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Knowing who you're writing for and why you're writing might be the most crucial factor of all
September 20, 2009 10:31 PM   Subscribe

Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. — Clive Thompson describes the results of the Stanford Study of Writing, mainly that young people today write far more than any generation before them.
posted by blasdelf (104 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
SING OUT ALL YE, BEHOLD AND HERALD THE DAWN OF A NEW GOLDEN AGE

But seriously, cool post. I am hopeful that the authors' interpretations are true.
posted by XMLicious at 10:39 PM on September 20, 2009


tl;dr

lol
posted by Eideteker at 10:40 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


@Metafilter got sooooooo drnk last nite & my assign is due tday, have to ask prof. for an xtnsn lololol :/
posted by turgid dahlia at 10:40 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


...and read so much less.
posted by pompomtom at 10:41 PM on September 20, 2009 [4 favorites]



Meanwhile, we're also learning that cursive writing is a fading skill.

But no one cares, apparently.
posted by Effigy2000 at 10:55 PM on September 20, 2009


I saw this a while back on InsideHigherEd or the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and I have to say, I'm skeptical. Perhaps that's because the study is run by Rhet-Comp types, and I have severe doubts about the direction that discipline is taking academia and English studies. People are writing a lot, sure. But many of them are saying jack shit. Just because they can effectively gear that jack shit to an audience of people who are interested in reading jack shit doesn't mean a lot to me. But, as a Lit person, I'm biased, so, YMMV.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:01 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Stanford scientists uncover imminent internet RSI plague shock horror.
posted by Phanx at 11:06 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Elegies for past golden ages of literacy and learning are clearly now thing of the past, and this saddens me more than words can convey.
posted by killdevil at 11:07 PM on September 20, 2009 [11 favorites]


now a thing
posted by killdevil at 11:08 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, we're also learning that cursive writing is a fading skill.

This is one of the "In my day, I had to walk to school. In a year-round snow storm, up hill both ways!" kind of things. Cursive writing was a fading art that teachers would bemoan the loss of when I was a kid in the 80s. And manual drafting. And the inability of students to use a slide rule, even though electronic calculators had been available for a decade or two.

Play the tiny violin and softly weep for the passing of the Reign of Cursive, but be sure to say goodbye. Let it go. We have new skills we'll need to learn, like eating with chopsticks.
posted by XMLicious at 11:17 PM on September 20, 2009 [37 favorites]


young people today write far more than any generation before them

Yeah, but it's all YouTube comments and Yahoo answers, so I'm not sure I'm impressed.
posted by rkent at 11:25 PM on September 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


It is because we can type. It is so much more efficient and changeable than writing. Imagine how much writing will be done when we can just think the words onto paper. I think mushroom and DMT dialogs will be very interesting.
posted by Mr_Zero at 11:25 PM on September 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also not taught in schools: Morse code.

Seriously. Cursive, long division. Obsolete techniques for times gone by.
People are writing a lot, sure. But many of them are saying jack shit. Just because they can effectively gear that jack shit to an audience of people who are interested in reading jack shit doesn't mean a lot to me.
How the hell would you know?

Also, I think kids should be taught typing skills earlier. If people learned to type quickly, they wouldn't use IM style codes as much because it would actually be hard for them to type 'u' rather then 'you'. The reason they do it is because it takes so long to find the letters for hunt 'n' peckers, that its easier. But if people could type well it wouldn't be an issue.

Of course, some day typing will become obsolete as well, I guess.
posted by delmoi at 11:28 PM on September 20, 2009 [8 favorites]


Wired was kind enough to provide a link to the actual study website, which looks pretty nice at first glance. On the other hand, I don't really see how a study of five years worth of Stanford students is enough to justify the statement that the youth today are writing more than anyone else, ever.

I do like the warm fuzzies I get from thinking of MeFi as upholding the standard of Greek-style discourse and debate in a crazed new world, though, so I'll gladly check some disbelief at the door.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:29 PM on September 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


So... all of the infantile, profanity-laden griefing that we see on message boards (esp. YouTube), the fragmentary Facebook updates, teenage sexting, and snarky Metafilter comments actually improve writing skills? Or do they just make college essays more entertaining to read?
posted by Davenhill at 11:34 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think there may be something to this. God knows the minute you post something nonsensical or unclear in a forum of any repute a million and one other users suddenly appear to deliver a smackdown. Feedback is almost immediate. It's similar to the explosion in digital photography -- of course people are taking lots of crappy photos, but they can learn from their mistakes so much more quickly.
posted by emeiji at 11:38 PM on September 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


I like cursive. It's pretty to look at.
posted by zoinks at 11:43 PM on September 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


All that story tells me is that students at Stanford know not to use emoticons in their essays. Students at my not-Stanford are definitely more (?_?).
posted by betweenthebars at 11:44 PM on September 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Saxon Kane, signal to noise has always sucked (insert obligatory acknowledgment of Sturgeon's Law), but I think it's likely that both have increased thanks to the web and texting.

Effigy2000, the teaching of cursive never made doctors' handwriting any better. It just made a lot of people feel like their cursive was crap.

delmoi, I agree that typing should be taught as early as possible--I took it in 8th grade and wish I'd had the opportunity in 4th. But people mess with spelling because they can. ee cummings didn't need texting to write 2 little whos.
posted by shetterly at 11:45 PM on September 20, 2009


Seriously. Cursive, long division. Obsolete techniques for times gone by.

I disagree. Oh, I don't mean people should use cursive and long division on a regular basis but they should know how. Typing and using a computer to do your calculations is much faster and more efficient but it requires tools that may not be available every minute of every day. It's good to be able to perform such basic intellectual functions just in case.

We have a lot of technological replacements for being able to swim but it's still a good skill to have just in case you fall in deep water without a life preserver.

