On learning writing from social media

The medium

Social media has been around for some time now. It’s brought many changes in the way we inhabit our social world, in the way we communicate with others, on what being a friend means and on how we get back in touch with people. We find out about what’s going on in people’s lives on a regular basis without actually knowing them much on these platforms.

How do we manage to do this?

We write on social media through the day and read up on others. (I’m only considering that part of social media that we use for personal useย  such as Facebook and Twitter, not ones where we write on public forums or platforms we use for work purposes).

The writing

On social media, writing is expression and writing is communication. Writing is conversation. Writing is also advertising ourselves and creating images of ourselves that we think others will like (on our personal profiles).

Most of the writing we do on social media serves a purpose. It either conveys some information (where will we meet? where was the picture taken?) or greets people (Happy Birthday etc.) or aims to be witty in some way, the humour sometimes a means of self-advertisement. As in advertisements, most writing is happy and upbeat, the rare depressed update a source of embarrassment for the writer later.

Most such writing only skims the surface of subjects as a result. It’s pared down to the bare bones, sans articles, sans verbs if possible, typed while doing something else perhaps on a Smartphone.

One wonders how writing will change as a result of this sticky-note mode of communication on social media (where all the sticky-notes are public, of course.).

This writing is very short, topical, of the moment, with only a second or so of thought behind it. It’s aware of being public and yet, can be private at the same time clearly communicating between two people. Here, alphabets are often repeated for emphasis rather than varying one’s vocabulary for effect (must have been funnnnn, happyyyyyyy cruising etc.)

But as writers, can we mine social media for ideas?

What can we learn?

It’s easy to dismiss social media as a “lowbrow” form of communication that can only harm us. That’s foolish in my opinion. Something that has become so pervasive will certainly change the way we think, communicate and write soon.

So I think it’s important to ask ourselves what we can learn about writing from social media.

Brevity: Expressing ourselves in very brief sentences or sentence fragments is the obvious first way. But there are others.

Topics: Social media provides a record of a plethora of experiences of people we know or semi-know, their conversations with one another, their lives, their pictures frozen in time. So many topics to write about (after rendering their identities unrecognizable of course).

Character: The characters we project on social media aren’t quite the same as our “real” personalities but they are people all the same. They are people who we think others will like. They are a little bit of fiction. So many people to observe. So much “raw data.” When long-lost friends contact us on social media, we are often flabbergasted by the changes in their appearance, personalities and values. Opportunity for character development.

Audience: People react in different ways to the same snippet of writing on status updates. Their reactions get recorded as comments that can be revisited later. Going through these with a careful eye can tell us a lot about audience and context.

Record of memories/ events: Our own and other people’s lives get recorded with an immediacy on Facebook and Twitter in a way we have never seen before. This has to be a goldmine for writers with imagination (as it can be a source of embarrassment).

Social media is a world by itself and where there is a world, there is an opportunity for writing!

[Thank you for all your comments on my two preceding posts. I’ll respond individually soon.]

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23 thoughts on “On learning writing from social media”

  1. I’d be careful, because there are serious downsides too. Social media writing encourages some bad habits that can hurt you as a writer.

    One of them is informality. Because writing and responding is done in real time, or close to it, this can lead to a radically different prose style, as well as problems with grammar. It’s not that being conversational in writing is bad, but even if you don’t go to the extremes of text-speak, there can be issues. Like using writing that is close to your normal speech and relies on the same tricks for emphasis. Ellipsis to show pauses like in chat or speech when the voice drops off. I had to watch for these habits and try and change them because I used to chat and forum speak heavily. Or even in using combativeness in professional writing; the tech blog Techcrunch suffers from this, which leads to shallow, uninformative posts more about the attitude of the writer than the subject of the article.

    Another is too much focus on immediacy. You dash off a response right away, and since its just a light blog post or comment, you don’t give it a once-over or editing pass. it’s like trying to capitalize and use punctuation in chat; the need to be immediate in response and not even let an hour, let alone a day pass can trickle over to your writing, leading to a lack of forethought and shallow, not deep pieces.

