Is new media ruining language?

By Joshua Grant, Contributor

When I was in my early teens, it was MSN Messenger. Then it was text messages. Now I can’t turn on the Internet without seeing some screed about how millennials can’t think or write anymore because they live in a world of “140 characters.” Or whatever. It’s the same story. A new communications technology takes psychic market share from an old one and this time it’s certain: the English language is done for, gone—or, at least, reduced to a series of grunts, hashtags, and one long unstressed and toneless schwa.

Of course abbreviations and informalities abound, but criticizing that is like criticizing techno for being repetitive. For what it’s worth, one study found that the average word on Twitter was larger than the average word in a selection of classic novels and Shakespeare. More importantly, though, there’s no good evidence that the use of new media, with its brevity and immediacy, makes people worse communicators outside of the appropriate context. Most of the evidence towards new media ruining communication skills tends to be anecdotal—a struggling student using inappropriate “online” language in an essay, often. Would they have messed up in a different way otherwise? Probably.

Certainly, the benefits and limitations of different media impact how language is used in that media and in other media. Where the old guard might be right is that people who use new media will choose not to indulge in old media. But why should we expect them to? It’s popular to lament the death of the written letter, the great Canadian postal service, carrier pigeons, and paper boys with hard pomade hair, but we’re living in a different world, a world that has moved on to other communication techniques. Are we worried that kids aren’t learning Morse code? Or engraving technique? Absolutely not. But as these techniques were phased out, I can imagine similar panics. This outrage is as old as technology: in Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates dissects an Egyptian myth to make the point that the technology of writing itself is problematic because it will cause people to stop using their memories. And to some degree, he’s right. But who needs memory when you can write? What was I saying again?

Any judgement either way depends on highly subjective criteria, based largely on whatever media one is comfortable with. Look: writing a good tweet is a skill. It’s a deceptively difficult skill, too—tweets are in some ways as restrictive as sonnets and haiku, and there’s a lot more to consider than simply your message. Writing an old-school letter is a skill, too. Both skills use language. One is private and slow; the other public and instant. Tweets as public and immediate have affected how online communications are written, if simply because they work better when they’re brief. To write a tweet like a letter would be just as useless as vice versa.

The 140 character panic boils down to an older generation’s inability to adapt just as much as the younger generation’s unwillingness to compromise. The fact that someone versed in the old, linear media can’t sufficiently parse the languages of new media doesn’t mean that the languages are worse. An email might be more brief than a latter-day letter, but that doesn’t mean that it is an inferior mode of communication. Language and communication aren’t devolving. They’re just changing, like they have constantly, to meet (and make) new technology. Schwaaa! #yolo