Plus you look like a moron if you can't write or do basic math.
posted by Justinian at 12:06 AM on September 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


Youtube comments are 'writing' in the same way that school lunch tater tots are 'food' and Brokencyde is 'music'.
posted by Rhomboid at 12:10 AM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'd tend to agree that basic math functions are a good tool to have, but there is absolutely no reason for cursive in the modern world. The purpose of the style is to make it fast and easy to write large volumes of text, and we do not need to handwrite large volumes of text anymore.

Cursive is not an "intellectual function", it's simple coordination, and you can write far more legibly and just about as fast with italic-style printing.
posted by Malor at 12:48 AM on September 21, 2009 [8 favorites]


Yeah, but it's all YouTube comments and Yahoo answers, so I'm not sure I'm impressed.

Agreed. People on the Internet might be literate in the sense that they can put letters together to form words, but a lot of the time that's where it stops. Most content on the Internet may be written on a reasonably literate level, but that's because it's written by a small elite fraction of its users.
And the thing is, if you go to the sites where the masses speak their mind like Yahoo Answers or Youtube, most of them keep saying absolutely nothing of substance because they never learned to express themselves with words. It's not just a illiteracy problem, it's a dysphasia problem.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:59 AM on September 21, 2009


This is one of the "In my day, I had to walk to school. In a year-round snow storm, up hill both ways!" kind of things. Cursive writing was a fading art that teachers would bemoan the loss of when I was a kid in the 80s.

I got marked down in a Scottish school for good creative writing because my handwriting wasn't adequately elegant. Not illegible, just not sufficiently elegant. Fuck that shit.

That said, the comparison to some other skills - like long division, for example - seems erroneous. I'd be horrified if people couldn't pick up a pen and paper and write with it. Writing in a specific style? Not so much. Block letters are perfectly adequate for note-taking and simple communication. Not being able to do long division? Gonna bite you in the arse sooner or later.
posted by rodgerd at 1:07 AM on September 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


People on the Internet might be literate in the sense that they can put letters together to form words, but a lot of the time that's where it stops.

That's the nature of the medium though. You take the nearest equivalent from 50 years ago - personal letters, or the letters sections of local papers, and you'll see a similar lack of substance.

I'm leaning towards the feeling that any increase in the amount people write is likely to be a good thing.

I remember when I was a child back in the 70s and 80s, people talked about how comic books were going to kill literacy. And then there were studies that indicated that any increase in the amount kids were reading, whether it was comic books, Jane Austen, or the backs of cereal packets, improved literacy.

Fifty years ago people weren't all keeping leather-bound journals and penning long letters from their escritoires. Most people just weren't writing anything, ever. I don't know what my father's handwriting looks like - I've never seen him write. His only reading was the local paper on a Thursday morning; he hasn't read a book in over fifty years.

The next generation is growing up in a world where written communication is more common, and we're still better for it, even if some of those kids are only writing YouTube comments.

All the young people I know write far more outside school than I ever did, and I was one of the more literate ones. And even if a lot of what they're writing is banal, it's still a good thing, because in years gone by a lot of those kids would have left school and never again written anything longer than a shopping list.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 1:52 AM on September 21, 2009 [18 favorites]


Not being able to do long division? Gonna bite you in the arse sooner or later.

I have a scientific calculator on my phone, and I can't think of any real world situation where knowing that 321/17 has a remainder of 15 would be necessary.
posted by clearly at 2:18 AM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


...oh, and I'm an almost-forty physics graduate and qualified teacher, and I've never learned to do long division.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:20 AM on September 21, 2009


Yeah, but it's all YouTube comments and Yahoo answers, so I'm not sure I'm impressed.

Yeah, but it's all snarky generalizations on MetaFilter, so I'm not sure I'm impressed.
posted by clearly at 2:21 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


The future is going to be a strange and different place.
posted by wemayfreeze at 2:36 AM on September 21, 2009


Of course, some day typing will become obsolete as well, I guess.
Yes, please!

(Innovators and entrepreneurs make notes, then make millions.)

Yes, they do!
posted by RoseyD at 2:40 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I was a undergraduate (the first time) in the early eighties, I had to do very little writing for school. I had two essay classes and a technical writing class and maybe one or two other classes with term paper assignments. Almost all tests were #2 pencil fill-out-the-dots sort of things and no non-writing classes assigned term papers. I'd say that 75% of my friends didn't know how to type and didn't own typewriters (and definitely not computers). If you did have a term paper to write, you'd often write it out long-hand and then hire someone (generally a girl) to type it for you.
posted by octothorpe at 3:26 AM on September 21, 2009


I taught long division to my class and none of them acted as if they'd never seen such a thing before. (and, no, they weren't pretending so as not to look stupid.) In part it was to explain why infinite decimals will repeat when there exist equivalent fractions (and won't if there do not.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:54 AM on September 21, 2009


Here I sit upon the shitter / Once wrote on walls, now update Twitter.
posted by explosion at 4:00 AM on September 21, 2009 [40 favorites]


God knows I view Youtube comments as the insane, screaming face of the internet, but I think people should take a more functionalist perspective here. Language - writing - is an act of communication. Youtube comments - as horrific as they are - are an easily understood language that almost anyone can pick up quickly and easily, a lingua franca if you will, of the internet age. The message might be shit, but let's not shoot the messenger here.

The idea that people do - or should - think solely in high-falutin' prosody may be laudable, but it's hardly realistic. As an act of expression, YouTube comments probably capture the thought processes behind many of the commenters admirably.

I'm certainly not going to deride anyone for the ability to speak their mind with whatever vocabulary they choose. And choice is the operative word here. Those kids don't talk to their parents like that, their pastor, etc. etc.

If we are widening the choice to speak, to have a voice, be it by shitting on someone's YouTube or commenting on an MIT open courseware post, I'm all for it. Only by expressing ourselves can we know ourselves.

