Media

Old Media Tells Kids: Get Off My Lawn

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 23, 2009

I just came across an essay by Christie Blatchford in today's Globe and Mail decrying the poor state of writing and accountability on the web.

Lamenting what she calls "the grunting pig English of the web", Blatchford complains about the "grammar and spelling and literacy that went flying out the door when the internet came along."

She blames the ease of communication across new communications networks (via MSN, Facebook, cellphone and texting) for enabling - or perhaps encouraging - the "omnivorous chats" that allegedly led two youths to plan and execute the murder of a third youth.

Amazingly, Blatchford seems more appalled by the frequency and informality of their exchanges than by the murder itself, gleefully citing exerpts riddled with "lmao", "brb" and casual profanity.

Marshall Sack, [one youth's lawyer], once described this as the "adolescent discourse...of 21st century youth." Even if the chats are stripped of their lethality, God help us all if Mr. Sack is right.

At minimum, such communication sounds the death knell of mystery in romance, puts a choke hold on privacy and redefines what is intimacy.

Set aside the fact that people writing on the web generally don't have editors to clean up their spelling and grammar prior to publication: the comparison with print publications is inappropriate on its face.

First, it's important to note that millions of people who would never have either the opportunity or desire to be published in a typographic culture can now write, unfiltered, on the web.

It's a broad, public expansion of access similar in scale to the invention of the printing press itself, which took literacy out of the hands of the scribes and delivered it to the general public.

Similar howls of protest attended the marginalization of the scribal tradition once anyone could get their hands on a cheaply bound book. Yet far from destroying formal literacy, the expansion of access to books made scholarship far more widely available to the general public - even as many people chose instead to read potboilers and pulp.

Second, and perhaps more significant in the context of Blatchford's essay, most of the writing on the web is not actually intended to be read in the manner of published print writing.

People texting each other or posting comments on a forum are not writing for a general audience but rather for each other - small groups who share a given interest. It's more akin to transcribed conversation than exposition and should really be evaluated as such.

Finally, teenagers think and talk about sex - a lot. They giggle about bodily functions. They trash-talk each other. They wax melodramatic over minor slights. They endure an obsessive insecurity about their status with their peers and/or significant others that would make most adults cringe.

They're teenagers, for heaven's sake - and these are the teenagers who aren't going around murdering people.

Has Blatchford ever actually listened to teenagers talking? What did she do as a teenager? Sit at home reading Burke, Himmelfarb and von Hayek and lament the sorry state of contemporary popular culture?

Of course, Blatchford was a judgmental, authoritarian crank long before the internet gained the prominence it has today - but it's particularly sad to see the old media cling ever-more desperately to the very worldview that is quickly rendering them irrelevant to the next generation of citizens.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted March 23, 2009 at 23:52:47

On top of that, she gets paid to write which automatically places her at a higher standard. She does satisfy fairly consistently though.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted March 25, 2009 at 19:34:06

Adults who criticize teenage spelling & grammar in texts should really try frequently expressing themselves using a phone keypad first. It's painfully difficult. The quicker you can express yourself when you've got 10 keys to work with, the better.

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By Jelly (anonymous) | Posted April 01, 2009 at 09:58:29

Andrew Dreschel wrote a column the other day about the same thing, as if it's a slow news week. You'd think writers of all people would understand that language constantly evolves, and that the English language is already a slapped-together junk heap which has evolved this way for eons, and will continue to do so. The generation that Christie and Andrew grew up in contributed to that evolution in their own way, but for some reason won't afford the same freedom to the next generation. People who get hung up on this kind of shit really scare me. Especially journalists. Especially right now. If they're such great writers maybe they shouldn't waste time on this kind of filler.

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