The truth about IM

Last week for our out of class reading I happened to run across an interesting article in my May edition of RTE (Research in the Teaching of English).  The article is titled “Young People’s Everyday Literacies:  The Language Feature of Instant Messaging.”  I know, I know, instant messaging is so yesterday, but the study that was done was quite interesting. 

The article examined “writing in the context of new communication technologies as a kind of everyday literacy” (378).  The article outlined the methodology and findings of a study of “a 32,000-word corpus of college students’ Instant Messaging (IM) exchanges” (378).  The study revealed that the IM messages of the college students had very distinct features that could be categorized and examined in detail.  Some of the features identified and examined in the article are punctuation, letters, words, dialect, and metadiscursive markers.  Do you know what metadiscursive markers are?  I had never even heard of the phrase until reading this article.  “Metadiscursive markers are used by writers in IM to step outside the conversation to make a comment on the writing – wither to establish or suggest the tone of the utterance or conversation (through emoticons) or to make a comment on the writer’s writing (through meta-markings)” (387).  Don’t know what emoticons are either?  Neither did I, but we use them often in our writing.  For example when we do this 🙂 or this 😉 or this 😦  we are using emoticons.  Here are some new ones that I learned from this article

 😛 (the sticking-out-the-tongue emoticon)

=-0 (the frightened emoticon)

0:) (the angel emoticon)

=:O (the surprised emoticon)

“Emoticons use elements of the writing system (symbols, letters, and numbers) to create visual, representational characters meant to mimic the human face and capture what is communicated paralinguistically in face-to-face communication” (396).  Did you know you were doing all of this simply by inserting a smiley face in your writing?  Me either!

Even more interesting than emoticons was the fact that the study revealed that even in IM the college students were conscious of their writing and its intended meaning. Meta-markings which include the use of a symbol (asterisks, quotation marks, or slashes) are used to indicate an “aside” to the previous comment.  In the following example the student uses an asterisk to “step aside” the exchange to correct a spelling error:

Student A:  I have to type up my academic awars

Student B:  lol

Student A:  *awards

How cool is that that even while IMing students are still going through the writing process:  entering text, rethinking it, rewriting it, and have special symbols to indicate the change or substitution made (387).  

IM can be made more efficient and briefer through several language features:  replaced words with symbols (@ for at), letters (y), and numbers (2morrow); dropped letters (lil); and abbreviations (w/u).  However, IM is an elaborated type of writing.  Of the frequently occurring features (slang, eye dialect related to words, punctuation indicating pausing, and eye dialect related to sound) along with three other features (emoticons, repeated letters, and meta-markings) all added to and increased the length of IM entries (389).  And all this time I thought by texting I was taking the quick and easy way out.  I never considered how much thought really went into my text.

In conclusion, the study proved that instead of focusing on the social uses of IM as a literate practice, it should be looked at as a culture where mediated writing takes place.  “Teachers in a digital world need to pay attention to technologically mediated writing in which our students engage and build their lifeworlds, not only to understand our students but to understand what writing is now” (398).  The writing that students do in IMs, text messages, and on Facebook is purposefully constructed.  Some may feel that the language our students are using in IMs, text messages, and on Facebook is ruining the English language; however, “health vital languages are always changing” (399).  Students are only defining the parameters of written language.

Haas, Christina, et al.  “Young People’s Everyday Literacies:  The Language Features of Instant Messaging.”  Research in the Teaching of English, 45:4  (May 2011):  378-404.  Print.

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