I'm glad teens are writing more - hopefully it will also make them know how to be heard, a problem every generation has struggled with.
posted by smoke at 4:16 AM on September 21, 2009


Obscure Reference, that's a nicely eponysterical post -- do you know what that phenomenon is called? I'd like to look it up.
posted by Malor at 4:16 AM on September 21, 2009


The basic premise of the article seems about right to me. Somewhere between WWII and the internets writing letters and diaries withered away. Then along came email, the web and a deluge of ways in which to communicate through writing. As for YouBoob comments, I would have to disagree that these amount to writing or even communication.
posted by caddis at 4:25 AM on September 21, 2009


Cursive is dying? AWESOME!

God do I hate cursive. It's impossible to read. Even very good cursive requires careful re-reading to disambiguate certain words. As for producing it myself...the hand cramps, ugh.

(But nthing the basic math skills. I can get a rough estimate of the answer, which is all I need, a lot faster than I can put my hands on a calculator.)
posted by DU at 4:47 AM on September 21, 2009


Somewhere between WWII and the internets writing letters and diaries withered away.

Yeah, and "somewhere" between Shakespeare and, say, Jonas Salk, polio got cured. How can they say kids write more today than in the past, when nowhere do they attempt to quantify the amount of writing kids did in the past, or address the quality of it? In my pre-internet kd-dom I used to write a ton of letters, I used to write stories to entertain myself and others, and a lot of my friends did, too. Granted that's a small dataset, but Stanford seems to spend a lot of time teasing out the "benefits" of the texting and livejournaling without much comparison to the quality of what's been lost.

Also, based on this page, whatever increase there might be in freshmen writing seems to be killed pretty dramatically by a Stanford education.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 5:03 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Writing is the ability that most differentiates us from the lesser beasts of the world. It is a way for a human being to transfer information not only across great distances but also across time itself (only forward, of course, but still). How many dolphins have communicated *anything* that another dolphin has heard/read five hundred or more years later? None.

When my grandmother couldn't control me as a teenager, and DFS put me in a foster home, my foster parents would make me write essays about stuff every time I did something wrong -- which was frequent, so I did a lot of writing. It was quite humorous to reread some of those essays after my stint in the Army. I was resentful of that at the time, but just a few short years later I was glad they'd made me do that because it seemed like it really did make me a better communicator in terms of the written word.

Unfortunately, I'm an old fogie now, and it annoys me no end to see people use 'u' in place of 'you' or '2' in place of 'too' or 'to'. Still, I guess I'd rather kids be writing something than nothing, even if it's often difficult-to-decipher drivel. That's one reason I like this place -- the literacy level of the people here is higher than the norm and I don't have to exert a lot of effort decoding the words here. (Usually.)
posted by jamstigator at 5:15 AM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


That ain't writing, that's typing.
posted by Sailormom at 5:35 AM on September 21, 2009


I often find myself without a keyboard and the need to write something down. Not everyone has the latest technology in their pockets, bags, whatevers. I always have a pen and a bit of paper, even if it's just the back of an old receipt. Cursive writing is faster than printing. Buggered if I can do long division though.
posted by h00py at 5:38 AM on September 21, 2009


Cursive first to go. Spelling next.
posted by Vindaloo at 5:48 AM on September 21, 2009


In related news, yes, a Something Awful 'Choose Your Own Adventure' story that more or less illustrates my views on the subject, based upon the stories my teacher/prof friends have related to me over the past few years.
posted by junebug at 6:01 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Somewhere between WWII and the internets writing letters and diaries withered away.

I would guess letter writing dropped off due to nearly everyone having access to a telephone. Even with the bad old expensive long distance rates, a quick phone call could eliminate the need for a letter and its response.

Diaries, I don't know.
posted by fings at 6:04 AM on September 21, 2009


Cursive, long division. Obsolete techniques for times gone by.

I find it incredibly useful that people have at least some recollection of how long division worked, because it's a great example when you're explaining what an algorithm is.
posted by grouse at 6:52 AM on September 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm ahead of the curve! As a middle-schooler circa 1986 I clearly remember one day struggling to string together something in cursive, and thinking "Oh fuck this!" and switching to printing. That was the last time I wrote in cursive unless forced to, and no teacher ever tried to force me. So perhaps it's not being intentionally de-emphasized so much as more kids have realized that no one cares and so why expend the effort. I don't think I ever had more than one year of learning cursive either.
posted by rusty at 6:54 AM on September 21, 2009


Cursive first to go. Spelling next.

Actually technology has helped considerably on the spelling front. As I type this comment in Firefox, any word that I misspell (such as misspell) shows up underlined in red. That kind of immediate feedback is substantially more helpful than waiting for an essay to come back with the errors marked up or using a dictionary to self-check words that I'm not sure about. An automated spellchecker directly built into writing tools is better than any teacher could be in terms of enforcing consistent spelling.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:55 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Seriously. Cursive, long division.

These are not the same. Long division has practical uses.

I can write in cursive, but I don't, because it either looks like pretentious calligraphy (if I try hard) or a third grade phonics assignment (if I don't.)

I have a wall of sticky notes people at work have left me over the years. (I keep them, adding layers on top, it's like art now.) In a building of people ranging in age from 19 through 55-or-so, I can only find two that are written in cursive, and they're both from a 50-something maternal secretary who's no longer here. Sweet lady.
posted by rokusan at 6:56 AM on September 21, 2009


My biggest concern about the digitizing of our lives is what might happen to our history. Personal correspondences, diaries, etc. are so vital to our understanding of history. What happens 100 years from now, or 200 years from now when our progeny look back on us? Will they research our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls the way we read letters and journals from the Civil War. Somehow, I think not.
posted by JeffK at 6:57 AM on September 21, 2009


I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm not writing a birthday card to my mother in block letters.

And, seriously, you guys are cheering the supposed death of long division? And some of you are claiming you don't even know how to do it? I have to call BS here: am I the only person who doesn't carry a calculator around everywhere and instead just does the math when it's necessary?

