Is digital technology making writing worse? That’s the folklore these days, dire predictions that we’re heading toward a new “age of illiteracy.” Facebook, then Twitter; next up, the Dark Ages.
However emerging research suggests otherwise. In a recent Wired feature story, Clive Thompson reports on The Stanford Study of Writing, a five-year longitudinal study that collected 14,672 student writing samples. The results of this project suggest that we’re actually headed toward a “literacy revolution” that is “reviving” writing and “pushing our literacy in bold new directions.” First off, students are doing more writing than ever before, because, as Thompson says, “so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38% of it took place out of the classroom.”
But isn’t a lot of this writing just quick-and-dirty, one-sentence, badly spelled, egocentric tweets? Is there any intellectually deep or significant writing? Well, much of this writing might be short, but the research team found that it was remarkably sensitive to its audience. The 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.”
Digital technology is certainly changing what it means “to write well” — and those changes are not necessarily bad. What constitutes “good writing” on the Internet may actually be taking us back in time to more traditional notions of “good rhetoric” as requiring effective public interaction sensitive to its context — its time, its cultural location, its audience.