Words are powerful. In the right hands, they can change perspective, save lives and topple empires. The majority of the most influential politicians of the last century built their success on the foundation of well thought-out words – propaganda, slogans, rousing speeches. Some of those who wrote the words for them have even become household names in their own right – just think of Alastair Campbell, or the even more nefarious Dr. Joseph Goebbels, whose promotional efforts were seen as one of the key factors in Hitler’s rise to power.
Indeed, those who write about the prominent figures in our society sometimes even seem to wield more power than those who officially run it. In 1992, Britain’s most popular “newspaper” (I use the term loosely), The Sun, famously declared it had “won” the general election for the Conservative party after running a campaign against Neil Kinnock’s Labour in the preceding weeks.
The advent of mass media has predictably increased this trend, with live Internet feeds and 24-hour news reporting ensuring that the words of the world’s big hitters are now more readily accessible to more of us than ever. So why do they appear to be losing their importance?
Allow me to explain what I mean. When visiting my parents recently, I overheard my mother asking what has become a very familiar question to me in recent years: “What shall I write?” To the unitiated ear, this enquiry could open up a whole world of possible situations: was she writing a journal, a business letter, perhaps even a birthday card to an old friend? The reality, however, was much less grand and intriguing. She was doing something millions of us do several times each day: writing a Facebook message.
Considering that the technological revolution in communications began a couple of decades into their professional lives and only accelerated further as they entered retirement, I’m generally quite proud of how well my parents have come to terms with it. They have a tablet and a Skype account, and my mother decided to join Facebook several years ago when my brother moved to Australia. However, they remain largely untainted by the hectic speed that online communication has imposed on the lives of those a generation below them. They grew up in a time where messages could not be transmitted as easily, and long-term communication was often expensive and irregular. There were no mobile phones, let alone mobile Internet. Treasured friends were often kept in the loop by means of the hand-written letters that later became known as “snail mail”, a mode of communication now largely defunct to those of us under 35. In short, words were precious.
As a result, although connected to the wider, virtual world many of us now inhabit, they still approach it with a different attitude. They do not check constantly to see whether anyone has been in touch with them, and any communication they make is written with careful consideration before it is sent.
In contrast, we of the younger generation have assigned to words a much more disposable quality. We deal with more correspondance – e-mails, WhatsApp and Facebook messages – on a daily basis than our parents, and the effects of this are twofold. Firstly, we consider ourselves busier because we have to deal with a constant flood of information both at work and at home. Even when no-one is communicating with us directly, the addictive nature of social media and the vast wealth of information available to us online encourages us to read one article or another, or simply check compulsively in case we’re missing something important elsewhere in the world – often at the expense of the real-life events unfolding in front of us.
In turn, this overwhelming influx of words leads us to feel we do not have time to respond to everything adequately. Our replies to direct communication become shorter, less considered. Abbreviations start to creep in, and grammar begins to slip (the discussion on whether the Internet is ruining our grammar is probably one for another day, though I’m sure we’ve all seen evidence to suggest it might be). The quality of what we write drops in order for the quantity of our output to increase.
It is a great thing to be able to keep in touch with so many people, yet these days I often have to stop myself before posting a message when I realise that its seems rushed (usually because it is). If I were receiving this message, I think, would I be offended that my friend hadn’t taken the time to express themselves properly, or go into further detail about their party/new job/camping trip/whatever? At one time, I probably would have been. But we seem these days to have an increasing, unspoken understanding of how the perceived hecticness of our lives prevents us from putting too much thought into communication with one another.
As a person who still values words, language and good writing, it upsets me that this is affecting me, too. I am faced with a constant internal conflict, part of me struggling to find the time to write to people with the quality they deserve while the rest of me worries about all the other new information I still have to process, or even whether my recipent will consider a longer message a burden on their tyrannical online schedule. I have not yet found the right balance, but I’m determined not to give up the fight.
Sometimes I try to imagine how future generations will communicate as speed becomes ever more important. Perhaps everything will be voice-activated, and we will speak only in acronyms for fear that the extra letters might eat up the time needed to tweet pictures of our cats trying to get out of boxes. It’s enough to make you wonder if this man doesn’t have the right idea.