We Don't Sound Very Smart ALL CAPS Double Exclamation Point...
“We don’t live in the information age. That would be an insult to information, which, on some level, is supposed to inform. We live in the communication age. Ten billion fingers fumbling away, unautocorrecting emails, texts, and tweets; each one an opportunity to offend, alienate, aggrieve, all in public, and at light speed. The misinterpretation age. Take the language itself. Texting in English is like propelling a gilded horse-drawn carriage onto the interstate. Subtlety, nuance, and ambiguity were luxuries of a less frantic era. And irony, a supposed hallmark feature, has become an invisible, odorless menace. Irony now condemns us all to imagine that every email or text might actually, secretly, be poking fun at us.” —Jonathan Nolan in the New Yorker
So put that in your pipe and smoke it.
I originally read that scathing review of our written communiqué in The Week, and I wish I could say Nolan is simply hyper cynical or spewing drivel from an out-of-touch academic class.
But he's not and he isn't. The full article, "Poker Face," mostly poked fun at our use of emoticons. I think the above excerpt is spot on—a shocking revelation, I know, for anyone who's read my Facebook Fouls 1 & 2.
Still, the line about how each e-communication we send is an “opportunity to offend, alienate, aggrieve, all in public, and at light speed” at first struck me as outrageously prickly. I mean, that’s not all we’re doing. We’re staying connected. We’re being efficient. We’re bringing our opinions, voices, views out of the shadows and smack into the fray.
Those are all good things, right?
But then I reread: opportunities. The e-mails, texts, tweets we’re sending are opportunities.
Indeed. And we’re squandering them. How many times a day do we read mile-a-minute social media messages from people we either a) don’t know at all or b) from those who have zero bearing on our lives. These messages are scrambled together in an instant—impulsive and reactionary— and forgotten just as quickly. And yet they elbow their way into our brains and take up space. Bull. We've been escorting them in, brushing off a seat on the sofa for them to get comfortable while we fix them a bourbon. (All while complaining about how busy we are...)
Why do we do this? Because we think we can learn something from these hasty messages, these faraway typers? Or are they just taking up room, slowly squeezing out lessons and messages from the people we actually do know? In person.
Or what about those emails we get that go something like this: “I can’t remember what u said can u send those details again I don’t have time to look for it thx.” Beg pardon? When did the Queen call and announce me as your team of translators/re-writers/re-senders? I mean, once we figure out what in God’s name you said, I'm thinking you're not very bright.
With an immediate audience this vast, why do we waste it by pumping out more, faster, louder—less coherent, more insistent. We’ve become the human equivalent of big-box stores with the way we relate to each other. Mass-producing communication and shoving it out into the world wholly untailored to its recipient(s), increasingly without originality, detail, purpose, the same way Wal Mart churns out shitty plastic lawn furniture.
Are you peddling the same crap from your keypad? Type. Send. Repeat. All in the name of, what? Efficiency? Ego? Habit? Cultural ADD?
No matter. The result is that we've rather efficiently and quietly edited out a single crucial step: Thinking.
I’m a writer and I’ll admit, I’m guilty: For instance, several times a day, I’ll end a text or email with the word “Ha!” Not because I’m laughing or even smiling (we have LOL for that, after all). “Ha!” in my e-dialect generally translates to one of the following:
(To relatively unknown associates) I’m a light-hearted, roll-with-it gal, perfectly cool and not an uptight bore. Seriously. Trust me. I'm cool.
(In reference to irony) Don’t worry, I’m kidding. Aren't I so hilarious? I hope you think so.
(To coworkers) I’m not mad about this topic. I'm simply including this fake laugh to make sure you see I'm a good-old friendly coworker. (Insert jovial fist to the chin)
Why have I just cut out the readers’ opportunity to make their own decisions? To learn my nuances for themselves? Is all that too risky? Instead, I'm choosing daily to make my emails sound just like a thousand others these people received in their inboxes the same day. Double exclamation point.
Here's how I think we can all sound a little smarter:
1. Think of high drama as the new code for extreme laziness. Would a 10-year-old student write your message better or worse? I’m not talking about stodgy schoolroom grammar. I’m talking about English—complete sentences and a message that means something. If we believe that communication is a window into our intellect, then believe me, “I’m working on it but things are crazy my mind’s going to explode” isn't doing you any favors. Punctuation and subtlety replaced by sky-is-falling histrionics? You sound like a disaster.
2. Leave the platitudes to phony baloney types. Say only what you mean. Nobody but high-maintenance sorts with an inferiority complex require more than that. They're the ones whose Communication 10 Commandments mandate telling everyone they’re “soooo awesome" or "You're the best!" A simple "Thank you" still means gratitude, with or without exclamation point diarrhea.
3. Realize that entertainment is a noble cause. If you’re funny on Twitter, I say that’s communication with a purpose. Tweet your hilarious heart out, we could all use the belly laugh.
4. Don't be a douche. If you can't say something shitty to someone's face, don't put it in writing. It's as if the information age supplied us all with a hot-headed, raw alter-ego named Snake who dashes off reckless reactions, but refuses to show up for the real face-to-face showdown. Again, if communication is a window into who we are, these slick, dismissive messages make you perfectly transparent—no courage or confidence, just plenty to say under cover of keyboard. Why? It's easier than the alternative, which is discretion and subtlety.
5. Switch off Autotype and engage. Otherwise, our kids are going to spend their lives speaking in bizarre, Tourette’s-like acronyms as they lounge in our basements having virtual fights with virtual friends. Too dramatic? Okay, maybe. Here's a compromise: let’s say you’re going to send out 50 emails, tweets, and texts today total. Can we at least make sure every one of them means something?
Because for the love of emerging e-dialects everywhere, stop assuming they mean nothing.