Though maybe my perspective is just strange: previously, lots of people had no reason to write anything outside of "assignments" (or at all-- remember in the old days, managers would dictate letters and briefs and secretaries would type them), but that's changing and people do more of their own writing. Maybe it's possible that, to this day, people don't need to do basic arithmetic in their day-to-day lives or don't notice that they need to.
posted by deanc at 6:58 AM on September 21, 2009


It is because we can type....

Oh, that day in eighth grade when a teacher first said "Sure, you can submit your paper typed" was a glorious one indeed. It felt as if a great weight was lifted from my cramped, inkstained hand.

And I haven't shut up since.
posted by rokusan at 6:58 AM on September 21, 2009


prisoners still use cursive on a regular basis - some of it is remarkable for its precision, some for the personal flourishes & accents - they also regularly improvise their own fonts and illuminate their writing with miniature illustration

years ago, when Books To Prisoners had set up a display of prisoner letters at a book fair, i remember how frequently people commented on how beautiful the handwriting was
posted by jammy at 7:12 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


What happens 100 years from now, or 200 years from now when our progeny look back on us? Will they research our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls the way we read letters and journals from the Civil War. Somehow, I think not.

Sure, why not? The only difference is that now instead of only having a small amount primary source material from the select group of people who were literate enough to write, and whose written material was physically preserved since then and somehow made it into the hands of a historian, we have organizations like Google and the Internet Archive collecting everything that's ever been posted to the web by anyone and making it available to anyone forever.

If someone today wants to know what it was like to see a Shakespeare play performed at the Globe, there are only a very limited number of first-hand accounts, even though he is one of the most famous playwrights in history. Meanwhile, unless all of the organizations that archive Internet content lose their records, there will be plenty of blog posts, photos, and videos of any marginally noteworthy modern event or performance.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:17 AM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


but there is absolutely no reason for cursive in the modern world.

Except signing your name, which still continues to be legally necessary, but I would guess that block-printing your name is now acceptable on contracts, checks, etc? Or not? That's the only time I use cursive.

My father had beautiful swoopy cursive handwriting, and my mother's was very nice as well. I tried, but to this day I can't do a decent cursive Z, which thankfully isn't part of my name. But then, my last cursive instruction was in 1978 in 2nd grade.
posted by emjaybee at 7:36 AM on September 21, 2009


And, seriously, you guys are cheering the supposed death of long division? And some of you are claiming you don't even know how to do it? I have to call BS here

Cheering the death of long division and acknowledging not being able to do proper on-paper long division are two seaprate things. When I need to divide 1037 by 43 I can tackle the problem mentally by roughing it out: 43 x 20 = 860, leaving 177. Then 43 x 4 = 172. So I know the answer is about 24. But being able to do mental arithmetic (which I think is a fundamentally useful skill) isn't the same as knowing the procedure for doing the dicision to an arbitrary number of decimals. I can't do that. If I ever found it to be a useful skill I could learn. From a book.

I don't think we're in any danger of losing cursive writing or long division as skills. Anyone who wants to learn them can do so, using their local library, or using the Internet. There are still plenty of people who can weave baskets too.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:41 AM on September 21, 2009


Spelling is useful too.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:42 AM on September 21, 2009


Oh, that day in eighth grade when a teacher first said "Sure, you can submit your paper typed" was a glorious one indeed. It felt as if a great weight was lifted from my cramped, inkstained hand.

Indeed. My English teachers were pretty amazed at the sudden doubling of my ability in the class.
posted by CaseyB at 7:46 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


there is absolutely no reason for cursive in the modern world.
Except signing your name.


Huh? Who signs their name in their handwriting?

For most people, a signature is a completely different thing than "handwriting your own name in cursive."
posted by rokusan at 7:54 AM on September 21, 2009


A lot of people in the 1920s and 30s couldn't imagine that records would ever be seen as valuable historical artifacts. We lost a lot of truly great early blues and jazz performances that way. 78 RPM records were used, among other things, as targets for carnival ball toss games, because they were easy to shatter. At the time, that stuff was seen as clearly ephemeral. If you record a bit of trendy dance music, and then the trend passes, well, the record is just detritus — right?

(And in any case, that stuff wasn't real music. It was just cheap entertainment. Real music was the kind written down on paper.)

So, okay, you think the internet's ephemeral and trendy and doesn't count as real writing. You can't imagine anyone ever being interested in the stuff we posted way back in the early 21st century. But just because you can't imagine it, that doesn't mean it won't happen.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:55 AM on September 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


If you record a bit of trendy dance music, and then the trend passes, well, the record is just detritus — right?

To be fair, I imagine the majority of those shattered records were old copies of that day's equivalent to "Who Let the Dogs Out."
posted by explosion at 8:07 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm with the camp who see this as a good thing--all this written expression people are doing now, even if most of it is around the level of Youtube comments, is still written expression. And the teens who are writing "omg thiz iz sooo stooopid" on Youtube now will not be expressing themselves the same way in writing in a few decades. They talk like kids because they're, well, kids, and of course kids are going to try to alter language in ways that make it their own and render it as obscure to adults as possible, it's what they do daddy-o.

What's more fascinating to me, regarding social interaction and self expression via writing online, is the ending of massive age-segregation in the public sphere, and my sense is that that is far more likely to have beneficial social effects than merely more writing occurring. As a kid in the 70s & 80s, nearly all of my interactions with adults were with teachers, etc., and maybe some of my parents' friends. I very, very rarely had the opportunity to sit down with an adult and just talk about something, particularly in an honest 'what's REALLY the deal with this' kind of way.

Now, young people can interact with people of all ages, on just about any topic, and as a result will learn far more about the world and how people are, first-hand. They can go to myriad sources for information, perspective, or advice, sources unimaginable when I was young. This to me is the most interesting aspect of all this.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:08 AM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


To be fair, I imagine the majority of those shattered records were old copies of that day's equivalent to "Who Let the Dogs Out."