    Finally, I’d add jargon. Consider it the flip side of your topics point. Being part of that same coterie can make you unconscious of how much you can and need to use jargon to communicate in a group. I used to play MMO games, and just explaining the definitions universal to any game can cause neophyte eyes to glaze over. But after a while, the terms become natural, and you never realize your audience is greater than your circle of friends.

    I definitely agree that there are good sides too, but as too much formal writing experience can lead to stilted or wooden prose, too much informal/social experience has its own dangers. Dangers to the left as well as the right.

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  2. This excellent post is almost a think piece worthy as a side-bar in a Wikepedia article. Your brevity and completeness astound me, both. Bravo.

    Yet I must rant for a moment. I teach male adults of medium security needs in a Midwest state prison. As an English teacher, I see the abbreviations of words and the simplest of English mechanics’ rules abused with abandon. Not even the personal pronoun “I” is predictably capitalized anymore. To think that I must iterate–again and again–that “I” is always capitalized, or that sentences begin with capital letters. Those are just an iceberg’s tip of the misconceptions trickling down to our literacy culture.

    Not all of it is to blame with social media, of course. Poor schooling (and poor attention and attendance) are rampant among the men I receive into my room. Yet “LOL” and “luv” (love) are omnipresent. When the first men wholly immersed in social media from childhood hit my desks, will I find any literacy left?

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  3. I really need to show this to my father who is in his late 50’s. For years he had gone off about how ‘this social media crap” is ruining you kids. Thanks for the great post.

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  4. Reblogged this on A Daily Journal of my Comp/Rhet Dissertation and commented:
    As an English teacher, two of the biggest challenges I have is teaching kids the concepts of concise writing and writing for a certain audience. They have to understand the rhetorical triangle (speaker, subject, audience, purpose, context, etc) in order to successfully reach their audience. But when I assign essays, I continue to get fluff in the papers โ€“ – extra verbiage to fill space โ€“ – and a lack of purpose/audience awareness.
    And yet, when I see their Twitter posts or their blog posts or their FB comments, they know EXACTLY who their audience is. They write with a purpose, and they are limited in length so they donโ€™t waste words.
    Thatโ€™s why I am trying to incorporate more blogging and social media into my classroom. So many people claim that social media is ruining our young writers, but I assert that kids that certainly learn from SM and from what they do inherently in that genre.

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  5. I’d like to comment about your sections titled, “Brevity” and “Audience”. As an English teacher, two of the biggest challenges I have is teaching kids the concepts of concise writing and writing for a certain audience. They have to understand the rhetorical triangle (speaker, subject, audience, purpose, context, etc) in order to successfully reach their audience. But when I assign essays, I continue to get fluff in the papers – – extra verbiage to fill space – – and a lack of purpose/audience awareness.
    And yet, when I see their Twitter posts or their blog posts or their FB comments, they know EXACTLY who their audience is. They write with a purpose, and they are limited in length so they don’t waste words.
    That’s why I am trying to incorporate more blogging and social media into my classroom. So many people claim that social media is ruining our young writers, but I assert that kids that certainly learn from SM and from what they do inherently in that genre.
    Thanks for the post!

    http://dissertationgal.com

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    1. This is exciting! Perhaps writing succinct profiles, writing focused comments on one another’s blog posts and being a creative blogger could be good assignments! This would also be lateral learning where they’d learn from each other rather than just from the teacher.

