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The Internet Makes Us Sound Dumb

But don’t worry—our brains are pretty malleable.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Americans have always panicked over the rise of new media. In 1795, the writer J.G. Heinzmann warned that the “reading lust” that followed the rise of the novel would result in “weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria and melancholy,” according to Timeline’s Louis Anslow. By 1958, it was “telephone addiction” causing American worrywarts to fear the coming telecommunications revolution. And the legendary temptations of the “boob tube” need no explanation. Now, it is the Internet.

But as it turns out, some anxiety over the ubiquity of the Internet and its steady colonization of every aspect of the human condition may be warranted. According to a new study in the International Journal of Business Administration, the complexity and quality of what we read directly impacts our writing skills — and the rise of Internet-native communication forms such as emojis and memes is slowly eroding the republic of letters that public school English curricula have built for decades.

The researchers examined the reading habits of University of Florida MBA students, including the volume and variety of materials consumed, from academic journals to consumer magazines to digital content from social networks like Tumblr and websites like the Huffington Post. They then compared the complexity of a student’s media diet to a writing sample culled from each student’s cover letter — ostensibly a candidate’s first chance to present themselves as smart, refined, and capable on the page. The results were telling: As the Boston Globeput it, students “who read primarily online content, at sites like BuzzFeed and reddit, had the lowest writing complexity scores, while those who read academic journal articles or critically acclaimed fiction had the highest scores.”

Without complexity and nuance, we’re confined to a narrow band of personal expression.

“If you spend all your time reading reddit, your writing is going to go to hell in a handcart,” study author and University of Florida professor Yellowlees Douglastold the Globe. “You should be very choosy — and highly conscious of the impact — of what you read.”

This seems intuitive: We are what we eat, and even challenging texts like the Bible are little more than empty calories when translated into emoji (a task some anonymous Millennial performed this week). But while the study authors view this is a particularly 21st-century problem for workplaces in the modern knowledge economy where communication skills are key, it has broader implications for American culture.

All of this retrenchment centers on the rise of video, driven by Facebook’s current stranglehold on digital media. It’s an open secret that digital media employees live and die based on the opaque, quixotic tweaks in Facebook’s mysterious EdgeRank newsfeed algorithm, and the company’s increasing emphasis on video (live and otherwise) could potentially cause an industry-wide shift in how media companies desperate for eyeballs package and distribute those morsels of information with the most viral potential.

As a result, broader media industry is slowly following the example of the still-dominant television sector and transitioning away from text-based content. Digital news start-up Mashable laid off most of its hard news team in a pivot to fluffy, entertaining (and monetizable) video. Vice followed suit a few months later. Even digital unicorn BuzzFeed, which missed its revenue targets by a huge margin earlier this year, worries that its lauded hard news division won’t survive the industry-wide shift to digital video. Meanwhile, traditional news leaders like the Guardian, despite their journalistic accolades, face layoffs over dwindling advertising revenue. And the evolving New York Times is facing yet another round of buyouts.

What does this have to do with the future of American language skills? The atomic unit of information consumption on the world’s largest social network will no longer be a text-based article of varying complexity, but short text-over-video snippets designed for maximum digestibility and, media companies hope, shareability. These morsels aren’t necessarily vapid or useless (see Al Jazeera’s mega-successful AJ+ video operation), but, according to this research, they won’t help build and reinforce our language and writing skills the way flipping (or clicking) through TheNew Yorker might. Sure, a common refrain is that a picture is worth a thousand words, but it’s the consumption of those words themselves that actually affects the depth and complexity of our writing. Consider that emojis essentially make us less emotional, according to recent research; without complexity and nuance, we’re confined to a narrow band of personal expression.

Don’t fret just yet: The human brain is incredibly malleable and resilient, and the apocalypse of literacy predicted by pearl-clutching critics of media revolutions past and present may be as fleeting as past hysteria over comic books and TV. But given that America’s language and literacy infrastructure has suffered for decades from budget cuts, teacher shortages, and lack of resources, it’s worth considering what broader changes in the consumer media ecosystem might wreak on a populace that spends more than eight hours a day on average consuming media. As Douglas put it to the Globe: “If you have really crappy nutrition, it’s going to show up on your body in one way or another.”