Social media is everywhere, but is that a problem for literacy? Is all the blogging, tweeting, texting, and Facebooking we’re doing leading to a new age of illiteracy—a time when nobody can write more than 140 characters at a stretch and all communication is punctuated with emojis?
This much is certain: literacy is evolving. Nowhere is this more evident than in student writing, and noted composition scholar author Andrea A. Lunsford has been doing research on that subject for a long time. In 1986 and 2006, she led two nationwide studies of the problems college instructors are most likely to point out in student work. The data she collected has significantly advanced understanding of what students were and are writing in their first-year composition courses, and she published much-cited articles about these studies with her co-researchers, Bob Connors in 1988 and Karen Lunsford in 2008.
She has also spearheaded a longitudinal study, the Stanford Study of Writing. For five years, she and her team followed a group of 189 college writers, asking the students to submit all the writing they did—in class and out—to the study’s archive. The sheer amount of material astonished the researchers, who collected more than 15,000 pieces of writing ranging from coursework to blog posts to vast quantities of poetry. Observing that college-aged writers in the 21st century were writing more than any previous generation ever had, Andrea began to argue that the world was experiencing the greatest “literacy revolution” since the development of writing in ancient Greece.
New technologies, she has noted, are behind much of this revolution. Writers today can publish with a keystroke, can reach potential audiences all over the world quickly, and can add sound, visuals, and movement to their work. But even more importantly, technology now makes it easy for writing to be collaborative and participatory. The explosion in social media has made young writers ever more aware that they are writing to real audiences who can, and often do, respond. As Clive Thompson has pointed out in Wired, “Lunsford's team [in the Stanford Study of Writing] found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across.”
Social and interactive communication can take advantage of actual contexts and engage actual readers to become “writing that makes something happen in the world,” in the words of the Stanford Study participants. It won’t surprise anyone who is familiar with Andrea Lunsford’s work that she remains excited and optimistic about student writing and student writers.
Imagine! If social media has had an impact on literacy, it seems to have been a beneficial one. All this, and emojis too....