UB Professor Challenges the 'Demon' of Texting
November 3, 2017
Contact: Office of Government and Public Affairs
Christopher Justice, a lecturer in the University of Baltimore's Klein Family School of Communications Design, has contributed a chapter to a provocative new book, Bad Ideas About Writing, in which he uncovers a number of myths and incorrect assumptions about online communications—especially the misunderstood power and potential of texting.
Bad Ideas About Writing is part of the Open Access Textbooks series, a project created by West Virginia University and the Digital Publishing Initiative. Justice's chapter is one of dozens that, together, offer a comprehensive look at how writing is taught, assessed, improved, and ultimately better understood.
Justice's chapter, ironically entitled "Texting Ruins Literacy Skills" and part of a section of the book called "Bad Ideas About Writing and Digital Technology," does not hesitate to criticize those who have declared that texting and other forms of digital communication have done harm to the writing abilities of users, specifically students. Instead, he says, many experts—linguists, writing instructors, social scientists and others—believe that texting actually encourages a robust, nuanced form of communication through writing, as brief and coded as it may be.
"[T]he myth that texting leads to illiteracy must stop for several reasons," Justice writes. "One reason is that in many contexts, texting allows writers more time than speech to formulate their thoughts, and like other types of electronic media, texting allows ample opportunities to revise and organize one's thoughts. Second, the sudden and rapid popularity of texting is radically disproportionate to illiteracy rates. If texting causes illiteracy, and if so many people are texting, why are literacy rates not rapidly declining?"
Drawing on existing research, Justice says that texting is the most unique linguistic phenomenon to sweep society in decades, partly because it's a form of communication that combines writing with phonetic aspects of speech.
Justice explores the use of abbreviations in texting?a practice that has spilled over into everyday communication, e.g., "LOL," "BTW" and dozens of other examples. These shortcuts, he says, are not a new linguistic trend; the modern world is filled with abbreviations, acronyms and contractions, all of which are designed to streamline communication and establish community. Rather than call out this part of the growing influence of texting, he argues, it's more realistic to think of these trends as "a provocative and clever use of media and an important hallmark of literacy."
Texting's immediacy lends it a certain power, he says. And that power is furthered by its technical capabilities such as sound, images, video, and so on.
"Ultimately, the abbreviated language that characterizes texting discourse is a continuation of a historical trend that reveals how people have creatively used language for conciseness and efficiency," he writes.
Overall, Justice says, a better way to contextualize technology's impact on communications is to think of it as part of a long history of "trashing new media." The ancient Greeks, he notes, seriously questioned written communication as opposed to speaking. At the height of radio's power over the culture, movies were demonized. Television generated significant hand-wringing in the 1960s and '70s, and later so did video games, social media, and other forms of expression that are different than what came before.
While Justice says that texting does have its downsides as a way of communicating, it's wise to consider it as just one more way for students to engage with language.
"In a world rife with alternative discourses and media, embracing the diverse opportunities for communication marks the best path to literacy," he writes.
Learn more about Bad Ideas About Writing.
The University of Baltimore is a member of the University System of Maryland and comprises the College of Public Affairs, the Merrick School of Business, the UB School of Law and the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences.