May 24, 2008 Instant messaging. Blogs. Wikis. Social networking sites. Cell phones. All of these allow us to communicate with each other—wherever, whenever. Many people speculate that online and mobile technologies have widely impacted written language, especially that of teenagers and young adults. Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University, says that surprisingly, this probably isn’t so.
“Technologies such as email, instant messaging and text messaging aren’t sounding the death knell for written language as we know it,” Baron said. “In fact, studies in the United States, the United Kingdom and Sweden all report that teenagers have a rather clear understanding that ‘school writing’ is different from the messages they send to friends.”
Baron is the author of Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World (Oxford University Press, 2008). Drawing on a decade of research, she looks at how technology has influenced our reading, writing, speaking and listening behaviors. She suggests that we should be less concerned about the effect of technology on our writing and focus instead on how it might be changing our interpersonal relationships.
“People have always found ways to avoid unwanted conversation: crossing the street when a person you don’t want to talk with is approaching or hanging up the phone if your boyfriend’s mother—rather than your boyfriend—answers,” Baron said. “However, new online and mobile technologies increase the range of options at our disposal for choosing when we want to interact with whom. We check caller ID on our cell phones before taking the call. We block people on IM or Facebook. And we forward email or text messages to people for whom they were never intended.”
Since completing Always On, Baron has traveled around the world to talk with college students about how they use mobile and online technologies. Many students said they feel empowered by the way in which these technologies allow them to ignore calls or messages from certain family members and friends.
“Not one of them expressed any regrets or suspicion that such manipulation might be just plain rude,” Baron said. The students rationalized that the individuals trying to contact them were not aware that their calls or messages were being ignored—so no harm was done.
“I suspect that if you ask the parents or friends whose attempts at communication were blocked, you would hear a different story,” Baron said.
Although ignoring calls, emails and messages on our cell phones and laptops may potentially affect our relationships in a negative way, such behavior isn’t always a bad thing.
“While talking with students in Sweden and Italy, where mobile phones have been ubiquitous far longer than in the United States, I was pleasantly surprised to see the number of people who turned their phones off when they were studying, ignored incoming calls or text messages—even from good friends—while watching a movie on TV, or intentionally ‘forgot’ their phones from time to time just to have some peace,” Baron said. “My hope is that Americans are only going through a phase of feeling they must be ‘always on’ and that over time, we will regain a more balanced sense of communicative equilibrium.”
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