Lots of things are accused of killing language. Texting, for example. Or, to give its more common name, txtng. It’s quite easy to find articles in the popular media complaining that schoolchildren are using abbreviations such as ‘ur’, ‘gr8’ and ‘b4’ in their essays.
Twitter gets a bashing, too. Its 140 character limit means that it’s all too common to find yourself in the position of composing a witty and intelligent tweet, only to find yourself with -1 characters left and having to choose which spelling or grammar solecism to commit.
But no. Text and Twitter are not the worst offenders against language. Txtspk arises from the sheer awkwardness of using a phone keyboard as much as anything else. In many ways, Twitter’s limit forces you to think carefully about what you are writing. Neither of those are bad, even if they can sometimes accidentally give rise to bad habits in other contexts. The worst offender is different. The worst offender is Facebook.
That may seem a strange assertion. After all, Facebook imposes no overly-restrictive limit on message length. You don’t find yourself having to cut out words or abbreviate others. And, if you’re using it on a real computer, it doesn’t have the awkward keyboard problem of SMS. So what’s the problem?
The problem, quite simply, was Facebook’s decision to remove the “post” button and make the Enter key post instead. That may seem innocuous, but what it also did was remove the ability to insert newlines and paragraph breaks the way you normally do – by pressing the Enter key.
Facebook does still allow you to insert newlines by pressing Shift-Enter. But that’s non-intuitive and it isn’t well documented, and I’d hazard a guess that most people aren’t aware of it. It’s certainly true that most people don’t use it.
I’m not really sure why Facebook did this. Comments from elsewhere on the web suggest that Facebook were trying to encourage short posts, in order to make the news feed more Twitter-like. If so, it hasn’t really worked.
To be sure, a lot of posts are simple one-liners or single sentences. But they always have been. There doesn’t seem to have been any noticeable reduction in average post length since the change.
What has happened is that most people no longer craft lengthier comments, possibly going back over them and checking for typos and maybe reformatting them, before posting them. Instead, Facebook’s newsfeed and comments under a post often read more like a stream of consciousness. Instead of well-formatted text with paragraphs where appropriate, people just keep on typing until they’ve finished and then just hit Enter.
I don’t know about you, but I find this really irritating. It makes it a lot harder to read longer posts and comments. Facebook’s rather small and closely spaced regular font size (a fixed 12 pixels) doesn’t help here, either – both Twitter and Google Plus have larger, easier to read text.
The reason why this is particularly bad, though, is that unlike Twitter and SMS, Facebook’s lack of a short text limit means that habits learned on Facebook do transfer to other situations far more easily. People who write 140 character comments on Twitter don’t restrict themselves to 140 characters elsewhere. But people who write long screeds of unformatted text on Facebook do write long screeds of unformatted text elsewhere.
I’ve been on the Internet a long time – nearly twenty years, now – and I’ve been involved in a lot of online discussion forums, including mailing lists, Usenet newsgroups, web forums and now social media, in that time. I’m not a net-Luddite; I don’t think that everything was necessarily better back in the early days and I’m very much a fan of social media in general. But, over the past few years, I have noticed a distinct decline in the quality of writing on many of the online discussion forums I inhabit. And, in most of those cases, the decline is specifically into the type of unformatted, un-crafted text encouraged by Facebook.
So, what can be done about this? I don’t really know. I do make a point of using paragraphs in any longer content that I post on Facebook, in the (possibly vain) hope that it might encourage others to do the same. But what I’d really like is for Facebook to reverse this particular change. Maybe I should start a Facebook page about it.