It’s easy to think that the world’s writing is going to hell via short messages and tweets, but Clive Thompson has an interesting piece in Wired this month (recommended) – based on the work of Stanford professor Andrea Lunsford – suggesting that we may in fact be in the midst of a writing and literacy revolution driven by the Internet.
Here are a few of the points from Lunsford’s work that Clive highlights, with a some added musings of my own:
People are writing more
Think about how much you write now if you engage in any form of social media at all – and, yes, you should include e-mail in that. Facebook, Twitter, short messaging on your phone. If you are doing any of these things, you are almost certainly writing a great deal more than your ancestors. Not that quantity and quality are the same, but writing more can certainly contribute to writing better.
People are writing for an actual audience
This is one of Lunsford’s most important points. In fact, she and her research team see writing as a sort of “performance.” A new generation of writers is now coming up that is very attuned to the fact that writing does not happen in a void – other people are reading, and often responding instantly. Lunsford found that this made the students her team studied highly adept at “assessing their audience and adapting their tone technique to best get their points across.”
People are learning to be concise
140 characters or less. Need I say more? Well, given that Twitter is not as popular among the younger generations, it’s probably worth noting that brevity is a virtue in text messaging as well. And Lunsford maintains that this sort of text speak is not seeping into more “serious” writing,” as cynics may suspect.
People are writing more collaboratively
Clive’s article just barely touches on this point, but all of the tweeting and texting back and forth amounts to a sort of informal writing collaborative, often compelling participants to refine their ideas – even about the most trivial topics – and express them more clearly. And of course, there is plenty of more formal collaboration going on now using tools like wikis.
People have access to more knowledge as they write
I just interviewed Curtis Bonk, author of The World is Open (podcast will be out tomorrow), and one of the concepts he discusses in the book is “fingertip knowledge” – the ability to access huge stores of digital information rapidly. It’s not a given that this kind of access improves writing, but it certainly can, if only by making it much easier to find appropriate examples or verify facts. The ability to access different views on a topic rapidly can also help us refine our own views.
People place higher social value on writing
An extension of writing more, writing for an audience, and writing more collaboratively is that writing starts to take on more social value. Just as education is moving rapidly away from the “sage on the stage” model, writing is moving away from the lone wolf reporter or the tortured genius with a bottle of bourbon in the desk drawer. We all write much more to communicate, and communicating effectively through writing will be ever more important to getting ahead in the world.
People are blending writing with other media
Successful writing on the Web is rarely just text. A writer may pull in a photo from Flickr, embed a YouTube video, or even do something more interactive like insert a poll. You can argue that this doesn’t make the writing better –and, indeed, could make it worse – but I think on the whole that the ability to blend more media can spark more creativity, cause us to reflect more on what text is actually good for, and ultimately allow us to communicate better.
So what do you think? Is all of the above just the wishful thinking of a highly-biased, Web-addicted blogger (aka me), or is the Web really making us better writers?