Mostly, social media have done wonders for writing. George Orwell in 1944 lamented the divide between wordy, stilted written English, and much livelier speech. “Spoken English is full of slang,” he wrote, “it is abbreviated wherever possible, and people of all social classes treat its grammar and syntax in a slovenly way.” His ideal was writing that sounded like speech. We’re getting there at last.
I don’t know how much of this can be attributed to social media, as opposed to simply to online writing. But there’s no doubt that online writing in general is more conversational and approachable than the relatively stilted written English that most of us grew up with.
For instance, on Friday, both Luke Baker and I wrote about Russia-Cyprus relations for Reuters. My blog post was conversational: “Russia is taking an absolutist stance with respect to Cyprus. No, we won’t restructure the money you owe us. No, we won’t buy a bank off you. No, we aren’t interested in your natural-gas reserves.” Luke’s wire report wasn’t: “The net result is a divided island - Turkey has occupied the northern third since 1974 - sitting in the south-eastern Mediterranean, where 800,000 people face the prospect of an economic implosion that could leave them destitute.”
This is one of the issues facing the Reuters Digital team as we build a great web property. The kind of writing wire journalism was built on, and which can be quite effective even in newspapers, is increasingly likely to feel stilted and artificial when it’s presented in a more naturally conversational medium. There’s a reason why a wire reporter will tend to squeeze lots of extraneous facts — about the Turkish occupation, or the population of Cyprus, or even where the island is located in the Mediterranean — into a sentence about economic implosion. But nobody does that when they’re talking. Nor do they generally expect it when they’re surfing the web.