Writing in the Internet Age.

Clive Thompsonat Wired (far and away one of my favorite magazines, as it happens) has a post up about the work of Andrea Lunsford, a professor at Stanford University.  Lunsford has been looking at how people write in the internet age, and to do so she’s collected 15,000 student writing samples – letters, blog posts, tweets, emails, etc. – from 2001 to 2006.  Her conclusion?  “”I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.”

Let me quote at length for a moment from Thompson’s post:

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

It’s almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.

Now, it’s true that this study focused exclusively on Stanford University students, who were presumably better writers than the general public even before the internet came along.  But the core cause that Lunsford cites – that the text-based nature of the web is forcing people to write much more than ever before – is true regardless of education level, and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if the effects are even more pronounced among people who aren’t required, by school or by their job, to write on a regular basis.

It is pretty gratifying, though, to hear a solid refutation of the “the web is making us dumber” crowd.  And a lot of what the study finds is just common sense.  No one is writing “2morow” in their academic papers, because we know to modify our tone based on our intended audience; I write differently at this blog than I do in my instant message conversations.

I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if a specific type of writing actually is decreasing in quality: the academic research paper.  And the reason for that is, I think, that research papers require a tone – dry, factual, neutral – that we don’t get a lot of practice for in our internet lives.  I think, too, that, for me, the idea of writing without an audience holds very little appeal.  In school, I was always frustrated to put time and effort into writing a paper that was only going to be read by a single professor (and then perhaps only superficially); I’ve poured much more of myself into blog posts or comment sections than I did into most of my schoolwork.