Do you speak “social?” There is a lot of writing out there about the effects of social media on business, marketing, branding and customer services. But what about how social media communications is impacting our written communications, or even our oral communications?

Do you speak “social?” There is a lot of writing out there about the effects of social media on business, marketing, branding and customer services. But what about how social media communications is impacting our written communications, or even our oral communications?

Anyone remember when email was going to destroy letter writing, and even the art of writing altogether? Well, it did destroy letter writing, but did it really destroy the art of writing, or just change it?

The Impact of “Social Speak” on the Written Word

I’d argue that email, SMS and social media communications tools have made irreversible impacts on the way we write, but that is not to say we should write in that “social” manner. Sure, I’m tempted to use “l8r” and countless other SMS abbreviations to save time and space. Those of us who are well-versed in the “old ways” of communicating will likely switch back and forth, as appropriate. I’m wondering, however, about those who have come of age in the era of SMS and the social web.

The social web has changed the written word in a couple of key ways:

1. Writing is more concise. When we first heard of Twitter and its 140 character limit, most of us wondered how in the world we could convey something meaningful in 25 to 30 words. Now we realize that Twitter pushes us to get to the essence of what we are trying to say. Who says you must have full sentences or paragraphs of text to make an impact or to drive people to action?

2. Use of different spelling and abbreviations. My husband came to me last night asking for help “translating” a text from his teenage daughter. “What does ‘TTYL’ stand for?” he asked. “Talk To You Later,” I replied. The strange thing was that I didn’t sense my own brain processing the translation. Instead, I immediately knew  the answer in the same way I know that “casa” means “house” without having to do the mental computing to get from a foreign word to familiar one. People who are communicating via SMS or social networks aren’t necessarily spelling things incorrectly. They are effectively speaking a new language entirely — so who is to say if it is “right” or “wrong”?

“Social” Spoken Here

I think that one of the real impacts of social media communications on our general communications is that many of us tend to be much more revealing in business and personal communications than ever before. Somehow, telling the world personal things and then exploring them on our blogs, on Facebook and on Twitter has become socially acceptable in many circles. Not everyone has caught the TMI (too much information) bug, but I’d venture to guess that many of us are much less shocked by someone getting more personally revealing even in a business setting because, well, we read it first on their blog anyway.

“Social” as “Anti-Social”

In social settings or face-to-face interactions, there is a distressing attention deficit problem. Recently, I invited some female bloggers to a small gathering for a wine tasting, and to get to know one another better. In the old days, if you were shy, you might sit to the side of the crowd and smile politely, hoping someone would include you. These days, those with social timidity will bury their noses in their mobile devices. I saw photographs of my gathering after the fact showing that a very prominent social media “guru” spent the entire time texting. Not on the periphery of the group, or in the hallway, but smack dab in the middle of the entire group. Granted, this person could have been tweeting about the event, but the first impression I have is one of being anti-social.

I also have mixed feelings about the impact of social communications in the realm of public speaking. As an attendee at conferences I love tweeting quotes I hear from speakers, to share their wisdoms with my followers. But as a speaker myself, I have yet to experience the dreaded “Tops of Heads Syndrome.” There are a lot of public speakers who have been sent into tailspins trying to adjust to speaking to an audience whose faces are obstructed by their laptops or who are so busy on their phones that the speaker can only see the tops of their heads, instead of their eyes and face. How disconcerting that must be.

There is no single right or wrong way to assimilate “social speak” into our lives and work — it all depends upon your own time and tolerance, your setting, your colleagues, and even the image you want to project. For better or for worse, though, we are all in a new world of communications — and most of us will have to learn the new language.

How do you feel social media is affecting our oral and written communications?

stock.xchng images by harrykeely and tecknare respectively

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Social Media in the Enterprise

By Aliza Sherman

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  1. I’ll be honest…I HATE things like LOL, TTYL, LMAO! It drives me nuts and I will never say it out loud. However, I’ll admit that I have written a few of these things online via IM and esp. Twitter with it’s character limits.

    When it starts popping up in people’s resumes (which has happened), to me that’s an issue.

  2. Hi,

    I agree with the point that the speakers sometimes only see the heads of the attendees at the conferences.
    On what is the Audience concentrated on? Email? Twitter?
    For what they are sitting there? For tweeting some stuff?
    I remember the days when the Walkman was invented. Everybody wears a headphone while doing something else. Even while talking with others.

