Should we be in a twit over social media writing?


student with smart phone

Nov. 20, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Believe it or not, there was once a time in which there was not a computer on every lap and a smartphone in every hand.

And in those bygone days, before the Internet, most people wrote to specifically communicate with one other person. However, with the advent of social media, we are now able to reach hundreds, if not thousands, with a single post. One of the most popular ways in which we do just that is through Twitter.

The social media site - which allows users to communicate via 140-character 'tweets' - boasts 320 million monthly users, 30 percent of which are college students according to a Jan. 9, 2015 report by the Pew Research Center.

But is all this tweeting, with its character limitations and abbreviations - 'u' for 'you,' 'c' for 'see' and '2' for 'to' to name a few - creating a culture of informal language that has crept its way into students' formal writing?

There are a number of published reports, including one from the previously mentioned Pew Research Center, stating that is exactly what has happened. In fact, teachers as early as middle school are reporting that "cyber slang" could be damaging student's writing acuity.

However, it seems that once within the confines of an institution of higher learning, at least in the case of Slippery Rock University, those fears may be unfounded.

jason stuart


"I see no evidence of transfer from how students write on social media to how they write formal papers," said Jason Stuart, SRU assistant professor of English.

"If anything, the real problem (stemming from social media) starts with reading. Whether it's two pages or 20 pages, a lot of students balk at any sort of length. The brevity of posts has caused everyone to consume material in a short form. Digging deep into a topic is sometimes difficult to get done. Patience plays a part in (reading) because of social media.

Stuart said the challenge is to get students to read closely and critically in order to understand the problem or issue they must address or solve in a writing assignment.

"It's more about undoing what they learned in high school, that five or six paragraphs can get the job done, than anything Twitter or Facebook poses. I don't see those outlets as a huge influencer."

Remember when email was going to destroy letter writing, and maybe even bring down the art of writing altogether? Well, it did destroy letter writing, but did it bring down the art of writing or just change it?

"What's happened with social media writing isn't something new, it's simply evolution," said Doug Strahler, SRU communication instructor.

"We've always abbreviated and used shorthand in particular settings, it's simply more pronounced now because of technology and its usage. I don't think there's anything wrong with students getting away from a formal component (of writing) when using social media, they just need to realize - and they do - when it is okay to do so and when it isn't. I'm not seeing 'brb' (be right back) or 'ttyl' (talk to you later) in papers because they know better."

To that end Strahler provides instruction to students on proper email etiquette, in an effort to assist them on when situations dictate formality over familiarity.

"It's important to remind them that you don't just jump into (an email) with 'Hey, what did I miss?' or having no signature or no subject line," Strahler said. "Once you learn the culture of a particular individual, you can transform into less formal talk if the situation dictates that."

Stuart added that students didn't begin using 'U' and '2' because they wanted to make adults angry; it simply sprang from the limitations of the technology.

"I'm sure once they found out it made their parents mad, it made it all the better," said Stuart with a laugh. "But at the end of the day, they do it, heck, almost everyone does it, out of necessity to get the message out. But at the end of the day, when it comes to research and papers, students know how to articulate their thoughts the proper way."

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