s about finding a voice and taking a stand—even if it’s a review of the latest movie.
The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing, because it had no audience but the professor. It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade. How about texting those LOLs and emoticons? Are they eroding the sanctity of academic writing? When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn’t find a single example of texting speak in an academic paper.
At the end of the day, texting has it’s time and place. And, there’s the rub. It represents a fascinating dichotomy of communication. It is simultaneously immediate and intimate, yet passive. It finds you any time of the day or night (no matter where you are—except driving, I hope) in the soft, fleshy palm of your hand. But at the same time, it gives you the power to choose when and how you want to respond. To engage or not to engage—the new “text-i-quette.”
Some psychologists warn against this intimate anonymity—that it encourages risky behavior. Elisabeth Wilkins wrote in a blog post that “texting can rob our kids of the ability to interact socially”—diminishing the importance of body language and facial expressions. I think the evolution of email and texting has radically changed the way we communicate and how we express ourselves, but I’m not sure it’s something we can condemn or alter. It simply is. It is the new communications behavior and landscape, which is inextricably intertwined with the technological innovation that enables it.
What do you think of texting and the changing patterns of communication? How are they affecting us as human beings?
Elaine Gantz Wright writes about social media that makes a difference. Contact her at elgantz @ yahoo.com