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Great news: Facebook and Twitter sharpens your writing skills!

September 24, 2009
Twitter can turn your kid into a new Plato!

Twitter can turn your kid into a new Plato!

A five-year study at Stanford University concludes that far from diminishing literacy, digital technology–especially social networking sites — is turning young people into the best writers since the ancient Greeks, crows Clive Thomas at Wired magazine. But I have my doubts.

Young people write more than their parents and grandparents — far more, according to the Stanford study — because you can’t take part in Twitter, Facebook and their like without writing.

“Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment,” says Stanford professor Andrea Lunsford, who designed and supervised the study.

Called the Stanford Study of Writing, Lunsford’s project tracked 189 students for five years, beginning in 2001. The participants agreed to submit all the writing they did for class, plus as much of their extracurricular writing as they wanted. All agreed to fill out an annual survey over the course of the study, and 36 agreed to be interviewed at least once a year.

All told, Lunsford collected more than 14,000 student writing samples, including in-class writing, formal essays, emails, journal entries, blog posts, social networking entries.

As Thomas reports, Lunsford discovered that 38 percent of the writing her student subjects did took place out of class — that is, it was personal writing, what the professor calls “life writing.”

What’s more, all this writing for Facebook, Twitter and email is making young people better writers, Thomas reports. Lunsford found her subjects adept at “what rhetoricians call kairos,” which Thomas defines as assessing their audience and adapting tone and technique to best get a point across.

In other words, these writers pitch their writing differently on Facebook than in emails, or blog posts, or formal writing. Students in the study say they almost always write for an audience, and therefore understand that good writing is about persuading, debating and organizing information –“even if it’s about something as quotidian as what movie to go see,” exults Thomas.

Thomas, who would probably admit to a bias in favor of technology and its benefits, is contemptuous of his own generation, which he says wrote almost nothing after leaving school. He even dismisses traditional letter writing and essay writing as “asynchronous.”

Kairos is a fancy word to apply to what goes on in Internet chat rooms and on most blogs, but it provides a nifty bridge for Lunsford’s most spectacular claim.

“I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” she says.

So…the next time you’re at Starbucks and you see a kid Tweeting about what happened last night on Gossip Girl, show due respect. You may be looking at the next Aristotle, Plato or Sophocles.

While I admit to a certain anti-technology, pro-paper bias, nothing would please me more than to learn we are at the dawn of a new age of widespread literacy featuring heightened writing skills. Sadly, I don’t think so, and here is why:

For one thing, Thomas makes much of Lunsford’s “massive study,” and, indeed, 14,000 writing samples sounds like a lot. But a scientific study with only 186 participants is, in fact, too small to provide meaningful data. Would you alter your eating habits on the basis of a heart-health study that included only 186 people? Me, neither.

What Lundsford’s study actually reveals is the writing habits and skill level of the students at Stanford University — an academically elite institution where you would expect superior writing ability in the first place. As the Newsgrange blog site points out, 97 percent of the study participants graduated high school with a 3.8 GPA or higher, 74 percent scored 700 or higher on the verbal SAT, and 76 percent scored 700 or higher on the math SAT.

“This study is completely biased and to look at it as anything else but a study of Stanford students is plain wrong,” grumps Newsgrange.

Finally, most of the writing I see on social networking sites –the audience-oriented debates on what movie to see — feels less like Aristotle’s Analytics than a written adaptation of ordinary conversation.

Sure, my parents didn’t write a lot of emails to each other, but they sure argued about what to watch on TV, what to have for dinner, where to go on vacation, and believe me, they meant to be persuasive.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2009 12:18 pm

    I think the next time you see some one at starbucks writing about some wacky show they saw the night before. You have the next person writing about the wacky show they saw. That is all. Writing is like food. Whether you eat or not has to do with channels of distribution and the money that flows through them. Great writers have to get an avenue to get to the readers. That may be changing and opening that part of writing up a bit. I heard the great people you mentioned Chauncey like to take naps in the afternoon. I figured if I took enough naps I could be smart like them. I am not giving up yet.

  2. rachel permalink
    September 24, 2009 12:39 pm

    I agree Chauncey Mabe! I mean, who thinks that a study with 186 participants is going to be persuasive? Did they think that we, the lowly masses, would only look at the results and not consider the study they had done?

    Maybe people are writing more, but aren’t they also texting more which has nothing to do with expressing yourself well but everything to do with saying things in the smallest space possible? I have to admit, that sometimes as the result of facebook or commenting on blogs like this I look up words to make sure that I am using and spelling them correctly.

    Shouldn’t something be said for the fact that the way in which people write emails and blog entries and comments on facebook are in a more hasty manner and in some way expecting a prompt response? I think something is lost there, from when people used to correspond through letters and write as if they had to actually wait for a reply (they did!) and would explain things in more detail because they didn’t have 10 ways to communicate with their 200 closest friends on a daily basis.

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    September 25, 2009 12:07 pm

    Clear, crips, to the point–that’s what makes writing great. Whether the twitterers will be better writers–only time will tell. But it sure can’t hurt.

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