I’ve argued in the past that the evolution of languages – including texting – is an inevitable feature of human societies and we need to adapt and educate, rather than deny or lament (Like, get over it!).
I had imagined that adaption means being aware of the choices we make when we use different discourses; and choosing the right ones for the right occasions and the right people. But I have recently come to see that while this is an important aspect of language, some new media present genuinely different opportunities for conversation. I’m thinking of texting here – and I surprise myself because my skepticism of the value of texting for anything beyond the trivial was only slightly less than my in-principle irritation of Twitter.
I remain a Twitter-skeptic, but this TED talk from Nancy Lublin was, for me, totally compelling. She points out that the apparent vices of anonymity, distance, and facelessness of texting can be virtues; that they can be precisely the reasons that we can sometimes open up new, profound and vital conversations; conversations that are otherwise too intimate, painful and hard to face. In particular, she is talking about conversations that are not mediated by embarrassment, tears, or fears when they are conducted by texted rather than in person. You see, Ms Lublin runs texting helplines across the USA, and has been collecting data about who texts for help when, in what circumstances. She noteswe spike everyday at lunch time — kids are sitting at the lunch table and you think that she’s texting the cute boy across the hall, but she’s actually texting us about her bulimia. And we don’t get the word “like” or “um” or hyperventilating or crying. We just get facts.
So it seems that people may be more likely to seek help by text than by phone, or in person. Perhaps it’s the lack of the need to speak; perhaps it’s simply the pared-down nature of texting language; or the tech-mediated character that mobile technology brings. In any case, it’s a crucial difference, and the reason doesn’t really matter. We have to meet people where they are, not where we are.
I’ve learnt that perhaps foregrounding face-to-face conversations over other modes of communication isn’t always as good a principle as I had thought, and I’m trying to be a little more flexible. Now when a student emails (emails are a little different, but I think the same may apply) I’ll try not to react with my usual please come and see me in person until I have made some space for disclosures that might not otherwise emerge. Similarly for my own kids.
I wonder if our doubt over the roles of new media in conversations will seem quaint in years to come. In Victorian times, folk wondered if it was disgraceful to chat on the telephone while improperly dressed. For me, that’s salutary. I may even re-visit Twitter.