Intermediate Literacy

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The ability to express oneself clearly and concisely, using the written medium, is not so much an ability as it is a skill. Because it is a skill it takes time and practice to acquire it, and that has rarely been as painfully clear to me as over the past few days.

I am on email and chat detail at work. That means people write in and ask questions and I write back and answer them. The emails are not so bad, but the chat can be physically painful, and not only because of the way I tend to hunch in my chair. Maybe it is because I have spent nearly ten years living online as much as I do off-line, maybe it is because I read a lot, or maybe it is because some of the people I talk to in the support chat really are illiterate idiots, but it is becoming more and more clear to me that though basic literacy may be widespread, the intermediate version isn’t. I’m referring to the ability to communicate or describe clearly, using exact words and phrasing, a situation or the events that led up to it.

Another side of intermediate literacy is the ability to read between words, to understand the implied meaning of written language and not only what is actually there. The ability to understand that when the Technical Support agent in the chat asks “Did you receive an error message?”, they expect you to copy and paste that error message into the chat if your answer is yes. It is implied, and the ability to understand such implications is vital to clear communication in a medium where all you have to work with is the written word.

I admit that I may be spoiled. I spend a lot of my spare time in internet forums, chat rooms, and talking to friends on various messenger services, and after nearly ten years I have become very good at expressing myself in writing. I know the difference between calling someone a “nice” person and a “kind” person.

I know that I read more than average. I know that a lot of people that I communicate with online do the same, and I realize very well that the amount you read, and what you read, directly affects how you write, and now I have finally arrived at what I was pondering on the way home today.

Is there too little writing in our everyday life today? Everything is in pretty colors that are easy to distinguish, words are short and quick, and news as well as important political issues come in 5-second sound bytes. We’re moving towards a society that has no room or use for long segments of written language, where novels sell better if they are easy to read and use short and simple words, and where soon only college textbooks use four-syllable words and demand that you think while you read them.

But we are also moving towards a society that exists at least partly online, in blogs, chat rooms, on IM clients and on message boards, and in those places, the written word is the only way of communicating. Can there be a balance between the real visual world, and the written online one? Will there be?

There should be. It seems to me, that with computers and network connections here to stay, the written way of communicating should be focussed on, emphasized and celebrated. After all, what else are we to each other than words, strung together to form sentences?


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