Is Social Media Making Us More Sophisticated Writers?

The Answer Is…Surprising

Posted Jul 29, 2018

Or so claimed a study of social media texts that discovered positive correlations between the academic performance of students in higher-ranked secondary schools and the complexity of their posts on social media. Moreover, the complexity of social media posts was similarly correlated with the ages of the writers—no surprise there—with the number of years users had spent using social media, and with the the recency of the messages themselves. As social media itself matured, the messages users posted on it similarly saw increases in sophistication.

The study seems, at first, to assuage both the fears and hand-wringing over the impacts of social media on reading, writing, and our ability to focus. Published in Social Informatics, the study examined posts to a popular European social media site, VK, similar to Facebook, over an eight-year period from 2008 to 2016. Unsurprisingly, the older the writers, the most sophisticated their language, climbing steeply in users' mid-twenties and increasing steadily through users' sixties. Perhaps equally expected, the complexity of social media posts mapped predictably onto their writers' academic performance, as defined by rankings of their secondary schools, based on national testing in Russia, and on available academic records. However, the startling conclusion: the longer social media is around, the more sophisticated the messages become.

This development might seem hardly surprising, since representation in media tends to increase in sophistication over time, as creators of content become more adept at mastering the schemas that dictate conventions for expression as the medium itself develops (Gombrich, 1961). However, to those who wonder if "R u serious, whatevs" spells the end of coherent discourse as we know it, Smirnov's study should be reassuring. By 2016, the average post, irrespective of users' ages, was more sophisticated than the average post in 2008.

However, to anyone familiar with measures of writing sophistication, the study is anything but reassuring. A similar study, also published mid-2017, assessed the readability of scientific publications, with less welcome results: even as the population dedicated less and less of its time to reading, scientific publications became ever-more-demanding to read, decreasing the likelihood that their contents would be recalled, let alone used in further research (Plavén-Sigray et al., 2017). Notably, both studies rely on long-established tools for assessing the readability of writing that yield often-inaccurate measurements of readability.

Both publications relied on measures for assessing sophistication or difficulty in writing based on simple counting, despite the complex formulae that tools like Flesch Reading Ease (1948) and the New Dale-Chall Readability Formula (1995) offer. Dale-Chall at least goes beyond mere counting of words and syllables, counting the number of "hard" words per sentence. But words that meet Dale-Chall's criteria for difficulty are merely words excluded from a list of common words familiar to most fourth-grade students. More problematically, Smirnov's study of social media posts stops at counting syllables, which fails to differentiate between the difficulty posed by different two-syllable words, like praxis and baseball. The average fourth-grader will scarcely linger over baseball to ponder the word's meaning. Meanwhile, many graduate students will stop dead at praxis, look up its meaning, and stumble through the rest of the sentence.

Still more troubling, neither study takes into account the role played by the complexity of sentence structure, which place the most intense demands on readers and writers alike. Depending on their syntacic complexity, two sentences of similar lengths will place widely variable demands on their readers and reflect far different commands of writerly sophistication. Consider the 39-word sentence from Entrepreneur.com: It’s the mornings you wake up after only a couple hours of sleep and you feel like hell and you still say, “This is going to be the best day of my life, because nothing can stop me from working. Now consider the 46-word sentence from Frederic Jameson's The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism: We will return to that particular gap or rift later on; suffice it here to recall some of the famous phrases that model the process whereby these henceforth illustrious peasant shoes slowly re-create about themselves the whole missing object world which was once their lived context. . With only 7% of its words unfamiliar to a typical fourth grader, the first example nets a Dale-Chall readability score that puts it within the grasp of fifth to sixth graders, or at about the level of most mass circulation US newspapers. But, in the second sample, 28% of the words fall outside the 3000-word corpus for Dale-Chall, making that text challenging reading for anyone without at least a college degree.

Even the counting offered by New Dale-Chall, primitive and limited as it might be, is far more sophisticated than the measurements Smirnov's study uses, which holds all three-syllable words to be created equal. Nevertheless, a more compelling question remains. Why, in an era where measures of word difficulty, like Lexile, include a corpus of over one million texts to assess difficulty, and researchers also haves access to software that accurately assesses the complexity of sentence structures, are we still just counting?

References

Chall, J.S. and Dale, E., 1995. Readability Revisited: The New Dale-Chall Readability Formula. Brookline, MA: Brookline Books.

Flesch, R., 1948. A new readability yardstick. Journal of Applied Psychology, 32(3), p.221-233.

Gombrich, E.H. 1961. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. New York: Bollingen Foundation.

Plavén-Sigray, Pontus, Granville James Matheson, Björn Christian Schiffler, and William Hedley Thompson. 2017. "The Readability Of Scientific Texts Is Decreasing Over Time."  eLIFE (5 September 2017) https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.27725.001

Smirnov I. (2017) The Digital Flynn Effect: Complexity of Posts on Social Media Increases over Time. In: Ciampaglia G., Mashhadi A., Yasseri T. (eds) Social Informatics 10540: 24-30: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-67256-4_3