Oh, sure! And most of what we're posting on the internet now is our era's equivalent to bathroom graffiti. But it's a mistake to think it's all crap just because most of it's crap. Some of it, hard though it is to imagine now, will turn out to be timeless.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:14 AM on September 21, 2009


Oh, also, because it's the internet and it's wide open, my sense is that young people are developing a much more critical perspective on sources. Kids my age were completely credulous--if it was on TV, it had to be true, right, because there are all sorts of professionals and news experts and etc. Now, not so much--it seems that young people now (and all of us, really) are rightly much more cynical about sources of information, especially editorial ones.

Or maybe that last bit is just projection of wishful thinking.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:15 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


rokusan: For most people, a signature is a completely different thing than "handwriting your own name in cursive."

I know that. You know that. But some people don't know that, oddly enough. I had a plumber in once to replace my water heater. When he was all done, he gave me the bill and I had to sign it so his boss knew he'd been here and done the work and whatever. So I signed it. My signature is the usual completely illegible scrawl which bears very little resemblance to my name (and is in fact an abstract representation of my nickname, not my real name at all) but on the other hand is repeatable and demonstrably the same across most documents, and is the thing I use when "my signature" is called for.

So this plumber looked at it, and said that I had to sign it again, because he couldn't read my name. We had some extensive back and forth, with me saying "but this is my signature," and him saying "well my boss isn't going to be able to read it," and me saying "it doesn't matter if he can read it -- if for some reason you ever need to prove it was me who signed it you can find a zillion examples of my signature, and this one will match those, which is the point of a signature," and him saying "well he'll ask me how he can know it was you if he can't read your name," and me saying "anything else I write here will bear no resemblance to my actual signature, and therefore will in fact do the opposite of what you need to do here -- it would be very easy for me to assert that it is not my signature, because it won't be..." and on and on.

Eventually, at rather great length (I was in no hurry), I finally gave up and wrote my full legal name in cursive. And it predictably looked like a third grader's attempt to write out my name, and looked really nothing in the world like my signature. There have been a couple other times this happened too, and it always puzzles me. I always try to explain that if you want me to write my name out in handwriting you are not asking for my signature, but it never seems to work. Mystifying.
posted by rusty at 8:15 AM on September 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Oh, come on people, it's not like anything of any great import has ever been written in cursive, amirite?
posted by Sys Rq at 8:19 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I dunno. Sure I "write" more now, but I used to write.

Growing up, I had friends scattered all over the place and I would write them letters, long letters that I worked hard to make amusing and entertaining and moving. Ten page letters were routine, sometimes more. At first they were handwritten, then word processed. My friends would send me letters, too, and we kept them in boxes, wonderful boxes full of chat and memory. One day I stopped writing letters, and haven't written one since. It was the day I got email.
Yes, nowadays I'm in daily or weekly touch with a great many more people, but the quality of communication is vastly different. It's cool to be able to share a youtube link with someone on another continent in a matter of seconds, but I miss letters. I could write some, I suppose, but I have to go check activity on my recent comments and then update facebook and make sure I don't get behind on the latest RSS feeds.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:27 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Will they research our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls the way we read letters and journals from the Civil War.

Yes, they definitely will. Moreso the Twitter feeds/blogs/MeFi threads etc because there'll be more of a public record. Unlike Civil War letters however, future historians will be slightly more equipped to identify trolls.
posted by haveanicesummer at 8:28 AM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


But being able to do mental arithmetic (which I think is a fundamentally useful skill) isn't the same as knowing the procedure for doing the division to an arbitrary number of decimals. I can't do that. If I ever found it to be a useful skill I could learn. From a book.
I'm still a bit stunned that some people just don't know how to do this. I learned in grammar school and have used it constantly. I probably use it so often that I don't even really notice it. What about multiplying multi-digit numbers? Or adding large numbers? Do you still remember how to "carry" numbers? This is the sort of thing that I just assumed you weren't allowed to finish 6th grade if you couldn't handle.

What's interesting about this in the FPP that if someone told me that he never wrote anything outside of a classroom assignment, I'd think he was crazy since writing seems to fundamental that one just assumes one will be writing all the time, but I can imagine that for some people, their jobs and lives are such that they don't/didn't.
posted by deanc at 8:29 AM on September 21, 2009


ITS GUD BECUZ RITING HELPS THERE SELF OF STEAM.
posted by Hovercraft Eel at 8:31 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


HaveANiceSummer, I imagine we'll probably have to code AIs just to filter through all the crap. For every historic or insightful tweet, Mefi thread or Facebook status, there are about 50 innane posts, 20 "Should I eat this" posts, and so on. This is dangerous because this gives the people who code the AI will be effectively in control of how we remember history.

All I hope is that we get AI good enough to understand humor so that we can find great little gems like LBJ's Haggar Pants phone call.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:32 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


We can't let the AI filter out "I should eat this" posts because then we will never know what people were really eating. Otherwise revisionists will claim that Pepsi Blue was a huge hit because it was mentioned on a prominant website thousands of times. It's all somewhat valuable, in aggregate.
posted by haveanicesummer at 8:35 AM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


mccarty.tm: For every historic or insightful tweet, Mefi thread or Facebook status, there are about 50 innane posts, 20 "Should I eat this" posts, and so on.

Of course this is based on the assumption that historians who study such ephemera would be only interested in the "historic" or "insightful."

And let's take a look at the other side of the coin, which is that published-for-pay print media has been growing substantially less diverse since the 1960o due to media consolidation and pressure from television. The high-water mark for diversity in American printed literature passed almost a century ago. Print was suffering well before the Internet broke away from academia and into workplaces and households.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:45 AM on September 21, 2009


My biggest concern about the digitizing of our lives is what might happen to our history. Personal correspondences, diaries, etc. are so vital to our understanding of history. What happens 100 years from now, or 200 years from now when our progeny look back on us? Will they research our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls the way we read letters and journals from the Civil War. Somehow, I think not.

