Walk down any busy street and you’ll soon see someone head-down, absorbed by their phone, tapping away to someone unseen.
There’s a good chance they’re on Twitter or Facebook, or chatting via WhatsApp or SMS (or one of many other messaging apps). Using these services now accounts for much of the writing we do each day.
In the eyes of some, this is a kind of malignant disease that’s eroding the quality of writing everywhere. They may point to a perceived decline in standards of spelling, grammar and punctuation – threats to even the most fundamental features of writing, like the full stop. Or they’ll complain bitterly about emoticons and emojis slipping into business emails.
Other people take a different view: we’re spending more time writing than ever, and that’s good, not bad. After all, you’d expect a population where everyone was constantly throwing and catching balls to be good at cricket, even if some bits of their technique would make cricket coaches wince. So maybe our daily writing practice – even in the form of writing text messages and on social media – is similarly positive.
(Where does your opinion fall? Leave us a comment at the bottom of this article.)
Whatever side you take, this is much more than just an academic argument – it matters for everyone, whether you’ve just joined your first company or you run one. If social media and SMS are making us incapable of stringing together persuasive arguments, producing coherent reports or writing effective emails, then we need to do something to resolve this.
What’s the evidence?
I set out to ask academics in linguistics and communication studies their thoughts. But I ran into a problem. Unfortunately – and perhaps surprisingly – it seems that the impact of social media and SMS on business writing has yet to attract much direct research. Perhaps because social media is seen largely as the plaything (or blight) of the young, there’s been much more research on the effects of social media on writing standards in schools.
The Pew Research Center, a non-profit organisation that studies attitudes and trends, surveyed 2,462 US writing teachers in 2013 to look at their experience of the effects of ‘digital tools’ – including social media – on writing. For the most part, the teachers were unexpectedly positive, with 78 per cent agreeing that digital technologies ‘encourage student creativity and personal expression’.
They also cheered the fact that students in the digital age were writing more often, in more different formats and for a broader audience than their predecessors ever had. And while 40 per cent said digital tools made students more likely to ‘use poor spelling and grammar’, a near-equal 38 per cent said they made students less likely to do this.
In focus groups, some of the teachers said they had noticed more ‘informal’ writing creeping into formal assignments. And in a culture that favours ‘truncated forms of expression’ (translation: brief messages and abbreviation), some students appeared unwilling or unable to write at length.
Crucially, though, there was no hard evidence in the study that could point to social media or texting as directly to blame.
Writing like we speak
Writing on social media does encourage us to write and spell words in a way that reflects speech – at least while we’re using social media. A 2013 study of 114 million tweets found that people weren’t simply abbreviating words – they were abbreviating and contracting them in ways that mirror how they abbreviate and contract them when they speak.
For example, the ‘t’ of ‘left’ is more likely to be dropped before consonants (I lef’ the house) than vowels (I left a tip) in some American English dialects. The same pattern of contractions is found in tweets.
When we’re on social media, we’re also prone to organising our ideas as we’d speak them – that is, in an immediate, stream-of-consciousness fashion. Given the rate at which many of us send messages, this is hardly surprising: in 2015, WhatsApp’s 700 million users sent an average of 43 messages each per day on that platform alone. It’s safe to assume very few of these messages would have been carefully edited or proofread – most will have tumbled out as typed dialogue. And you don’t need to spend long examining comments left on any Facebook page before concluding the vast majority enter the world without any editing or revision at all.
But is all this rapid-fire messaging leading to a decline in formal writing skills – like our ability to use grammar and punctuation correctly when we really need to? Again, direct evidence is hard to come by.
And research on an earlier wave of technology suggests social media may not be so bad after all. A 2014 study of 243 children and young adults in the UK found no correlation between grammatical errors in text messages and reduced grammar and punctuation ability in formal tests.
The authors of the study note too that we have to recognise a distinction in all this. Namely, there’s a difference between texters deliberately violating grammatical conventions in a particular context (text messages) and showing a genuine ignorance of the rules.
In reality, texting gave rise to the much-maligned ‘txtspk’ in part because users were bound by strict character limits. They used shortened forms to avoid paying for messages that had to be split into multiple chunks. With the rise of smartphones and apps like WhatsApp, such strict limitations no longer apply. Of course, deliberate shortenings remain popular in the realm of social media, where they’re generally seen as appropriate – or, somewhere like Twitter, still necessary.
Social media: friend or foe?
In the end, there’s no easy answer as to whether social media is good or bad overall. On the one hand, it’s encouraging more people to write more often, which must surely be a good thing. On the other, it may be encouraging ‘bad’ habits that don’t belong in a professional work environment.
But here’s another question: can we even establish whether, on the whole, writing is actually getting worse? We humans are inherently bad at judging these sorts of trends. A pervasive belief in declinism – the generalised view that everything is getting worse – colours our perceptions of the past (and the youth of today).
Writing skills is no exception. Many of us might agree with poet William Langland’s declaration that ‘there is not a single modern schoolboy who can write a decent letter’. But Langland died in 1386. And everyone from Cicero to George Orwell has complained about the decline of language and writing, many of them placing the blame squarely on the habits of young people.
So there’s good cause to be sceptical of anyone predicting dire declines in writing skills – perhaps all the more so if the blame is placed on social media.
Whatever the cause, there is a problem
But one thing is certain: there’s a widespread skills gap in the world of business writing, one repeatedly identified by employers (and reported to us).
And this is a solvable problem.
A key place to start is helping young people adapt their writing habits, ready for the workplace. They already swing between differing writing styles for social media and academic writing, but both are a world away from what is appropriate for business. And how to fix either style tends to cause confusion.
Lots of team leaders tell us their staff worry so much about being too informal that they overcompensate by writing in ‘professionalese’. Sentences pop up peppered with pseudo-professional words and phrases like ‘whereby’, ‘herewith’ and ‘with respect to yourself’. Far from improving emails and documents, this sort of language gets in the way of clarity or connecting with the reader.
So what do we do?
This helps explain why training delegates on our courses how to KISS (keep it short and simple) remains a staple – yes, even for those used to writing within Twitter’s 140-character limit. And whether stream-of-consciousness and mindless posting is genuinely permeating our professional lives or not, delegates always benefit from learning about structuring ideas and planning their documents.
Like it or not, social media is part of daily life, and in cases like the instant messenger Slack (which we recently reviewed), it can actually help businesses become more efficient. Raging against this tide is ultimately futile: no amount of ranting posts on LinkedIn Pulse or Medium are going to stop people from using Facebook or WhatsApp.
But the future of writing skills is something that we can all have a hand in shaping, by giving everyone – from graduates to high-level executives – the guidance, education and training they need to succeed in business.
[Stop that. – Ed]
17 / 12 / 12
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