Seeing What Everyday Writing Looks Like

Alexis Madrigal has a great, long post in response to Zadie Smith's essay. The whole thing is worth reading for insights on technology and society. I particularly liked his paragraphs on Smith's aesthetic revulsion to the the kind of writing one sees in social media. It's true that much of what's written these days in emails, blogs, tweets, are OMG so pooorly ritten dont u think? Just spend one night looking at Twitter trending topics. His money sentence explains it (italics are my own): "I think we confuse the [new] ability to see what everyday writing looks like — and probably has for a long time — with a change in how people write."

It's key to Smith's reasoning that Facebook implicitly creates more opportunities for people to say maudlin, ugly, or otherwise silly things. But we've been expressing ourselves in ways like that forever. Consider even good pop music. One of the best punk rock love songs of all time, "Ever Fallen in Love With Someone" goes like this, "You stir my natural emotions / You make me feel I'm dirt /And I'm hurt / And if I start a commotion /I run the risk of losing you / And that's worse / Ever fallen in love with someone?" And as we all know, this is just one example out of hundreds of thousands.

Perhaps I've been inured to this sense of a fallen English language because I've rooted around in the history of technology. I've read telegraphs between figures who were decidedly non-literary and engineers' papers. If your vision of the past language is mostly Melville — the stuff that's endured — then, yeah, English seems like it's in damn sorry shape. But if it includes all those other low and middle-brow writings, the bad letters, the telegraphs, the stupid poems, you end up with a spikier, less formal take on language. Consider that in 1870, 20% of the population was illiterate. Surely, on that basis alone, we now live in a far better place for words. Or consider the way dialect writers, like a Ben Brierley, tried to capture how normal people talked (and presumably wrote, whenever they did if they could). He would write things like, "They tell me these wenches con write books, play th' payano like angels, an' talk like saints. But I wonder what they'd do wi' a stockin ut's too much dayleet letten in at one window."

Perhaps this is an old argument, one about the sanctity of language, but I think it's newly important. When professional writers, especially ones trained in the literary arts, see horrifically bad writing online, they recoil. All their training about the value of diverse (or, you know, heteroglossic) societies and the equality of classes goes flying out the window. Social media acts as a kind of truth serum, as Marshall Kirkpatrick likes to say: This is how the masses of people talk. This is how the masses of people write. Not moonlighting bloggers. Not the 20 million NPR listeners. But the other 300 million people trying to LOL their way through boring days at office jobs or in Iraq.

I think we confuse the ability to see what everyday writing looks like — and probably has for a long time — with a change in how people write. Toss in that the traditional (usually religious) practices and sayings around serious topics like death or childbearing have lost valence, and you get people just saying what comes to mind. It's not always pretty.

(hat tip to Alex Mann via Delicious)

3 Responses to Seeing What Everyday Writing Looks Like

  1. John J. Walters says:

    Very true — too often experts in a particular field forget that they have spent their lives perfecting their craft. Not only that, but they have perfected their craft by studying others who have perfected theirs. This creates a sort of cocoon in which they live and work, expecting that the rest of the world appreciates and understands their limited sphere of expertise much like they do. This is, of course, not true.

  2. On the other hand people learn from each other. If what people used to read was better, because it was mostly the Mellville they read at school, then perhaps they learned a bit from it. If what they mostly read now is ‘LOLing their way through’ – then this will also have impact on their writing.

  3. Milagro Wildfong says:

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