Actually this is the subject of my dissertation. My major concern is not the percieved quality of these writings but their ephemeral nature. Back in the day, the scrawlings of soldiers and common folk could feasibly be preserved by family members or an very forward thinking archivist. But with texts and Facebook and Twitter, there has to be a conscious effort to preserve. Facebook statuses belong to Facebook, what happens if it goes down or out of business? What happens when your phone tells you the inbox is full of texts? What do you do when you're email inbox is full?

And more importantly than what do we chose to preserve, but how in the hell are we gonna make sure that this stuff is accessible in the future. Technological shifts are brutal to plan for and often make very important information impossible to get at. With so much personal ephemera hosted by commercial firms, how the hell can we ensure the valuable stuff remains accessible? I mean, it's not like we can print the internet and stick it in an acid-free container for future generations.
posted by teleri025 at 8:45 AM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Cursive is the elegant handwriting of a more civilized age.

In all seriousness, cursive writing when done well was and is beautiful, as well easy to read. The decline of cursive is not a recent trend, but has been going on for decades. One can just look at the images of the US Censuses to note how the beautiful handwriting declined.

I suppose I'm old fashioned, but at one point in my life, I made the decision that I would transition to writing purely in cursive. It was hard at first, as I could write more quickly in print, but over time, the reverse became true. My hand more readily flowed across the paper in cursive and I find it far more pleasing to the eye. Generally, whenever anyone see's my writing, I receive compliments.

I take notes in class in cursive, as well writing cards, postcards, and love letters (to my fiance), and in the last couple months, begun a daily journal. One reason I love doing these things is because I find electronic communication so very ephemeral. I want my great-grandchildren to be able to read and know a glimpse of their ancestor and how he viewed his world, in the same manner that I can pick up some letters my great-grandfather wrote some 90 years ago.
posted by Atreides at 9:10 AM on September 21, 2009


I'm with the camp who see this as a good thing--all this written expression people are doing now, even if most of it is around the level of Youtube comments, is still written expression. And the teens who are writing "omg thiz iz sooo stooopid" on Youtube now will not be expressing themselves the same way in writing in a few decades. They talk like kids because they're, well, kids, and of course kids are going to try to alter language in ways that make it their own and render it as obscure to adults as possible, it's what they do daddy-o.

I think this highlights the reason for some of the angst we're seeing in this thread: conflating writing as it has been traditionally understood with text-based conversation. The content you see in IMs or text messages or YouTube comments or chat rooms is not meant to be perceived as formal writing, it's meant as informal conversation. It is talking, only in text form. But because it's in text form, and not spoken, it looks like writing on the surface. Hence all the gnashing of teeth.

As far as whether all this text-based interaction improves formal, classroom writing, well, I'm not sure. My own anecdotal experience does not suggest any real improvement, and I've been teaching since the mid-90s. My own personal hypothesis is that the over-emphasis on teaching to the test has led to a decline in emphasis on reading comprehension, and that if students had more experience reading and digesting complicated, formal prose they might be better at composing formal, written texts. They have lots of experience writing and reading casual interactions, and they do that very well, but I don't see that translating into an ability to write in an appropriate style for academia.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:16 AM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Back in the day, the scrawlings of soldiers and common folk could feasibly be preserved by family members or an very forward thinking archivist.

Part of the point of this post is that the vast majority of people never wrote anything up until relatively recently. Some people did keep a box full of letters or telegrams or postcards in their attics, but even out of that small subset of human communication many would be lost over time due to disasters like fires or by just getting misplaced rather than make it into the hands of someone in a future generation. For example, other than boring legal records, I doubt that I have any written material from or related to my grandfather. Most of his communication was done face-to-face or over the telephone, which is now lost forever. Even if nobody bothers to permanently archive 90% of all Internet communication (which I would consider to be an extremely pessimistic estimate), I'm guessing that would be a much better archival rate than we've ever had in the past.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:18 AM on September 21, 2009


bunrmp3s, that's the hope I have. Historians of the late twentieth century are going to be really hard up for personal communication documents due to the heavy reliance on telephone conversations.
posted by teleri025 at 9:35 AM on September 21, 2009


> What's more fascinating to me, regarding social interaction and self expression via writing online, is the ending of massive age-segregation in the public sphere, and my sense is that that is far more likely to have beneficial social effects than merely more writing occurring.

Seconding LooseFilter here. AskMe is a good example of this in action: many questions are obviously written by young people, and many answers from older people attempt to share the hard-earned wisdom gained from experience. The option of (semi-)anonymity can also benefit people with sticky situations; lord knows teen angst can make a zit seem like an epic tragedy, so what do you do if you think you're pregnant/gay/infectious/etc? Actually this applies to people of all ages, but younger people in general are less well-equipped to deal with things on their own, what with not having as much experience as people who've been around the Sun a bunch more times.

And the reverse direction is equally instructive: older people tend to ossify in their thinking if they're not regularly prodded by outside influences, and it's a truism that younger people tend to be more liberal in general. Personally, I find it interesting to read comments from younger MeFites since I don't have kids and don't know too many teens and twenty-somethings. It gives me hope to find that some things which are traditionally considered Shocking Shameful Problems (especially Teh Gay) are met with a resounding "meh". Hopefully some of us old fogies have been prodded into the "meh" camp by stuff we read online. Although we'd probably say "big deal" instead.
posted by Quietgal at 9:40 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


“I do like the warm fuzzies I get from thinking of MeFi as upholding the standard of Greek-style discourse and debate in a crazed new world,”

Epicurus: “I never desired to please the rabble. What pleased them, I did not learn; and what I knew was far removed from their understanding.”

Socrates: “HI, I’M An ANCIENT GREEK PHILIOSPHER AND I COULD OVERTHINK A PLATE OF BEANS”

Plato: “And what, Socrates, is the Pepsi Blue? Surely, I said, knowledge is the Pepsi Blue.”

