Friday, April 20, 2007

Wriking? Speating?

I unearthed some fairly interesting research on the language used in IMs. It’s a quick read – certainly one of the shorter pieces I’ve found and commented on.

The main point, and that which is presenting new possibilities of research to me, is that instant messaging is more like speech than it is writing. I never even thought of it, but the simplicity of that assertion makes studying the effects on IM and text-messaging on more formal writing a far different task than the one I embarked upon six weeks ago. I think to more accurately study IM and text-messaging, one would have to approach the emergent literacy as a combination of speech and writing, a method of communication that might present far more intricacies than either speech or writing separately.

Social norms must be taken into account, as the audience is a specific, ever-changing one. This is more of a concern for speech than for writing. Most writing occurs with a specific, static audience in mind. How does IM and text-messaging marry these two seemingly opposite purposes together? In this instance, my initial guess is that, if we were to think of writing and speaking as if on a spectrum (with IM sliding somewhere in the middle), this new literacy would lean more toward speaking than writing. Furthermore, the exchange between two individuals is far closer to speaking than it is writing. Even in cases when one is writing a letter (or email) to another person, the receiver can only respond once she is made to read the entirety of the message.

However, it would be negligent on the part of the researcher to disregard facts that sway IM more toward writing than speaking, or those elements that seem to blow IM off the proposed spectrum altogether.

Consider what commonly occurs during IM “conversations.” While one IMer is making a point about one topic, the other IMer may very well, at the same instance, be typing about something entirely different. Once the conversation-starting (-changing) comments are made by one, the other must choose to either respond immediately to that point or continue on with his point. One point may be lost, or returned to only after the other point has been exhausted. No social norms are being followed in this case: each IMer has her own agenda, and is perfectly willing to carry out that agenda at the same moment her “conversation” partner is carrying out his own agenda. Such exchanges would be awkward and, indeed, impossible with speech if two people hoped to take any meaning away from what the other is saying. Clearly this is far closer to writing than speaking.

Sigh. I can’t imagine how my wife was able to set her goals so seemingly effortlessly when it came time to choose her dissertation topic. The more I read the more questions I have. What’s different in my life now than, say, two years ago, is that I want to be the one to answer those questions.


Crystal Crozier said...

Richard, I found this to be an interesting read. When I read the following, I laughed:

"This is not to say there were no informal, speech-like aspects to the gals' messages. For example, it took two women on average 41 seconds and nearly 10 exchanges to close a conversation. This is similar to the prolonged goodbyes that characterize face-to-face communication.

Men, perhaps not surprisingly, ended their IM sessions more than twice as quickly."

This reminded me of the phone conversations when my husband and I were dating. I would keep prolonging the conversation everytime I said bye, my husband on the other hand would simply say "bye" (and eventually, "I love you!") and then hang up.

I also found the multitasking aspect of this article interesting. I do IM, but I have never had 12 conversations going at the same time. I think I would get confused and start answering one conversation with the answers to another. How do these children do it?

Laine said...

Crystal's comments regarding her husband's brief goodbyes definitely struck a chord. There is certainly an interesting gender differential.

I felt like the mother of computer multitasking in college. I am sad to admit that I would often be writing a paper for an English course, taking mental pauses to play a quick game of Solitaire, and instant messaging 3-5 friends all at the same time. As I get older I find myself losing that ability...or maybe it's just that I really, truly care about what I write about these days so I focus my attention on one thing at a time.

As for the differential between speaking and writing, I question just how different they really are from one another. What makes the greater impact, I believe, is the audience for which you are writing or speaking. Formal speech is just as permanent as formal writing and informal speech is just as laid back as informal writing. Do we first assess our audience and then write, or do we write and then consider the audience? Typically audience comes first, further substantiating my belief that there is an appropriate time for different forms of language and we are responsible, as teachers, for showing students the difference.

Brittany said...

Mr. Wells, because I have no way of knowing the exact assignment on the blogs, I happened upon this entry of yours. The idea i found most interesting was how you explained the dynamics of the topic changes within IMs. You said that they would be very awkward in speech and they are, but that doesn't mean they aren't common among my peers when actually speaking. I think that is something you didn't realize. I'm not sure what is it about "my generation" but, generally speaking, we have very short attention spans and attention disorders seem to be common place. These factors are a large part of verbal communication because as one speaker talks about their topic, the other may bring up an entirely different one with no segway at all. Then again, one can argue which came first? When you actually hear people saying "lol" in conversation its hard to discern what charateristics developed online and then spread to speach and which have developed in speach and reached the internet.

Richard Wells said...

Thanks for your comments, all.

I maintain that speech and writing have inherent differences. The asides mentioned by Brittany that occur in spoken language are not "this generation"-specific: My friends and I had similar digressions and lost the focus of conversations which began without one.

The thing which makes each situation unique is that, when a person is speaking to another person in a one-on-one setting (as is most often the case when IMing), one person has an obligation to conform to societal norms and allow the other to speak. Even if he who is not speaking is thinking about something entirely different or wants to change the subject, more than likely he will wait to voice his opinion until the other person has finished talking. IMs remove -- or at least lessen -- the need to conform to societal norms prevalent in speaking situations. Though many IM systems now alert users when another user is typing, there is still nothing preventing the person on the other end from typing at the same time. As soon as a thought comes to mind, it goes down in the IM text box.

In addition, reading is a different cognitive task than listening; students' varying abilities to attend to listening tasks versus reading tasks is evidence of such. This must be taken into account when discussing where IMing falls on the Writing-Speaking spectrum.