Blaming Technology For Our Shortcomings

by Jason Falls |

There’s an amusing little meme that has been making its way through Facebook lately that takes a shot at people who are a little weak in the grammar and punctuation department. While there are several posts, images and facets to this mini-onslaught of jokes, pictures and even videos, my favorite is the e-card-type image with an attractive woman with her arm around a man saying, “You had me at the appropriate use of ‘you’re.”

Having several opportunities recently to speak to groups of educators and parents about social media, I heard the theme popping up there, too. “Kids today don’t know how to spell, are horrible at grammar and don’t know punctuation,” is the typical complaint. When I ask why they think this is, they inevitably blame it on texting or social media. The argument is that abbreviated communications has led to a deficiency in the student’s ability to communicate in a more traditional, long form.

pointing-finger
Image by purpleslog via Flickr

I was asked about this phenomenon in my interview for the Verizon Thinkfinity Education Speaker Series, which was published this morning at Thinkfinity.org. (You have to register to see the interview, but the community is a free resource intended for educators, teachers, parents and administrators.) My response to the issue surprised the Verizon folks and forced educators to take a step back and reconsider their analysis of the situation.

When I think of how young people, or even older people, who are texting or Tweeting or sending other social media messages and how they abbreviate, use acronyms and the like, I see a different reason. What’s happening is that these individuals, knowing they are confined to short text fields and time frames in which to communicate often lengthy replies, are simply creating more efficient ways to do so. While Mrs. Polly Prude might think “gr8″ is poor spelling or grammar, when you only have 160 characters (limitation on SMS text messages), that’s a gr8 way to make a five-letter word a three-letter one.

Keep in mind this behavior evolved before smart phones, when kids had to punch a numerical keypad 3-4 times to get to a certain letter. Writing a complete sentence used to take far longer than it should have.

My challenge to the parents and educators complaining about their children and students writing habits was to have them write an essay, a letter or something with less constraints, and different context. My bet is that the students, in the right frame of mind, can spell and punctuate just fine. They’re just communicating most effectively in the medium and context of the moment.

Here’s where the parents and educators get mad at me

If at that point your children still struggle with spelling, grammar or punctuation, you can only point your finger of blame in a couple of directions … and none of them are cell phones, Twitter or social media. You can only blame the student or, perhaps more appropriately, their educators.

Just like businesses are looking for an easy button to push to make social media happen, educators and parents want an easy button to push to take themselves off the hook for the lack of performance of those under their care. And if they don’t want to take responsibility for Junior or Missy’s current ineptitude, why not take responsibility for moving forward and changing it?

Part of the reason I’m involved with literacy organizations (I’m a board member for the National Center for Family Literacy and my local library’s foundation) is because I believe strongly that while students should take responsibility for their education to be successful, literacy — not just reading and writing, but functional literacy as well — only comes when parent, child and teacher all work in unison to build it.

But I have to stand up and remind everyone now and again that blaming technology, a website or just social media in general for someone’s lack of performance or desire is wholly misguided. It’s the same application of blame when the media asked why Twitter would make Anthony take pictures of his Weiner.

A good craftsman never blames his tools. Shouldn’t a good teacher or parent not blame the kid’s phone?

I think so. You?

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).