The message of a new generation

Today’s communication norms have been infiltrated by text messaging’s shorthand lexicon

Image by: Harrison Smith

Y do we luv 2 txt msg?

Walk around anywhere on campus and you’ll notice the familiar sights and sounds of fingers typing on tiny cell phone keypads.

Today, text messaging has become ubiquitous in North American culture.

“I would say that I text a lot,” said Jessica Hollins, Sci ’10. “Many of my friends still have their long distance numbers from home so it’s cheaper just to text them. As an extra bonus, you can also have conversations in class.” Rebecca Lys, ArtSci ’08, said she finds it inconvenient when her friends aren’t as technologically advanced.

“I have some friends who don’t have a cell phone. I get frustrated when I can’t get in contact with them.”

Patrick Lounsbury, Sci ’07, has owned a cell phone for two years and texts people about 10 times a day but said he isn’t dependent on text messaging to function.

“Yes, it would be much harder to get information to and from people without text messaging. However, it’s not a necessity,” Lounsbury said. “Life would go on without it.”

Lounsbury said he has noticed others becoming increasingly reliant on this form of communication.

“My 15-year-old brother just got a bill and he had 1,400 messages in one month.”

Sociology professor Martin Hand, who specializes in media and mass communication, said text messaging has become part of the fabric of everyday life.

“Text messaging exists as a whole range of digitally mediated communication,” he said. But Hand’s not convinced digital communication is really taking over.

“There’s not less face-to-face communication today, there is just more communication in general.

It hasn’t replaced anything, it’s just been added.”

Hand said concerns about the impersonal nature of text messaging are premature.

“I’m sure people felt the same way about the phone when it first came out,” he said.

Unlike many new technological fads which have come and gone—a la Beta tape—Hand believes text messaging is here to stay.

“What you’re seeing is evolutionary shifts, but the idea of instant messaging is locked in a societal norm. [The youth culture of today] see it as very ordinary, necessary, just an average way of conducting themselves. How this has happened is the big question.”

We should consider what text messaging allows us to do with communication, Hand said.

“The key thing to look at is its mobility. It’s become an organizing principle where people feel as though they might need it in fear of being ‘left behind,’” he said.

Hand said he understands the appeal of text messaging, especially to a younger demographic.

“One aspect of it is the discreetness of it. It’s like passing a note to friends in class. That’s nothing new,” he said. “There’s also immediateness to it.”

But is the new convenience of text-speak influencing the way we write?

In November 2006, education officials in New Zealand caused international controversy by allowing the country’s secondary school students to use “text-speak” while writing their nation-wide standardized exams. The same year in Australia, the education system in the state of Victoria caused an uproar by introducing an SMS text messaging unit as an extension of its language arts curriculum.

Julia Spatafora, M. Ed ’08, wrote a thesis entitled “IM Learning 2 Write? A Study on How Instant Messaging Shapes Student Writing,” addressing the impact text-messaging has on students’ writing abilities.

“I had questions about instant messaging and how that might affect the way that kids might be writing. So I decided to write my thesis from the student perspective.”

To research her thesis, Spatafora studied a group of four teen writers between the ages of 16 and 19 for six weeks between January and March 2007.

“Instant messaging is not just writing, it’s a form of talking as well. It’s a hybrid of writing and speech,” she said.

“From the results of my study, it appears that students can see the difference. Students are able to switch back and forth between the writing they use for instant messaging and the style of writing they would use for a report.”

Spatafora believes the use of “text speak” has no place in a formal academic environment.

“I think that’s odd. I haven’t really been able to come to terms with that. I think that the students would end up taking advantage of that. The problem is that there are no standards because text messaging is made up of subgroups of teenagers. I think it would be dangerous to say that it is allowed because we can’t always identify what text messaging is.”

English Professor Chris Fanning said he hasn’t noticed a change in his student’s writing abilities as a result of text messaging use.

“My basic feeling is that at Queen’s, students are very adept at recognizing different modes of discourse and knowing which mode is appropriate in which situation. So I don’t see a lot—or any, really—text-messaging language in the papers I read.”

Tracey Ma, ArtSci ’11, is a recent text-messaging convert. She said it allows her to keep in touch and up-to-date.

“I’ve been texting a lot since I first got to university. I went to a really small all-girls’ high school so you always saw your friends in the hallways. Here it’s a bigger school so text messaging helps you get in touch with people because everyone is more spread out and you don’t always see your friends face to face so it’s more convenient.”

But for Ma, reasons to text go beyond convenience. These little short forms and acronyms carry a great deal of significance and have the power to strike an emotional chord.

“When I get a text message I usually delete it right away. But if it’s a cute message or if it’s at all significant in some way, I keep it.

“My cell phone is like my personal time capsule. This shows that text messaging isn’t totally devoid of meaning. With a cell phone you feel like everyone’s with you. You feel less alone.”

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