How social media improved writing

Image of Simon Kuper

Here’s an email exchange I had with a colleague the other day:

Colleague: Thought it was a bit too easy! I’ll go back to them and see when the next times are. Thanks Simon

Me: Sorry about this. If you cc me, then I can take over planning and make your life easier

Colleague: i don’t mind – lets see what she says next but if it gets silly i’ll step aside.

This is a very modern phenomenon: writing that reads like conversation. Day by day, prose is becoming blessedly more like speech. Social media, blogs and emails have hugely improved the way we write.

Before the internet, only professional writers wrote. I remember the term at school when we were taught to write essays. Most of my classmates just endured it. They’d never written down their extended thoughts before, and were confident they’d never need do it again.

A woman I know says only after the internet arrived did she realise her mother was semi-literate. Previously they’d always communicated by phone, but now Mom was suddenly sending her emails full of “!!!!”s and “……”s.

Email kicked off an unprecedented expansion in writing. We’re now in the most literate age in history. I remember in 2003 asking someone, “What’s a blog?” By 2006, the analysis firm NM Incite had identified 36 million blogs worldwide; five years later, there were 173 million. Use of online social media rises every month. In fact, writing is overtaking speech as the most common form of interaction. Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, says Britons now text absent friends and family more often than they speak to them on the phone or in person.

Pessimists like to call this the death of civilisation: a vision of mute youths exchanging semi-literate solipsistic messages. John Humphrys, the BBC broadcaster, once dismissed “texters” as “vandals who are trying to do to the language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours”.

He’s wrong. As the Columbia linguist John McWhorter points out, pedants have been lamenting the decline of language since at least AD63. Clare Wood, development psychologist at Coventry University, says very little research exists to back up claims such as Humphrys’. Her own study of primary schoolchildren suggested that texting improved their reading ability. Texters, after all, are constantly practising reading and spelling. Sure, children tend not to punctuate text messages. But most of them grasp that this genre has different rules from, say, school exams. That’s a distinction we adults are slowly learning: I’ve only just begun dropping commas from texts.

But texts, blogs, emails and Facebook posts are infecting other kinds of writing, and mostly for the good. They are making journalism, books and business communications more conversational.

Social media offer a pretty good model for how to write. First, the writers mostly keep it short. People on Twitter often omit “I”, “the” and “a”, which are usually wastes of space anyway. Vocabulary tends to be casual: bloggers say “but” instead of “however”. They don’t claim a false omniscience, but proclaim their subjectivity. And the writing is usually unpolished, barely edited. That’s a great strength. “Major Memory for Microblogs”*, a recent article in the academic journal Memory & Cognition, found that people were much better at remembering casual writing like Facebook posts or forum comments than lines from books or journalism. One possible reason: “The relatively unfiltered and spontaneous production of one person’s mind is just the sort of thing that is readily stored in another’s mind.” That’s probably why Twitter, Facebook and reality TV are successful.

The unfiltered productions of people’s minds are often stupid. However, they don’t have to be. Nobel Prize-winning academics tweet too. You can say brilliant things even in casual conversational prose (except perhaps if you’re an astrophysicist). It’s just that conversational prose improves your chances of being heard and understood. True, other styles are valid too. Jane Austen wrote formally. But for an average writer with no particular gift, the conversational mode works best. (The other tip for getting a point across is to tell a human story, as I always want to shout at conference speakers who talk in diagrams.)

Of course, bad writing still abounds. The Onion magazine loves parodying newspaper prose, as in this fake news story naming North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-eun as the sexiest man alive: “With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true.” And old-fashioned overwriting survives too, as in this recent newspaper column about insomnia: “Those liminal hours between dark and dawn continue to haunt my praxis even now that my nest is empty.”

But mostly, social media have done wonders for writing. George Orwell in 1944 lamented the divide between wordy, stilted written English, and much livelier speech. “Spoken English is full of slang,” he wrote, “it is abbreviated wherever possible, and people of all social classes treat its grammar and syntax in a slovenly way.” His ideal was writing that sounded like speech. We’re getting there at last.

*“Major Memory for Microblogs”, by Laura Mickes et al is available online from Springer

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