The Internet And Literacy: The Times They Are A Changin’

I used to think things were simple. When I was in my twenties I was sure whatever it was I didn’t know or understand wasn’t useful anyway. Then the Internet came along in my thirties and I was sure ( without much real information to base that decision on other than the fact I saw an email where you was spelled u) that literacy was eroding and going the way of the A.M. radio and short story.

Now I’m old enough to know that I was wrong—about a lot of things other than Internet literacy too. It started when I watched a debate on public broadcasting television. It was a lively event with several English professors talking about the nature of literacy in the Internet age.

To my surprise, not one of these academics was outraged by the fact there was a hybrid phonetic spelling being derived for emails and an avalanche of bad grammar and misspelled words on the web.

These people decided to focus on how good change was instead and how literacy was more about learning to express your thoughts and ideas clearly regardless of the medium. One even pointed to the fact that literacy has changed over the last thirty years and is constantly redefining itself and establishing new boundaries. This prof pointed out that the definition of what’s considered literacy changes with what society sees as literate.

So I talked to a few people I know. One was a retired newspaperman who said predictably that the ‘new’ literacy was b-llsh-t. He said that knowing how to spell and put together a sentence has really no room for phonetics and such.

Still, it’s clear the times are changing. With all the latest technology that’s available in the way of interfacing with the Internet, it might even be reasonable to think that the only constant for this debate will be change.

Margaret Mackey, a professor at the University of Alberta’s Library and Information Studies Department, brought another interesting aspect to the debate in a recent issue of  She says that reading is more closely associated with writing now that many places are interactive like Facebook and Twitter and engaging people by valuing their input.

It also looks like early reports that had us all sliding away from books and becoming illiterate internet junkies were a bit alarmist. The Association of American Publishers even reported in 2005 that book sales were up 9.9%.

It looks like the people who are frightened that the Internet is going to ruin us all when it comes to literacy really have nothing to worry about. If you look back at the history of the written word and sharing thoughts, people might have been just as frightened of moveable type and even going further back , those ‘heretics’ that first started using papyrus to communicate.

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