Democritus: “So this Greek philosophy, it vibrates?”

Euripides: “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

Parmenides: “Hurf Durf, nothing changes.”

Diogenes: (this comment has been deleted)

Xenophanes: That’s just, like, your opinion, Diogones. Who said anything about pancakes? Mods!

Aristotle: “Is this rhetoric something you need a dialectic to have heard of?"

Pythagoras: “This is stupid. I’d like to see more posts on kids doing math. And a pony.”

Diogenes: “In the name of the most holy and individual Trinity: Be it known to all, and every one whom it may concern, or to whom in any manner it may belong, That for many Years past, Discords and Civil Divisions being stir'd up in the Roman Empire, which increas'd to such a degree, that not only all Germany, but also the neighbouring Kingdoms, and France particularly, have been involv'd in the Disorders of a long and cruel War: And in the first place….”

Heraclitus: “Yeah, this will wendell”
posted by Smedleyman at 9:56 AM on September 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


delmoi asks, How the hell would you know?

Because I've been teaching college English for nearly 7 years.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:56 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Expanding on my previous comment:
It is obvious that people today are writing more (define writing however you want) than ever before. It's just a simple function of numbers: more people, more access to writing technology (be it pens & paper or blogs & cell phones) = more writing.

I'm not saying this is bad. But I think studies that claim that it is unequivocally good are wishful thinking at best. It just is. Sure, some people may find their ability to communicate and craft effective sentences improving; some may find that they fall in love with the written word; some may discover a gift for brilliance. But, will most? Will a higher percentage than before? Maybe, maybe not. I think this study focuses too much on quantity without considering quality. I don't think it is wrong so much as limited and doe-eyed.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:17 AM on September 21, 2009


DiscourseMarker: So far, the evidence seems to be leaning towards a weak correlation between CMC use and improved test scores. It's not enough of a correlation to justify giving everyone an iPhone and a twitter account, but it's enough evidence that the burden of proof needs to be shifted onto the shoulders of people claiming an imminent collapse of English language and culture due to text-based messaging.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:22 AM on September 21, 2009


Cursive is the elegant handwriting of a more civilized age.

What civilized age was that? When slavery was legal in the US or when women couldn't vote? When birth control was illegal or when people sent postcards featuring victims of lynchings?
posted by kathrineg at 10:50 AM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


a Something Awful 'Choose Your Own Adventure' story that more or less illustrates my views on the subject, based upon the stories my teacher/prof friends have related to me over the past few years.
posted by junebug at 9:01 AM on September 21


Did you just quote a piece of user-generated online writing to prove that command of English in the US is getting worse? Hmmm.

Writing more makes you a more careful reader, though not a more prolific one. IANAET, but I think the existence of forums like MF, SA and even 4chan prove that young(ish)-people are connecting and experimenting with text-based media more than with video or audio. I don't know if it's a cure for stupidity, but it's not the a-literate future everyone was predicting in the late 90s. Being a good writer (and necessarily therefore a clever reader) is the basis of positive online persona, whether as a troll or a thoughtful responder, so more kids are doing it. I for one welcome our superuser overlords. (--Aristophanes 325 BCE)
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:04 AM on September 21, 2009


What civilized age was that? When slavery was legal in the US or when women couldn't vote? When birth control was illegal or when people sent postcards featuring victims of lynchings?

Yes, yes it was.




You also forgot gas warfare, the working slums of major cities, the spread of small pox and genocide of American Indians, little children working in factories and mines, colonialism, and the absence of indoor plumbing.
posted by Atreides at 11:22 AM on September 21, 2009


My biggest concern about the digitizing of our lives is what might happen to our history. Personal correspondences, diaries, etc. are so vital to our understanding of history. What happens 100 years from now, or 200 years from now when our progeny look back on us? Will they research our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls the way we read letters and journals from the Civil War. Somehow, I think not.
Actually this is the subject of my dissertation.... With so much personal ephemera hosted by commercial firms, how the hell can we ensure the valuable stuff remains accessible?


Way cool! This sounds like a fascinating topic. Any thoughts on how to solve the problem? Is anyone out there even trying to solve it?
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:54 AM on September 21, 2009


DiscourseMarker: So far, the evidence seems to be leaning towards a weak correlation between CMC use and improved test scores. It's not enough of a correlation to justify giving everyone an iPhone and a twitter account, but it's enough evidence that the burden of proof needs to be shifted onto the shoulders of people claiming an imminent collapse of English language and culture due to text-based messaging.

What tests scores are you talking about?

Also, did I give the impression that I was claiming the imminent collapse of English due to CMC? Cause I'm not, far, far from it. I study CMC, not English. My point was that the people making those claims are themselves misguided, because they are lumping in all "writing" into the same category, rather than understanding that much (most?) CMC is oriented to, by the participants themselves, as conversation, i.e. talking, albeit in text form.

I skimmed through the article and the linked study results again, and I don't see anything specifically about the quality of formal, academic writing in their results. Maybe I missed it, maybe they haven't gotten to it yet.

I don't teach at Stanford, I teach at an urban public university. Most of my teaching experience has been with average college students who are not at the most selective schools. I have not made any study of their writing skills, these are just my own impressions, particularly from having taught some "writing intensive" courses a few years back. My students are mediocre at putting together formal academic papers, and it has nothing to do with their CMC use. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen a student make use of CMC abbreviations and slang in papers--they know better. The problems they have are much deeper, for example, problems with basic grammar, and problems with constructing an academic paper (how to cite sources, how to paraphrase ideas) and fundamental problems with understanding the material they are trying to synthesize. Papers are bad because the students have a very hard time reading their sources and extracting the larger meanings from them, and I think this is a problem related more to K-12 education than CMC use.

That ain't writing, that's typingtalking.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:07 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Any thoughts on how to solve the problem? Is anyone out there even trying to solve it?

