How long has language been around? For 50,000 years, language has aided human intellectual evolution and social advancements. Now the emergence of social media puts idea sharing, information exchange and our collective progress into hyper drive.
For generations, information and ideas have been shared through theater, schools and media. Books, newspapers, magazines, radio and TV sped the distribution and reach of language to the masses. The advent of the Internet hurled language onto an information super highway. With social media fully embedded in the mainstream, humans are now able to instantaneously tap into, and influence, the ideological pulse of the planet. So is this a good thing?
Winning the Evolutionary Race
How did homo sapiens win the evolutionary race for survival? Yale Professor and author Norman Livergood noted in The New Enlightenment that the invention of language allowed people to develop mentally and psychically, to:
- Solve problems by reflection and planning
- Remember the past and imagine the future
- Understand what is in their individual best interest and the best interest of their group
- Be self-aware and improve performance
All animals gain wisdom with age and experience, suggested James Harvey Robinson in The Mind in the Making (1921). But, he noted: “The experience of one ape does not profit another. Learning among animals below man is individual, not co-operative and cumulative.”
As mankind’s language evolved, so did the ability to pass down one generation’s accumulated understanding to the next generation, to create wisdom and culture. From speech, to writing and the print media, to online communication, people continue to find new and increasingly effective ways to convey ideas and information to whomever they choose, whether it’s a single person or the global population.
The Spoken, Printed and Digitized Word
How does technology affect communication? Controversy surrounds the evolution of language on the Web as technology changes how we read, write and think. The Internet induces abbreviations, acronyms and rushed communications—often, as in the mobile world, limited to 140 characters. Many people such as Nicolas Carr, author of Is Google Making Us Stupid?, claim the Internet is a linguistic wasteland and is making us dumb:
“Over the past few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
Many are also concerned that the Web is fueling the extinction of languages. With the Internet bringing cultures closer together, English is not only arguably the most common international language for business—it’s becoming the global language. An estimated 15,000 languages were spoken at the beginning of the 15th century. Now, as Worldwatch Institute researcher Payal Sampat explains, the 15 most common languages are used by half the earth’s people and the top 100 are used by 90% of humanity.
The Effect of Twitter, Other Social Media and Mobile Networks
Like it or not, the Internet and massively popular social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, together with mobile communications, now seem an unstoppable force toward a new way of expressing ourselves, conveying ideas and exchanging information. Shakespeare’s English, however, is dead. The Queen’s English appears to be dying. The über-modern, slang and acronym-filled English of online communication and mobile texting is here, and today’s students will keep it AAK (alive and kicking) for at least a generation, or more.
Still, whatever the language used, social media networks ensure your message can be heard instantly, unfiltered, around most of the globe. As citizens, as consumers and as people, we’re now interconnected with hundreds of millions of other people in a way that was impossible even a decade ago. Today, one person with a single smartphone or laptop can create a social movement.
Social media has taken some of power that used to be exclusively available to centralized institutions and organizations, and has empowered the people they represent. For that reason, the proliferation of Twitter and of other social media sites can be considered an evolution of the democratization of information, and a progression of both language and communication.