Someone told me the other day that we live in a society of illiterates, that kids don’t read any more and that the quality of our interaction with words is declining because of TV and tabloid newspapers. All I could say in response was: “Huh?”

It’s so easy to talk about corruption of journalism and media and blame it on TV — let’s face it, politicians structure their speeches around the 30-second sound bite that exists so the news networks can cut in advertising of the same length in a consistent and predictable manner.

Major US sports games like the Superbowl have ad breaks built into the game itself. I regularly see a certain alien making headlines in the tabloids but no one at the SABC or seems to be able to track him down for an interview. So, yes, it is easy to put all of these things together and claim we’re approaching a new level of social corruption. The problem is, it’s simply not true.

As far as our interaction with language goes, there are many indications that the opposite is happening. This obsession with reading paper as the ultimate way to ingest what we web people refer to as “content” is a perceptual relic of the Dark Ages when getting your hands on a written text was the equivalent of substantial modern-day bling, being it in terms of power or wealth or both. The Catholic Church had a monopoly on the bling in Europe for quite some time, so when the Reformation came about, there was plenty of motivation for the printed word to be liberated from the church and delivered into the hands of the emerging middle classes. It was the liberation of the word from the scriptorium.

But Gutenberg had nothing on It’s one thing to simply shift publishing power from one elite to another, and it’s another to democratise publishing completely. I think the volume of writing is a much better indicator of the literacy of a society than the volume of reading, because the one is significantly more challenging than the other.

Technorati tracks 70-million new publishers, in the form of blogs. Realistically you can cut that number in half because many of the blogs are dormant. Nevertheless that represents the biggest growth of publishing in human history, ever.

But what about the quality, you may ask. Does it say much for our culture when we have boat-loads of text and very little to read? This type of question is the one that separates the digital immigrants from the digital natives. You don’t see digital natives complaining about the quality or the lack of grammatical correctness in SMSs and so on. That sense of a loss of quality is one grounded in the old regime of linguistic elitism, which has already been overthrown by the internet and mobile communications. When so much power is devolved to so many so quickly, the rules will change. By the time you realise they have changed, all you’re hearing is the dying echo of a voice that vanished into the shadows years before.

This doesn’t mean that the notion of “quality language”, as it was previously defined, has no place. Those quality language products are going to be niche genres for people looking for them. In a media context, there will always be a need for accuracy and balance, but one of the biggest shifts we need to begin making is to disassociate mentally the “highness” of the language from the quality of the information it contains and accept that quality can come via a short-form SMS or an IM.

So maybe my initial “huh” was a guarded challenge, or maybe it was just me multitasking — either way, it justified his criticism and upheld my own dissent simultaneously.


  • Vincent Maher was the Mail & Guardian Online's digital strategist. He has worked in the web industry for 12 years, was the head of the New Media Lab at the Rhodes University School of Journalism and Media Studies and writes columns for Enjin and Intelligence magazines. He is a judge of the Telkom ICT Journalist of the Year Awards and the developer of His current area of focus is Web 2.0 and social media strategy for the traditional media.


Vincent Maher

Vincent Maher was the Mail & Guardian Online's digital strategist. He has worked in the web industry for 12 years, was the head of the New Media Lab at the Rhodes University School of Journalism and...

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