Is social media really bad for literacy?

8th July 2013

Interesting research from Brandwatch came out on the 4th July. This named Twitter as ‘the most ‘illiterate social network’ .

The above quote came from PC Mag’s coverage of the research –http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2421380,00.asp, whilst on the Brandwatch website an infographic highlights the ‘Social Spelling Hall of Shame’ – http://www.brandwatch.com/2013/05/research-shows-twitter-is-driving-english-language-evolution/

I have two observations with regards to this research.

Firstly, the headline is misleading. Look at the data, and if there is a problem it’s not a very big one. On Twitter only .56%, or one in 179 words are mis-spelt.

Secondly, it strongly implies there is a negative connection between literacy and social media

This suggestion has been around for a while and was recently espoused by Professor David Abulafia from Cambridge University – who said that essay skills were “going down the plug hole” as so much of teenagers’ writing today is on social networking websites, where the style used is vastly different –http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/social-media/9813109/Art-of-essay-writing-damaged-by-Twitter-and-Facebook-Cambridge-don-warns.html

Whilst this is clearly a concern, as regards to a particular type of writing, it is wrong to suggest that social media and digital technology are bad for writing generically.

The simple fact is, that younger people are writing (and communicating) more than they were before the Internet era. Although there are peculiar restrictions with the writing mediums on offer – such as 140 characters (Twitter) and heavy use of images in conjunction with words (Facebook) – the opportunity for writing has never been greater.

To assume that the only writing worth it’s salt, is that of lengthy and extended prose is far too inflexible; and this is particularly true with reference to the English language. Built up across history – modified by numerous invasions and spread around the world – it has had to be flexible. This is in stark contrast to the regimentation of German and the literary protectionism enforced by the Academie Francaise since 1685.

There is a lot to be said for pithiness in literature and writing (as my old MD tried to drum into me years ago) as can be seen from Poetry Tweets (https://twitter.com/PoetryTweets) and the rather wonderful Twitterature – The Worlds Greatest books re-told through Twitter –http://www.amazon.co.uk/Twitterature-Worlds-Greatest-Through-Twitter/dp/0141047712

8th July 2013

Mark Twain summed up the benefits of brevity, when he said – “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

When discussing vocabulary at school, the accepted question was to ask whether a word was ‘in the English dictionary or not’. This is still true, but the flexibility of the English dictionary and language supports an open-sourced vitality to language generation; and if digital channels change the way we write, at least we are still writing……at whatever length.

Nick Hammond
Founder @ The Digital Filter
http://www.thedigitalfilter.com
@digital_filter