Rhodri Marsden: Is the internet making us communicate better – or worse?


Sunday 23 October 2011 01:42

Every generation thinks the subsequent one is responsible for despoiling their language and reducing it to a husk of its former self. It sometimes feels like I'm being unwillingly shunted into an unfamiliar room where "sick" somehow means "marvellous", but I'm equally responsible for helping to change the meaning of "disinterested" to "uninterested", and apparently I've been abusing the word "hopefully" for most of my adult life, too. These are small beer, however, compared to online manglings of the English language that probably give Lynne Truss an aneurysm.

Try visiting Omegle.com and striking up a conversation with a stranger; instead of politely asking where you come from, they're far more likely to type "ASL" (an abbreviation for "age? sex? location?"). It's a bludgeoning, unsophisticated opening gambit that omegle.com are attempting to dissuade people from using. I'd certainly like to watch someone try to deploy it in a nightclub.

But despite UCL English professor John Sutherland dismissing the "bleak, bald, sad shorthand" of online communication, a study at Stanford University by another professor, Andrea Lunsford, suggests that we're undergoing a literary revolution, "the like of which we haven't seen since Greek civilisation". LOL, you might think to yourself, but Ms Lunsford has analysed some 15,000 pieces of writing by college students over a period of five years – essays, emails, online chats – and has concluded that communication skills are becoming more finely honed. While in the past we'd write something and it would only be seen by one person – say, a teacher or the recipient of a letter – today it has a potential audience of millions, and according to Lunsford we're becoming more skilled at tailoring our messages to our audience and the medium – be it Twitter, blogs, or vituperative comments underneath articles such as this one.

If it does seem that standards of grammar and spelling are slipping, it's probably because there are vast numbers of people writing stuff who, in a pre-internet age, probably wouldn't be bothering to write anything at all. "Eternal September" was the name given by horrified internet geeks to the fateful moment in September 1993 when AOL first allowed the general public to participate in Usenet – the first significant online discussion forum – and bring with them their breaches of etiquette, grotesque spelling errors and persistent use of the caps-lock key. Many pedants are still smarting at this and remain irritated. But surely it's better that people are writing, and improving their communication skills, than not writing at all?

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