Recent Blog PostsStyle

The End of Writing as We Know it: The Impact of Social Media

The people telling you who can write and who cannot are those who don’t want language to change. They don’t want ideas to change. They don’t want social media savvy students talking and writing in ways that are unfamiliar to the previous generation.

Often overheard in my department:

Colleague 1: Jeez! Our students don’t know how to write anymore. 

Colleague 2: Yeah, all they do is read from their smartphones instead of …

True, our students do stare too much at their phones. But it’s not that simple. Even some of my best students tell me that university handbooks and handouts bore them. When asked about technology-based text, their attitude turns much more positive.

In my course discussions, students are keen to share that blogs and social media give them more confidence in their writing skills. Students like the fact that there’s a whole community of friends waiting to absorb what they wrote. And unlike course assignments, this kind of writing is interactive. Instead of a professor reading and judging what they wrote, it’s their same-aged peers who do so.

Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, investigated about 15,000 writing samples from students over a five-year period.

Results showed that only 38 percent of students’ writing takes place in the classroom. 

Prior to the Internet, nearly all writing young people did was for the classroom.

The increased amount of writing that students do outside the classroom these days is so significant that Lumsford called it a “paradigm shift”, a fundamental change. The Stanford study also found that students write mostly to debate, to organize, or to persuade. This is much more demanding than most of the writing they have to do in university. A majority of respondents in the Stanford study were not enthusiastic about writing for school; they felt that the only purpose of doing so was to get a grade.

Now, does this mean that school essays on renewable energy will soon be replaced by feedback on Taylor Swift’s Facebook page? I doubt it. Google it, and you will find that recent research suggests that students are not just keen social media writers. They love reading also. Since keen readers often turn out to be active writers, chances are things are changing for the best.

Those who read wish to engage in dialogue. Engaging in dialogue means you have something to say. 

Having something to say often leads to an urge to write. Writing provides more confidence in your general writing skills.

Hence, students have a sharp sense of what makes for good writing: unlike their parents before them, they are able to write for a real-time audience.

Social media break down personal barriers between young adults. My own generation once used to make endless telephone calls. Students now post things on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, WhatsApp – just to name a few. They would never reach as many people by making telephone calls. Social media are not isolating young people as some of us want to believe.

What about the reaction of professors? Or students’ parents? From my observation, it seems they are concerned about poor grammar and increasing text speak in social media style. Popular messaging services like WhatsApp and LINE encourage writing shorthand and encourage a whole new language of abbreviations. Some of those abbreviations have turned into new words that hit the Oxford Dictionary: OMG, LOL, selfie, tweet, unfriend… “LOL” has even changed from its original meaning “laughing out loud” to a mere joke or lighthearted inflection added to written messages. A new kind of punctuation, in other words.

Text speak is fast evolving into a language of its own. It’s used increasingly in daily writing.

But rather than the younger generation of students losing its grammar, could it be that it’s the older generation being left behind?

It’s somewhat amusing to hear my students comment that pre-Internet writing (letters, memos etc.) must have been a very ‘isolated’ activity. They believe that in the days I stood in their shoes, my thoughts, comments and criticisms never reached others.

Students also seem to think I used to communicate with one person at a time. For them, writing has become a much more social way to communicate. Often more social then merely talking to one another. So could it be that writing for social media is actually sharpening – rather than eroding – our students’ writing and even overall communication skills?

I like to remind my students that blogging, in particular, is an effective tool to improve their writing. Their shorthand text speak used in Whatsapp that slips into their Facebook, emails, blogs also shows up in their written assignments. Still, a majority of students is aware of how to write properly. And given the right encouragement, they do so.

Gone are long drawn-out sentences or lengthy introductions. 

The once-preferred epic writing of the past centuries is rapidly being replaced by concise and to the point writing.

One might almost become nostalgic about the past. Better, though, would be to accept this as new writing style that can indeed coexist with even the most eloquent classics in literature. But will young people still accept the more archaic style that takes more time and effort to read and write?

As I’m writing this post, for example, I can only produce sentences that take a few seconds to read. Or you, too, might click away to another site. Writing for my blog, I’m always looking for punchy sentences in an active voice. And have to remind myself to avoid using long sentences or overly academic wording. Pragmatic? Maybe. Necessary to be noticed? Definitely.

Social media turned writing into something much more colloquial. These colloquialisms will dominate the writings of our children and grandchildren. And, in all probability, they will also have a liberating impact on the rule-ridden and pompous style of academic writing.

I am not all for social media for students, though. The dominance of smartphones makes for a number of my students being ‘present’ in my classroom without completely ‘being’ there. In or out of class, some of them are literally glued to their phone screen.

But the notion that social media have made students into less social human beings needs to be rejected.

Admittedly, they are more distracted. This can, over time, turn into a serious problem. Postgraduates, in particular, and even faculty members are at risk. What starts out as a rational use of social media can easily lead to some kind of delaying tactics. And escaping from this can prove very difficult. Here’s an example relevant to faculty.

Imagine you’re working on your academic manuscript for journal submission. But your work has come to a temporary halt: there’s something you need to think about. While you’re thinking, you quickly check your WhatsApp messages. You sent a message earlier and want to see if there’s any reply. In the meantime, you also open two new windows in your browser to check Facebook and email. Your attention is fast scattering across the different social media sites. And before you know it, you end up reading Jeremy Clarkson’s latest tweets. But you realize what’s happening and tell yourself to get back to your manuscript. But you’re also tempted to check WhatsApp just one more time for that message you’ve been waiting for.

It’s hard to ignore our social media connections. It’s equally hard to concentrate on the much less ‘connected’ university work. Self-discipline in work is not only hard when you’re young. My computer or phone can really distract me from my work. They do, occasionally, cause me to become near-lethargic. So despite its advantages for reading and writing there’s a real risk that our students will, in much the same way, not be able to focus on their required work.

Social media might prompt students or younger faculty members to replace academic writing with a much less demanding writing style. Still, this wouldn’t mean that the current generation of students is writing less. Students are still writing, more actually than anyone I knew of before the arrival of social media.

Given the right supervision and incentives by university faculty, our students can lead the way in getting rid of bad 

and pretentious academic language by so-called ‘scholars’ who actually have very little to say.

I am convinced that the best writers, great at expressing themselves and confident at writing persuasively, are graduating from our universities right now.