Recently, I finished reading Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), and one of the chapters that really intrigued me was his discussing the differences between the way people write on Twitter and other social media compared to the way the language is used in other literature. He sites the work of linguist Mark Lieberman who found that the average length of a word in a Tweet is longer actually longer than you’d expect: 4.8 characters (as compared to Hamlet with an average word length of 3.99 characters). The most common words used in Twitter also includes a lot more nouns and verbs than the hundred most common words used a survey sample of recently published books.
What does that mean? If you only have 140 characters, you use words that do more work. Does it spell out the death of our language and literature? No. Does it mean that the way we write is changing? Yes. Is that a good or bad thing? Neither.
I loathe alarmist comments about how Twitter is making children unable to understand words of more than two syllables or how kids these days don’t have the attention spans to read Charles Dickens. It’s not just ridiculous and wrong, but it’s distracting from the actual, and much more interesting, situation of how the way we write is changing. And how it’s not.
Just to be clear, we’ve never had long attention spans. Or, at least, not as long as the golden-age-thinkers want everyone to believe so that we can feel ashamed of ourselves and go back to the Good Old Days before social media and television. Charles Dickens work was published in serial, most fairy tales can be recited in ten or twenty minutes, stage plays have basically lasted around 90 minutes since antiquity, and even the Odyssey was probably recited in hour-long, nightly sessions. Today, people are perfectly willing to sit through three-hour long movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and we all consume and produce far more text than any generation before us just through email, social media, online articles, and texting (people who text, alone, produce an average of 41 texts per day). Not that the everything posted on Twitter and Facebook is high art, but just because that’s the medium doesn’t mean it necessarily isn’t.
Technology, political climate, cultural trends, and a plenitude of other factors influence art, style, and dominant themes. That writers today don’t write the way they did two hundred years ago is a good thing – it’s what makes our literature unique and interesting. Just as terms like modernist and Victorian conjure up a zeitgeist and particular texture of prose, a few decades from now some academic will come up with a term that sums up whatever it is we’re doing these days.
In the meantime, I intend to enjoy @VeryShortStory and the random witty FB posts of my friends.