“Your being dense if you think their going to invite you to the party. You should of apologized for your behavior by calling them up before the invitations were sent to all the guests”.
There are a couple of grammatical issues present in above quoted sentence that hopefully should be apparent to anyone reading this article.
Your =/= you are
Their =/= they are
Should ‘of’ =/= should ‘have’
There was a point in time on the internet where grammatical errors like these were actually acknowledged and knowledgeable interlocutors, at the risk of being labeled as grammar Nazis, were quick to point to where the mistakes were being made. Such days are now long gone. Grammatical mistakes these days are so rampant online that they have become an unofficial lexicon of the internet. Just how exactly did this misuse of language come to be so prevalent? For van der Lann (2012), a linguistics professor at Illinois State University, the answer lies in modern societies’ tendency for emphasizing visual imagery assisted communication which has resulted in a culture wide devaluation of language.
The trend of declining reading comprehension in the U.S. started in the middle of 20th century when readability indexes came into existence and it was discovered that an average American reads at 6th grade level (Plain Language at Work Newsletter, 2005). So in order to increase readership, various newspapers and magazine publishers started lowering the reading level of their print materials. Newspapers lowered the average reading level from 12th grade to 9th grade and currently a magazine like USA Today necessitates its readers to at least have reading ability of a 10th grader.
This lowering of bar may seem harmless but the print media unknowingly triggered an avalanche wherein all other standards related to reading started coming down as well. For starters, a 9th grade reading ability in 1988 can be equated with reading comprehension test at the 4th grade level from 1964 (Strivers, 1999). In 2011 the SAT reading scores for high school seniors was reported to have dropped to its lowest point in four decades (Chandler, 2011). Even at the top of education food chain people with graduate school experience dropped by 20% in their prose reading proficiency from 1992 to 2003 (National Endowment for the Arts, 2007).
Now let’s add internet and other pertinent technological gadgets to the equation. On the surface level the internet seems like a medium where a healthy amount of information is conveyed through words. Sites like Wikipedia, Twitter, and Facebook have plenty of words in them. E-mailing and texting continues to remain a popular form of communication. Even video dominant sites like youtube, dailymotion, and hulu allow for comments under most of the video clips hosted by them. An argument can be made that written communication has not been stifled but merely transformed in the age of internet. But what kind of transformation is it?
The transformation that the written language has undergone is one of minimization. E-mails and texts messages are good exemplars of this phenomenon. While the expectation for how long a message ought to be in an e-mail gets set up by the size of the message box of the e-mail client, with text messages the screen size of cell phones itself forces people to write short and to the point messages. With both of these technologies people do have the option of typing long messages. The screen will either scroll down or flip to a new page. But the act of going beyond the initial page screen carries with it the implication that you as a user are going beyond the boundaries of what is permissible and in good taste.
The trend of minimizing written communication can also be seen in the length of comments allowed on Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter. On facebook a person can theoretically write a 2000 words long comment because there is no space restriction. But the users are initially given only a small box for writing their messages that automatically expands as they write more. This small comment box size is unconsciously setting up norm of people writing short messages. And unsurprisingly enough, most facebook posts indeed do not extend beyond a few lines.
Youtube and twitter are completely open about restricting the length of communication between their users as they allow messages only 500 and 140 characters long, respectively. Theoretically users can bypass these restrictions by typing something that extends to multiple comments. But most do not bother with pushing the communication boundaries of these services. People adapt the size of their messages to what these services deem acceptable.
At the face of this disappointing information a hopeful person might argue that although the stuff that there is to read has been shrunken to essentials, at least reading is still happening. All is not lost. Unfortunately, multiple eye gazing experiments with regards to people reading online have revealed that people read in F pattern where they first scan the top of the page, scroll down and partly scan across, and finish with going to bottom of the page (Carr, 2010). In other words, people barely read what little is there to read!
But why even read when one can simply post smilies, images, gifs, and/or videos to express oneself. Unlike words, images don’t require memorization of their meaning. Images capture aspects of our reality that we all are submerged in; thus they are easy to grasp. The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” has been successfully assimilated by contemporary education system where even elementary school students are now being told to make powerpoint reports instead of traditional reports featuring words and sentences (Tufte, 2003).
If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words then perhaps this shift towards visuals as a means of communication ought to be seen as an improvement. If improvement is too strong then let’s be open minded and just acknowledge it as something different. Images and videos come cheap these days. So why not use them instead of relying on words as it traditionally has been for humankind for centuries. There are two major issues with this line of thinking that are worth pondering about.
The first issue is that as much as images can accurately represent reality, reality is not always the truth (Ellul, 1988). Images convey information that is empirical while truth frequently resides in the realm of the transcendental and the metaphysical. Can’t images represent the transcendental and the metaphysical? They certainly have the potential to. But for images to convey non empirical ideas they need context. And herein we get to the second point. The issue of narrative.
There are a series of fascinating ‘Brain in a vat” thought experiments in philosophy that begin by positing that the technology to provide one’s brain with any experience exists. Your brain will be separated from your body, placed in a vat, and with the help of a supercomputer electrical impulses will be triggered in your brain causing you to simulate reality with all sorts of experiences that you always wanted to have. Would you, the reader, be ok with living this kind of life? Most people say no because they realize that all these experiences would be devoid of any meaningful life story, some narrative that holds everything together. Tragically, this brain in the vat scenario is increasingly becoming applicable to how people communicate and relate to each other online. Conversation on most message boards equates to people posting memes and/or pseudo random gifs. People now barely strive to construct any sort of narrative when communicating by writing online. The best individuals can do with a limitation of 140 characters is say something fragmented enough that it is humorous in its sheer nonsense. This level of communication can never result in birth of any meaningful relationship with another human being. Because of linkedIN and twitter it is now possible for individuals to have hundreds of ‘links’ to other individuals and have thousands of followers. But when one looks at the nature of (quasi) communication on which this network of relationship exists the only conclusion that can be reached is that the whole network is a façade.
A culture that nurtures this type of human condition is not worth sustaining. It truly isn’t.
Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Chandler, M.A. (2011). SAT reading scores drop to lowest point in decades. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/sat-reading-scores-dropto-...
Ellul, J. (1988). The humiliation of the word (J.M. Hanks, Trans.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
National Endowment for the Arts (2007). National Endowment for the Arts announces new reading study. Retrieved from http://www.nea.gov/news/news07/trnr.html
Plain Language at Work Newsletter (2005, May 15). Number 15. Retrieved from http://www.impact-information.com/impactinfo/newsletter/plwork56.htm
Strivers, R. (1999). Technology as magic: the triumph of the irrational. New York, NY: Continuum.
Tufte, E.R. (2003). The cognitive style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.
Van der Laan, J.M. (2012). Language and being human in technology. Bulletin of Science Technology & Society, 32(3): 241 – 252.