Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World

August 7, 2008

The social impact of new media and technology is often the focus of controversy and debate. So what is the consequence of the internet and the mobile telephone on our way of life? Some suggest that the digital culture has had a devastating impact on children's lives. Media optimists take the opposite view and celebrate the incredible skills demonstrated by computer-savvy six-year-olds. Naomi Baron's study Always On presents a convincing argument that suggests both camps are too one-sided in their prognoses.

Always On analyses how young people engage with digital technology. Baron notes how children use applications such as instant messaging (IM) and mobile phones as a form of "discourse management". Young people want to be able to access others continually but don't want their parents to be able to access them. They use technology to "assert control", Baron says. They use social networks to present themselves as they want to be seen and IM as online communication.

The most interesting insights provided by Baron pertain to her study of online language. As a linguist, she is interested in the way that language is used in IM and texting. Many commentators who have been fascinated by the bizarre abbreviations, acronyms and emoticons used by younger generations have assumed that they are witnessing the emergence of a sophisticated language that only the young can understand. Baron's analysis of the linguistic code in IM suggests instead that it is a form of informal speech that relies on abbreviations and contractions such as omg (oh my god). Kids are making up expressions online in ways that are not that dissimilar to what previous generations did offline. Always On argues that digital technology amplifies the trends at work in society as a whole.

Baron is concerned about the casual, almost disrespectful, way that young people are encouraged to use language online. She is also worried about the cognitive consequences of multitasking. Many of her respondents watch television while they IM their friends or surf the web. Some young people reported that they get "bored with just one activity". Such young people are, perhaps inevitably, turned off reading books. Baron cites a professor of literature at the University of California, Los Angeles who says: "I can't get my students to read whole books any more." But Baron insists that contemporary problems of literacy should not be blamed on technology. She points out that there has been a long-term trend towards informality in language usage. Grammar has suffered from a loss of cultural valuation, and therefore it is not surprising that such attitudes are exhibited by young people on the internet. Baron notes, too, that the "cultural downsizing" of books in the US predates the computer revolution. If parents aren't reading, she observes, it is not surprising that their children are turned off by serious books.

Yet instead of worrying about technology, Baron counsels her readers to take young people's education more seriously. She approves of Middlebury College's history faculty's decision that references to Wikipedia "were not acceptable". The problem, as they saw it, was not Wikipedia itself, but students' reluctance to dig deeper. We may not be able to decipher all their acronyms, abbreviations and text-speak, but as academics we have a role to play in encouraging students to use computers for something more than instant information.

Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World

By Naomi S. Baron. Oxford University Press. 304pp, £15.99. ISBN 9780195313055. Published 17 April 2008

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