Technology and Writing: Staying up to speed with change
June 19, 2017
Technology is changing how we use and interpret language. On the upside, social media and the Internet offer us ways to connect universally in real time. On the downside, they encourage us to reduce language into symbols for the sake of speed. While on a social level this is both exciting and fun, we need to keep ourselves in check when producing business writing. The key is to keep adjusting to those new changes without compromising our professional communications standards.
This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?
Launched in 1987, this powerful public service announcement produced by Partnership for a Drug-Free America communicated the effects of drugs on the brain. These days, as we look at the current cultural landscape with our widespread use of social media and the Internet, we can easily offer the same analogy regarding technology's impact on our brains—and by extension on our ability to communicate and think critically. Essentially, due to the quick clicks and our exposure to downgraded information, we have become distracted, less focused, and downright sloppy with our writing skills.
Our Eroding Focus
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, presents a convincing argument exploring how chronic exposure to the Internet erodes our ability to focus. On a National Public Radio broadcast of All Things Considered, Carr refers to the Internet as "a system of distraction." The change is actually a biological one. According to studies in neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to form and reorganize connections especially in response to learning or experience), chronic exposure to hyperlinks, "byte-sized" information, pop-up ads, and so on, trains our brains to seek out information at a faster rate. Since we are genetically programmed to release dopamine when we learn new information, responding to tempting hyperlinks embedded in online articles actually makes us feel good when we click and dive into the supplementary information. (Think Pavlov's dog). And down the rabbit hole we go leaving the initial content behind; before we know it, we are two or three hyperlinks away from where we began.
Over time, the cumulative effect is significant. A national poll from Trending Machine shows Millennials are more forgetful than seniors because of a lack of focus. We are, in essence, training our brains to skim rather than dive and to retain less. In a Huffington Post article by Carolyn Gregoire, Carr says, "The process of adaptation doesn't necessarily leave you a better thinker. It may leave you a more shallow thinker." And since thinking affects how we communicate, our verbal and written skills suffer equally.
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Let's look at the ways this fast-paced processing directly and indirectly affects our communication skills.
If all the ways the Internet impacts writing, abbreviating may be the most obvious. Twitter, SnapChat, and texting all encourage us to communicate quickly in small spaces. We are writing faster than ever using abbreviated language.
We substitute "2" for "too" or "to" and "u" for "you."
We use ampersands (&) instead of the word "and."
We rely on SMS abbreviations to replace phases.
Because we are writing more quickly, we are often tempted to skip steps. How many times have we used the lower case "i" for "I" or left out an apostrophe or comma just to save time? And while these choices feel practical when we are rushed, those choices can develop bad habits that then seep into our more formal writing. When that happens, we continue to save particles of time here and there but run the risk of losing credibility with readers — not the best tradeoff.
The parameters of social media require us to write as quickly as possible in smaller spaces. Their constraints force us to write in fragments. We omit essential nouns, verbs, and punctuation. While doing so may serve a purpose in Tweets or text, using fragments obscures meaning necessary for more important deliverables such as business emails, proposals, or marketing materials.
Relying on Emojis
Another recent phenomena of modern communications is the use of emojis. While they are an appropriate shortcut in personal communications — expressing motive or state of mind — they are totally inappropriate for business communications. Period. It is well worth your time and effort to focus and construct your communications as clearly and pointedly as possible to avoid communication breakdown.
Carr recommends "unplugging" to allow our brains to rest from the unending distractions the Internet provides. We do have the choice to slow down and make what we write more meaning-ful—To be more mindful during the act of writing and to take control of the experience is always the road worth taking.
Like sand on the beach, the brain bears the footprints of the decisions we have made,
the skills we have learned, the actions we have taken.
— Sharon Begley
Christina Nemec and Chase Rogers are co-owners of Simply Worded. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.