Mass writing (1)

Communication on the internet is not like anything we’ve known before.

It’s not like speech, because the immediate feedback and physical cues of conversation are not available (advances in technology may allow some of this through more naturalistic video calls).

But it’s different from former writing too. It doesn’t have the permanence of traditional writing. Texts may change in front of our eyes. It helps us connect things, ideas, people, with unprecedented ease.

in other words it blends what we have thought of as the distinctive characteristics of speech and writing, without being like either.

In many respects it’s too early to speak (or write) of these things. These technologies are very recent and they are still changing fast. For instance there’s been quite a lot of public handwringing about the impact of textspeak on formal written language (though in truth all serious analysis has suggested that this impact has been more or less non-existent). It doesn’t matter. I suspect that within a few years textspeak will hardly exist anyway. It was a product of the high cost of mobile calls (messaging was cheaper) and the awkwardness of typing on a phone keypad. The removal of length/cost barriers and sophisticated predictive text on smartphones and tablets has made textspeak irrelevant. If I type "la" on my Android phone it will in the correct context prompt me to insert "later". That’s one less keypress than "l8r" so why would I bother with textspeak?

If voice recognition becomes the dominant mode of text entry in the next ten years, that will change everything again.

It is all the same worth noting that the internet is part of a bigger technology-enabled phenomenon, which is the exponential expansion of the amount of writing we do. This expansion in turn is affecting and reflecting our culture.

For most of the 20th century, and certainly since 1944, we’ve taken it for granted that most people learn to read and write. But I think it’s true that until quite recently people might carry on reading but they rarely wrote anything. I’m not aware that my father, now 79, an architect by profession and still a determined technophobe, has written anything longer than a birthday card greeting in his adult life. Business people had secretaries to do that sort of thing (and sometimes professional writing help). Most people in their ordinary lives didn’t have any occasion to write more than a few words at all.

Easy word processing, and then email, began to change all this. It certainly changed business and organisational cultures, where suddenly people were expected to write their own words. What it revealed very quickly is that most people don’t have a very secure grasp of basic grammar. I think this has always been the case, and it just didn’t show much in the past. When words needed to be created for more formal contexts there was usually some kind of editorial layer they had to pass through. This means that we’ve also got used to seeing a lot more informal writing which happily ignores grammatical or orthographic conventions, and for the most part this doesn’t matter (because we understand the difference between formal and informal contexts).

It’s too early to say where this is going to take us, though it’s worth noting some negative effects that are already visible. I’ll be reflecting on some of those effects in future entries.

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