    This behaviour will disappear some day…


  3. Having been an avid letter writer for years, I am still slow to let go of the fleshed-out salutation/ body/ closing rhythm that, honestly, most people don’t seem to have patience for in email. Twitter is torture for me, as I’m torn on abbreviations and sentence structure as a reflection of respect. First-time recipients of my text messages rarely fail to comment on my use of the allotted characters.

    But I’m getting there. I’ll eventually be willing to abbreviate more than “with” and “between.” And I’ve surely embraced emoticons. ;)

    That said, my mother-in-law is an 8th grade teacher and she shared with me the other day that her students have begun using “social speak” in their work. Actual handed-in papers. Yes, “l8r” and “btw” have somehow struck them as acceptable in formal writing. When she marks them down for it, along with spelling and grammar, their parents call to complain… because surely she knew what they meant?

  4. I think the lack of editing is preventing people from learning how to improve their writing. My colleague and chief creative officer Todd Coats has divergent views on the impact of social media. Here are two recent blog posts.

    “Twitter is good for copywriting”

    “Twitter is bad for copywriting:

  5. I have no problem with acronyms (lol, ttyl, brb) but hate the use of u and ur. In defense of the former, I submit btw, i.e., and e.g. Why not the latter? Probably because they’re abbreviating one word to a not-significantly-shorter less-pronounceable version.

    I love Twitter for just the explanation you gave: Twitter pushes us to get to the essence of what we are trying to say. I try to follow people who do this extremely well.

    As for Tops of Heads Syndrome, the real question is whether the audience is listening. My guess is that college professors are well inured to Tops of Heads Syndrome – students are expected to take notes. Perhaps presenters need to change their ways – ask questions, force eye contact, encourage participation. After all, people have been bringing laptop computers to presentations for over 10 years now. Even the ones with paper notebooks could be doodling or making shopping lists.

    If people aren’t paying attention, the technology is unlikely to blame.

    To Megan’s mother-in-law, the response should be “The point isn’t whether I know what they meant. The point is to learn proper formal writing skills. This is an English Class, not Intuition 101.”

  6. The next step is the inclusion of social computing/social networking in corporate unified communications platforms. This means that the changes to speech discussed here will invade the business world. It’s already happening….

  7. As a student of linguistics, I appreciate the changes that all languages undergo. It is interesting to see how these things develop.

    Just today I remarked upon how official news media make more and more use of grammar that used to be incorrect. Some ‘new’ forms were once incorrect and nowadays – apparently – no longer are. My native language is Dutch, but that particular example translates into the usage of ‘better as him’ as opposed to ‘better than him’. (I wonder, has ‘better then him’ become accepted in the same way in English?)

    I believe it is important to keep formal and everyday language separated, and because of this that children (and everyone else who needs to use both forms) should learn the difference.

    I do not, however, believe these changes are wrong. Regardless of how much some new forms irk me :) (And let’s not even discuss the usage of emoticons, shall we?)

    It makes me wonder though, how people in the distant future will look back at our society with it’s gigantic amounts of data. Will they have kept the keys to unravelling our ancient language? Or will they be as stumped by our ROTFL’s, CUL8R’s and I<3U2’s as some of us are now?

  8. I love this conversation. Thank you for bringing up these questions.

    “They are effectively speaking a new language entirely — so who is to say if it is “right” or “wrong”?”

    Who is to say? Me. I am to say. At the risk of making a sweeping generalization and being accused of being an old crank–I am only 28–I think that the internet has largely killed good writing.

    It is not the abbreviations that kill me. It’s the lack of coherence, proper spelling and punctuation. The biggest problem is that this grammatical wasteland is not limited to social media. It has bled into emails, blog posts and writing of all kinds. I often receive inarticulate, punctuation-free, misspelled, verb-less emails from coworkers. Coworkers! Sometimes I need a decoder ring to figure out what they are trying to communicate.

    After spending too much time reading tweet, IM chats and blog comments, it clear that haven’t simply changed the way that we write. We have destroyed it. We write like monkeys with typewriters.

    Writing for the digital age should not require sacrificing clarity and the beauty of language.

    Now get off my lawn, you dang kids.

  9. Although I try not to show it, I get annoyed when people are excessively texting during a social gathering. I think you are losing the point of getting together if you are paying attention to something else entirely.

    I’ve gotten used to the LOL’s and other shorthand, and even use it myself. I would look at someone cross-eyed who used it unironically in person, though.

    The funniest thing to me is there is an ad for an ADHD med at the end of the comments!

  10. [...] article about how social media affects the way we write is a good reminder that technology works its way into every aspect of our lives. The impact is [...]


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