There was a post about Archive Team last week. They are trying to watch out for sites that might lose content, and organize efforts to archive them.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:12 PM on September 21, 2009


DiscourseMaker: No, you didn't give that impression. And my comments were not specifically directed at you but at the larger conversations that tend to develop around CMC.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:18 PM on September 21, 2009


What civilized age was that? When slavery was legal in the US or when women couldn't vote? When birth control was illegal or when people sent postcards featuring victims of lynchings?

Um. I hate to let my inner nerd show but Atreides was clearly making a Star Wars references. Ben Kenobi refers to the lightsaber as an elegant weapon from a more civilized time. It was obviously no more true when he said it than when Atreides said it, which is probably the point.

You guys geekfail.
posted by Justinian at 1:21 PM on September 21, 2009


Well, since we've come this far and no one's corrected the post title:

Knowing who whom you're writing for and why you're writing might be the most crucial factor of all
posted by LooseFilter at 2:22 PM on September 21, 2009


If you must, it would be "knowing for whom you're writing" would be even more betterer.

Unless this is another Star Wars reference.
posted by kathrineg at 2:24 PM on September 21, 2009


Or, pithier: "knowing why and for whom you are writing might be the most crucial factor of all."

Maybe a little more stylistic punch: "knowing why (and for whom) you are writing may be the most crucial factor of all."

Of course, that version makes clear that factor should be plural. Maybe the kids are onto something with this casual-written-word thing.
posted by LooseFilter at 2:46 PM on September 21, 2009


Wherefore do you write? And for whom? These, my children, are the factors of cruciality to which all must attend.
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:01 PM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


yes, I made up the word "cruciality" and I am damn proud of it
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:02 PM on September 21, 2009


Interesting study, but doesn't apply to American youth in general. The broadest population this study might describe would be something like "students of prestigious universities."

I'd question the "most Americans never wrote anything" line, too. If you're inclined to write, you probably will do some writing. I know I did.

There's merit to the idea that the Internet encourages writing. But I think it's important to remember that writers are now more visible and writing is in a format more easily shared. What is most blogging but a public version of a personal journal?
posted by zennie at 4:38 PM on September 21, 2009


As far as the long division thing I don't think it is in essence an essential skill, but rather an important intermediate exercise - it's a "stepping stone" on the way to learning things like algebra. You don't learn long division for its own sake but rather as an instrumental goal.

And yes, it is technically possible to learn arithmetic and proceed on to learn algebra without knowing how to do long division. Just as it's technically possible to be physically fit without ever doing a push-up. But tough luck kid, drop and give me 20.

(Unless you have a physical impairment, of course. But the analogic parallel for long division, dyscalculia, is present in a vanishingly small percentage of the population - much smaller than the percentage of people who claim they "just can't do math". That's much more likely the product of having had a crappy or non-persistent math teacher at the lower levels (or a teacher who said "some people just can't do math" regularly and gave all the kids calculators) than genuine dyscalculia.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:14 PM on September 21, 2009


...cripes, I wrote "in essence an essential skill" in a thread about good writing. Just pretend that said "in essence a fundamental skill".
posted by XMLicious at 10:16 PM on September 21, 2009


I think that in retrospect, worries that we're headed into a 'digital dark age' where nothing will be preserved are totally wrong—if anything, we've just exited the dark age.

It was the age of the analog telephone that left precious few records of casual conversation; the age of email will leave a lot for historians to work with. Even if less email is saved than paper letters, people are writing so much more of it (if I sent on paper what I routinely send in email, I'd have to have my own paper factory) that I suspect there won't be a shortage of casual conversations, if anyone wants to get an idea of what life was like in the very late 20th or early 21st century.

An increasing amount of email is archived forever (cf. Gmail), and services like Twitter don't throw away old updates, at least that I'm aware of. In the next few years as telephone conversations move to VOIP and we get some more advances in speech recognition, it will become possible to searchibly archive all of them as well. (Using a modern 16kb/s codec, an hour of telephone audio is only about 7MB; you could carry around a lifetime's worth of calls on a hard disk in your pocket, if you wanted.) Google Voice-style voicemails-as-text are really only the beginning.

The problem for future historians may not be finding primary sources, it may be sorting through them. When you can record everything just on the off chance that you might, someday, want to look at it again, you end up with a huge haystack that you need to sort through. Luckily that's not a problem solely faced by historians, so there's almost certain to be a lot of brainpower applied to the problem.

I like a good round of "when I was a boy..." as much as anybody, but I don't see much justification. Today's historical record is going to be much richer than it was in the past, because of cheap communication and cheaper storage, and the average person is going to be better represented in it. Although that may make us seem less literate as a group, compared to times when only the wealthy had the time or ability to write (to say nothing about having their writing preserved for posterity), it's a lot more honest.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:14 AM on September 22, 2009


Meanwhile, we're also learning that cursive writing is a fading skill.

Umberto Eco: The lost art of handwriting
posted by homunculus at 12:35 PM on September 22, 2009


Medieval theologians wrote "respondeo dicendum quod", which would have made Cicero recoil in horror.

I often wonder if Umberto Eco realizes there are people who don't get his innumerable wacky Latin jokes. Then I wonder if they are funny.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:27 PM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Course, all digital archiving rests on the fact that our future will continue unabated without anything happening to our ability to access that information.


...historians...positive about the future! :D
posted by Atreides at 1:55 PM on September 22, 2009


Re the earlier questions about spelling: A recent study finds SMS texting is not impacting young people's ability to spell.

On the other hand, don't get me going about "impact" as a verb.
posted by shetterly at 9:32 PM on September 22, 2009


sheterly: Perhaps, but my students can't spell for shit, regardless of how much they text or not. I think perhaps reliance on Spell Check is the true culprit. Or laziness. Or maybe their elementary school teachers didn't take off points for spelling errors.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:36 PM on September 23, 2009


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