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What happens to literacy when the internet turns into a giant TV station?

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Having once pulled us away from the TV, the web is now evolving into it

Video is the future of the web. You can no longer launch a new smartphone, inaugurate a Kickstarter campaign, or even announce a business partnership without accompanying it with a slickly produced video teaser. Video is the destination point for a grand shift toward more visual communication online — one that makes the web accessible to more people than ever, but also risks losing one of its most fundamental benefits.

"Communication in the 21st century has become increasingly multimodal," says Professor Carmen Lee, co-author of Language Online: Investigating Digital Texts and Practices. While the text-based Craigslist may still look the way it did in the late ’90s, the rest of the web now relies on images, both moving and still, to convey much of its information. MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle worries, however, that this is coming at the cost of literary fiction and conversations, which "deepen our empathic skills, the ability to identify with characters, and put yourself in the place of others." The web of today is full of stories, both fictional and real, but moving from reading "to a world where we share memes does not guarantee the same results. A life of visual memes is not enough."

We’ve seen this play out once before with the advent of home television broadcasts, which many feared would obliterate the classical skills of reading and writing. That obviously hasn't happened, and despite decades of experience with the TV medium, its full effect on language development has yet to be determined. This is probably because the type and quality of content you consume matters more than the means of transmission, as a 2004 review of available research by the UK Literacy Trust found. The broad strokes of its findings were that engaging and age-appropriate programming helps expand children's comprehension and vocabulary, while excessive viewing generally pushes them in the opposite direction. So, as with food, the best TV advice is to be selective and avoid binging.

The net effect of the internet on literacy rates has also been the subject of some dispute. An oft-cited 2002 report by the US National Endowment for the Arts, titled Reading at Risk, showed a marked decline in the reading of literature across the United States, though it did not account for nor take a very positive view of reading done on the web. Together with other forms of new media like broadcast TV and video games, the web was deemed to be among the main distractions pulling us away from physical books. On the other hand, the latest data from the Pew Research Center says that younger people are more likely to have read a book in the past 12 months than those over 30. In other words, those engaging most actively with the web seem to also be picking up books more often.

Without the original bandwidth constraints, will we still bother to read on the web?

The simple act of just stumbling around on the web and authoring seemingly inconsequential screeds about the endless wait for Half-Life 3 is in itself a form of creative writing. The important change that's happening now is that the rants about video games are turning into videos and the need to verbally describe a beautiful sunset is obviated by the ability to present it from multiple angles in a single tweet. It's almost too easy.

British linguist David Crystal accepts that "every internet domain that you’re dealing with influences the way in which you use language," but he doesn't believe that the basic fundamentals of English have materially changed over the past 20 years. In common with other academics and XKCD author Randall Munroe, Crystal thinks that reports of literacy's demise are greatly exaggerated. We have a few new words and abbreviations, but we’re still employing the same means of communication as the classical writers. That could be said when discussing the difference between reading on and offline, but what happens when the majority of communication becomes visual?

Snapchat and WhatsApp, the two hottest new online messaging tools, have in excess of 700 million active users between them that are sharing photos at a rate of over 1.4 billion every day. That’s two photos per person, per day. Instant messaging may not be altering the written language, but for some people it's replacing it with visual substitutes. Entire conversations are being carried out via the media of photos, video clips, and emoji.

As communication becomes increasingly visual, benefits are both lost and gained

While there’s an obvious limit of absurdity to this simplification — as embodied by the Yo app — the move away from the written word isn’t entirely apocalyptic. A young couple recently experimented by texting only emoji to one another for a month and found that the way they communicated changed. They were more willing to send emotional or "cheesy" messages to one another than they would have been if they had to write them out. Plus the process of decoding the meaning contained in the ideograms you receive is in itself a mental exercise of the sort that most printed-word traditionalists complain we are not getting enough of on the web.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently tweeted about the value of having at least a little bit of struggle when trying to learn and comprehend something. The work of understanding has intrinsic value in itself, and since a textual description requires an active mind to recreate a scene or visualize a scenario, it’s basically good mental exercise and preparation for absorbing more complex concepts. (Much of that is lost in a short three-minute video clip, which ironically Gates includes in his tweet.)

There's no prior data for the current trend of video overstimulation

One thing that is materially different about video proliferation on the web today from the way it happened with television in the past is its portability. As ubiquitous as TV broadcasts may be, they are still anchored in the immobile location where your receiving set resides, and even if you have a television in every room of the house, you can’t hope to expose yourself to terrestrial or cable broadcasting as comprehensively as you can with mobile web feeds. Anyone living in an area with a good LTE signal can drown in a constant 24-hour video marathon. It may be scattershot and stop-and-start — jumping from celebrity Vines to Snapchat updates to CNN news reports — but it’s possible and increasingly practiced. There’s no prior data for this kind of constant video stimulation.

With ever more bandwidth and cheaper storage becoming available, the evolution toward a more visual web isn't likely to slow down any time soon. And yet, the researchers studying its effects on how we behave say there's little reason to fret about the digital world depriving us of our skills of articulation in the same way that it's killed our handwriting. Sherry Turkle says that "we are both at a turning point and we are resilient. Only five days without our devices show us recovering the skills needed for empathic connection," and there are book clubs out there endeavoring to maintain the appreciation for written expression. Carmen Lee believes that what's going on is less replacement and more augmentation of text with images and video. "People," she says, "are actually becoming more 'literate' in using both the visual and the verbal in a complementary manner to convey meanings." So instead of dismissing or fearing these new modes of communication, we are probably best off embracing them and seeing what we might learn.