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IBK*: the death of writting…

December 2nd, 2005

A recent article [slashdot.org] on Slashdot [slashdot.org] asked about what features would be in your ideal instant messenger client/service? The best part of this article is a comment [slashdot.org] made by Atario [slashdot.org]:

A filter that slaps you in the face if you start typing in IM-speak.

“u” for “you”, “4” for “for”, etc.
More than one instance of “lol” per minute
More than two exclamation points (possibly mixed with ones) in a row
Smileys on more than one quarter of your messages
And so on.

I have to say; I would pay to install this IM client on other people’s computers!

IM and SMS typing “short-form” grammar is a small annoyance and in most cases you can read it no problem. I understand the original reasoning behind it: limited space and the inability to type full words at the same speed you talk.

In IM it’s very annoying when you are trying to type a reply — and taking the time to actually spell the words — to someone and they just keep typing away. By the time you finish your thought in full words they might be far beyond the subject. IM as a form of human interaction pales in comparison to speech. It has many of the same hurtles as writing in that regard. Long ago people developed some ways of conveying emotion in written communication: punctuation. Learn to use a comma, a period, an exclamation point. IM seems to have exaggerated the need for this crutches to express tone and emotion because unlike writing a letter, or a story/novel/book, IM is a real-time communication medium.

Because not everybody can type at 300 words a minute, people resorted to shortcuts like the above cited, “u” for “you”, “4” for “for” and a plethora of other, sometimes obtuse shortcuts (WTF, and OMFG, being some of the best.)

Being in college in at the turn of the century (boy do I feel old for some reason when I put it like that… let’s say at the millennium! There, that’s better.) I was in the breading ground for the IM explosion — everyone I new had a free internet connection and everyone had a computer. ICQ and, later AIM were the communication medium of choice. If you went to class you could leave it one and your friends could leave you notes, or, if you had a laptop (and wireless) you could talk to people during class because IM is only as loud as your typing (assuming you turn off the sounds.) Everybody used IM — all the time.

And it’s only gotten more popular. In the few years since I finished college IM has invaded the corporate space like nothing else — except maybe email and blackberries. I speak to people in my office, in other offices of my company and even to client in other countries over IM!.

A similar situation evolved with SMS. When I moved to Europe in 2001, SMS was a small time novelty in the US. In Europe it virtually was IM. Most everyone I new in college in Europe had an MSN messenger account — no one used AIM and only a few used ICQ (and it has been my experience living in Southeast Asia and working with people around the world that MSN is the big boy and AIM is only a power in North America.) But in Europe many people did not have a computer; a lot did but not the number of people in the US. What they all had was a cell phone.

Now a cellular phone was designed — originally — to be like a ‘land line.’ It was meant to make phone calls, voice phone calls. And up until recently and in a lot of ways still, that is how it is used in the US. In the rest of the world voice calls are expensive. When SMS was introduced it provided a cheaper way to communicate, this is especially important to the younger segment of the market, teens and college student with limited income — and a need to spend that income on music, games, drinking and club cover charges. Most of these people are ‘pre-paid’ mobile users. So the expensive voice call is even more expensive, and in many countries you have to (or had to) pay for incoming calls as well as outgoing calls.

Thus the market was ready to embrace a new, cheaper form of communication. Enter SMS. An afterthought on the part of the cell phone manufacturers to use up the last bit of room in data packets, SMS was first marketed to business men — or at least that’s the image I saw portrayed in commercials. But it was quickly picked up as the inside communication method by teens and college students. The fact that their parents could understand the concept or type on the key pad only increased the draw to this new communication medium.

So the ‘SMS Generation’ was born, and has spread around the world, even the US is now a big addict to text messaging. But, at least in the early days, there was one tinny little drawback to SMS; because the protocol was designed to take advantage of some ‘extra room’ on the network the messages had to be small — less than 160 characters in the early days. Today many phones and operators have the ability to utilize larger messages, but that feature came too late. People quickly adopted the IM method of ‘short-form’ to save space.

This degradation of language was taken to the extreme in Europe and other places where a number of languages were sitting close together. Because many of the people using SMS and IM outside the US are communicating with other people who do not speak the same native language English is often used as a bridge language between them. This poses a problem because people learn the shortcuts and bad grammar of SMS/IM short-form because they use it all the time. I witnessed this when I was at university in the UK first hand. I helped some of my friends that were not native English speakers with their papers for class. The common theme in all these papers was bad grammar. No one new more than the three basic punctuation marks: ‘.’,’!’ and ‘?.’ They didn’t know how to start a new paragraph. Sometimes a blank line between them and indention, sometimes no blank line but with indention and sometimes a black line and no indention — in the same paper. It’s wasn’t just ‘first draft’ typos either, they didn’t know that there was anything wrong. But the worst thing about these papers was the abbreviations and short-form. People actually used, ‘4’ in place of ‘for’ in a college paper! They would end sentences with ‘!!!!’ This is fine for SMS or IM or ‘blog-speak’ but these people did not know how to write.

In the years sense, working in the ‘real world’ that is now filled with the graduates of the SMS Generation, I see all these habits invading email. I have seen articles online about the slow degradation of the average persons writing skills and I see the evidence to support these papers everyday. Grown business me, who have college degrees but can’t write a coherent email any better than their 6 year old can. Now the prevalence of the blackberry has made email more like IM or SMS and this will only lead more and worse abuses of language. We seem to be in a state where language is devolving rather than evolving. Soon we people will be communicating in grunts rather than words. The writing teacher’s last hope for the salvation of man must lie in the banning of the blackberry on patent infringement charges. For this could well be the turning point in the battle to save writing skills!

* by the way, according to the Techdictionary’s Chat or text message abbreviation page this means “Idiot Behind the Keyboard.”

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