Through the course of Jerry Sandusky’s now infamous two-week trial, Messiah alumna Sari Heidenreich ’11 tweeted more than one thousand times.
To get the most out of each 140-character message while still maintaining her professional voice, the social media producer for abc 27 in Harrisburg had to not only double-check facts and figures, but also weigh every last word to determine which could be abbreviated—or deleted.
But over the course of a thousand tweets of facts, quotes and insight, it was an innocuous punctuation mark she typed without a second thought that got her in trouble.
“I used an exclamation point in one of my tweets, and someone called me out on it,” said Heidenreich of the gossipy tone that character conveyed in her message. “I think they were right; and I didn’t use an exclamation point for the rest of the trial.”
Communication in the digital age is like that. It’s cut-to-the-chase and casual, yet simultaneously scoured for context and underlying messages. We have no trouble accepting the abbreviation of single syllable words like “you,” but an exclamation mark in a message about the biggest trial in the country is deemed over-the-top. For a medium meant to connect us more easily, digital communication has an etiquette that can be fairly complicated and not always intuitive. And its exponential growth now seems to be mucking up more than just how we communicate online.
Digital communication has given us unfettered — and unprecedented — access to one another’s thoughts, opinions, photos, fears and dinner menus. According to the latest media research, two billion people are on the Internet and 750 million of them are on Facebook — that’s just over one in nine people worldwide. Twitter is a distant second in the social media race, with a still-staggering 200 million users who send 100 million tweets per day. And what we’re not tweeting, we’re texting: 6.1 trillion text messages were sent in the last year alone, with the average teen sending 3,339 texts per month. That’s about 111 text messages per day.
Today we are faced with a host of options for communicating via the written (er, typed) word, from email to text message, blog to tweet, Facebook status update to message board comment. And there are nuances of style, tone and even grammar in each. Digital natives like Heidenreich are perhaps best at adapting to each genre, but it’s still easy to get tripped up on the subtle differences among them.
“I maintain Facebook and Twitter accounts for the station and I notice when I’m going back and forth between the two I will often leave out the noun in the sentence on Facebook, the way many do on Twitter because of the character limit,” she said. “I’ve caught myself several times thinking, ‘Wait that’s not a complete sentence.’ ”
For a generation that grew up with spellcheck and Google and spent their teen years texting each other using abbreviated language, learning to communicate effectively in college and beyond has never been more difficult.
“The Internet has made us dumb, careless and sloppy,” journalism major Sarah Fleischman ’13, student director of the College’s media hub The Pulse, said of her generation. “We’re so used to typing something fast to a friend, we don’t check it. We’re so used to Googling something when we don’t know it. And information is so cheap, we don’t value it.”
Though some professors and employers have lamented the decline in basic grammar and spelling skills among students, what Messiah College associate professor of communication Ed Arke has noticed speaks more to his students’ shortened attention spans than their attention to detail.
“In terms of written communication, what I’m seeing is a real struggle with connecting thoughts. When you read an eight-page research paper it doesn’t flow very well, because it’s a series of disconnected thoughts,” said Arke, who is also faculty manager of The Pulse. “Because we tend to communicate interpersonally in these short bursts, (students) are struggling to connect the dots.”
It seems a daily grind of sending and receiving endless amounts of fractional information, coupled with the fact that the world is literally at their fingertips 24/7, produces a population that is so used to skimming the surface of things it is no longer instinctual to want to go deep. We don’t ponder; we plug in.
“It has made us less creative,” Heidenreich said. “When I have a problem, I won’t try to think of a solution; I’ll look it up online.” And because that flow of information is more like a waterfall, digital natives have come to rely on everything being at their disposal all the time.
“They’re used to a 24/7 news cycle, so if they’re up working on a paper at 2 a.m. and they email you a question, they don’t understand why you haven’t responded before 8 the next morning,” said Arke, who has become more attentive to his email account on his “off” hours in order to accommodate this shift.
Phil Naegely ’15, Christian ministry major and a contributor to The Pulse, said that assumption of availability goes beyond a shortened attention span to an obsessive neediness that’s perpetuated via digital communication. “
We want an answer now. We don’t want to wait an hour until (someone) can call us, because God forbid we wait,” Naegely said. “If we don’t get a text from someone within 10 minutes, we text them again. Patience has gone out the roof basically for a lot of (my peers). I think that has to do with why relationships aren’t as authentic and real as they used to be. People are just sitting around waiting for the next notification to pop up on their phones.”
Naegely, who made a name for himself as a first-year student for live-tweeting during Messiah sporting events under the handle @falconnation512, surmised that his peers often are communicating via Facebook and text message merely for the quick self-esteem buzz of the message notification rather than the actual interpersonal connection that communication is meant to establish. He recalled a Facebook relationship he was in during his first year as a student at Messiah, when he was challenged to “be more authentic” with his relationships and to spend more face-to-face time with that person.
He says he keeps that authenticity in mind when tweeting, for which he follows three basic rules of etiquette: First, he is mindful of his intention. Second, he remembers who and what he’s representing. And third, he follows the Golden Rule.
But keeping the Golden Rule relevant amid the frenetic exchange of information that defines the digital age is easier said than done, particularly when much of what is communicated is done behind a veil of anonymity.
“I think certain (social media outlets) have enhanced a tone of incivility,” Arke said. “People don’t have to put their names and faces behind their comments. They’ll just put things out there that are soaked in raw emotion.”
It wasn’t long ago that firing off a heated email response to someone felt impulsive. Today that same email feels formal and labored compared with the few seconds it takes to send a text message or post a comment on a message board or blog. And the more we interact in the virtual world, the less comfortable we become communicating in the real world.
“I have fallen into that trap of checking my phone—phones, actually, because I also have one for work—when I’m standing somewhere. I’ll check Facebook instead of making small talk with the person next to me in the grocery store,” Heidenreich said. “If you feel the slightest bit awkward, you pull out your phone. It’s a comfort to people because you can just retreat into that.”
We need to be more courageous not only when extending an actual hand or hello to those standing beside us, but also by putting away the device we’ve come to use as a crutch and a shield, said Nance McCown, chair of the Department of Communication. “
We have zero idea how to have margins and boundaries anymore. We are so connected that we are afraid to not be connected,” McCown said. “We never have down time. And the fact is, we need down time. If we’re going to live as Christ intended, there are supposed to be some reflective moments in our lives. I’m not talking about meditating six hours a day, but gosh it’d be great to have three minutes.”
So how do we shift a mindset bent on instant gratification via passive communication 24/7? Arke suggests going cold turkey for a bit.
“I’ve heard people do media fasts, where they swear off Facebook for a week or something along those lines,” he said. “Then they begin to be aware of how effective and beneficial other forms of communication can be.”
The trick is to appreciate this form of communication for the value it adds to your relationships, as long as you value the relationships more.
“I think it’s absolutely amazing the world that is available to us because of this technology,” McCown said. “We really have to remember that it’s a tool we should be controlling, not the other way around.”
This story by Robyn Passante first appeared in the Fall 2012 Bridge. Illustrations by Jason James `10.