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  6. Another really good post! Here’s another way to look for stories…and people…or I should have said, a place where people’s stories abound. 3-D chat platforms like second life or imvu. I feel that having an actual chat with a person or persons via these sorts of platforms (including IMs) is a little different that other sorts of social media…unless instant chats are not considered social media? I consider them as a mode of social media anyway, so to me it counts.
    Maybe it’s just my personal energies are projected onto the typed words of others or maybe what we feel when we type does indeed come across to the reader, I find that you can only “hide” or put on a persona for so long before the mask begins to slip (well for most of us anyways)…[ I have absolutely no idea where that was going, but I’ll just leave it here ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

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    1. I know. There’s a lot here to be explored here: ” I feel that having an actual chat with a person or persons via these sorts of platforms (including IMs) is a little different that other sorts of social media”

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  7. I’ve had to learn to write all over again.
    I’ve noticed that I have much more trouble writing artistically on the internet. It’s hard to write in a style other than how I speak.

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  8. Having read both this blog and the one before, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just too literal I guess. I am only me, the good, the bad, or the ugly and I really don’t care if someone else doesn’t like it. Granted, I’m always surprised when I find people have not been honest about things, like those who blog about being suicidal, being raped, etc. and they’ve made up the whole scenario. I find that odd, but I think I just forget to put on a mask before writing…haha. I do realize that everything online can be and probably is monitored…. but we do still have freedom of speech so I don’t worry. I don’t write my blog for readers… I just share parts of myself with others… it’s a therapy I learned while getting my counseling degree years go and has come in handy once I discovered I had cancer. You’re correct, no one wants to read or know about that reality because I think they are so afraid it might one day happen to them… perhaps not. It seems I’ve run across a lot of people who act/write like if they don’t acknowledge or talk about something, then it won’t happen. (I call that the head in the sand phase… and that’s ok, just personally I find it sad) Life is too short to try to be someone we aren’t, unless of course you’re writing a story or book, then pretending is okay, but deceit is still unfortunately abundant in the open space of online communication. You can be whoever you wish to be & look however you wish to look…LOL (I’ve had friends who found that out from dating sites… LOL. Like here in the obituaries, they sometimes put a young picture of the person, and yet they were 87 years old & looked nothing like that any more..
    I always enjoy your blogs, but may not always comment, since it seems that if one does that, you’re thought of as a little bit weird… ๐Ÿ˜€

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    1. Who thinks of a commenter as weird? They’re just jealous, whoever they are ‘coz you must’ve made a brilliant observation.

      I know, pretending to be someone you’re not amounts to deceit in most forums unless it’s a place where everyone is supposed to be fictional. But saying they’re being deceitful assumes they’re pretending voluntarily but that may not always be the case. Some people wear masks without knowing they do (a conservative person might have a self-image where they think they’re liberal, a skinny person might be constantly paranoid that they are fat etc.). Then, once they wear the mask too long, or project a semi-fictional image of themselves for a long time, they start believing in it. Looking at smiling pics of ourselves in the past repeatedly makes us believe the past was so good. Those fictions are more dangerous than the deceitful versions maybe?

      Thanks for a long comment. Really appreciate it.

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  9. Extremely insightful!

    I was really struck by the line, “…the rare depressed update a source of embarrassment for the writer later.” This really speaks to how guarded we are about our true selves (on and off the internet), and how we are often quite ready to lie, in order to show that we are something we aren’t. It also speaks to one of the biggest evils of being so socially connected and influenced. We think we have to live up to the stigma of always being positive, and we advertise–essentially to sell–ourselves as goods on a market of false love. Otherwise, we fear people may not like us, and if people don’t like us (more like if we PERCEIVE other don’t like us) we stop liking ourselves because we live in the worship of humanity. If we don’t get the desired amount of feedback from the content we post, we often start thinking that others don’t really like us. We want our human “deities” to like us, so we stoop to often desperate measures to manipulate them into liking us. Each time we choose to be fake, we are simultaneously encouraging those who read our unrealistic newsflashes to be fake as well, otherwise they might not be acceptable to us as we perceived ourselves to not be acceptable to them.

    This is sad.

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    1. Absolutely. Putting other people on pedestals is relatively easy. Putting oneself on one is tedious–you have to keep balancing yourself, projecting an image, appearing positive all the time like you say. Sad.

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