Christian Heilmann

Use your words

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013 at 9:56 pm

I love the web. I live it, I breathe it, I was there when it became available to a larger audience at an affordable rate and I have seen it grow more and more to the most interesting, versatile and easiest to participate media out there. I’ve witnessed the power it gives to people who have no voice in traditional media and give people education where their social standing or school system would not support them.

This is why it hurts me to see people squander the opportunity that is the web away by clogging it with short-lived, let’s say it – bullshit. Sure, this is a natural thing – the web is a normal part of our lives and the new generation of users is web-native, meaning they don’t know any longer what it would be like to be offline. When we stop seeing something as hard to get it becomes a commodity and we value it less. Didn’t have to fight for it, so why see it as something I should care for? It is always there, isn’t it? Much like we waste drinking water until we lived in a country where you couldn’t drink from the tap.

didn't read, LOL - apparently something to be proud of…

The time when we listened to random beeping sounds from our modems and got excited when we got a full 56KB connection for a change are over. Mobile connectivity is still a problem, and sometimes gets expensive but even then the connection speeds are great. That is when you are in the country where your mobile contract and in “first world” countries. Get out of this world and you still feel the flakiness of connectivity and you get much more grateful for information becoming available after the third exasperated reload of the current web page.

And this is where I get very disappointed when I see that we are moving into a world where people stop using text and words to describe their feelings, ideas and plans and – well, communicate with others. Instead we are confronted with an avalanche of images, memes, animated GIFs of several megabytes and age-old fake conversations, jokes and “inspirational quotes” as badly optimised JPGs full of artifacts. We also get a lot of messages that could be a short post in the form of a video with terrible lighting and bad audio. They are easy to make, but they are much harder to consume. I can skim a long text until it gets interesting. I can not do that with a video unless I have a timed transcript.

I am not even going to start on the accessibility issues that come from a web that consists solely of images and videos. I am talking about incredibly useful technology and systems that are available to us as a result of a just a bit more than a decade of web evolution becoming useless.

Search engines like text. You will get your productions on the web found by having good text in there. Your images and videos can be as amazing as they come – if there is no descriptive text all you get is traffic coming from people seeing your things and sharing them. This can be incredibly powerful – something “going viral” can get you a lot of hits and shares in a very short amount of time and give you the false impression that you are a success and made an impact on the web. But the success is fleeting and a few minutes later the next cool thing will come around. A day later other people will share your work as theirs and again get a quick fix of fame. It is turning the web into a pure Operant Conditioning Chamber, the same phenomenon that powers casual online gaming and makes people give up on privacy, as explained eloquently by Cory Doctorow in his TEDxObserver talk.

Of course, social sharing also has great benefits beyond the quick fame. People describing your work in their words when sharing can add different language explanations or give your content more impact as an important voice people trust tweeted about it, but it relies on the good-will of people consuming what you produce and making the effort to share it or write words around it. If you provided the words from the beginning, you’ll get this as extra on top of people who will find your work using search engines – because you used text. And even better, if someone gets to your product and doesn’t speak your language, they can use a free translation service to get the product in at least an approximation of their language. We can use web technology to make products more accessible to us without having to rely on a social interaction of someone capable of both languages to do the work for us.

Above all, what bugs me is that the flood of memes, animated GIFs and videos and their quick, false fame robs new users of the web of the opportunity to learn how to speed-read, write and – above all – communicate in writing. I learned English in a few ways. First of all, in school, which works well if your teacher is not a non-native English speaker just trying to get through the curriculum. Secondly, I watched English TV series (Monty Python, as this was the only non-dubbed show) with subtitles. This taught me to understand English and thus – subconsciously – how to pronounce it.

A large part of me learning other languages though was through text communication with people from other countries. First on notes sent on floppy disks in the mail trading demos and tools, then on BBSes and then on the web. Reading and writing comments, hanging out on IRC and having many a fight and a lot of brainstorming there, taking part in forums and mailing lists, newsgroups and finally in social networks like Facebook and Google+. I could talk to someone on the other side of the globe, in real time, and it didn’t take ages to get a video or suffered from bad audio on a phone call or voice call.

It baffles me to see that we have a world-wide communication network with a very low barrier to entry and nearly no expense on publishing and we don’t use it to better ourselves, to make us better communicators. Instead we complain that governments don’t do enough to make school education better. Today you don’t need to buy a book in another language and wait for it in the mail. You can get it online and read it in Kindle, Google Play books, or even go to Project Gutenberg and read them for free. And yet people using proper grammar on the web are congratulated for it or – more commonly – made fun of. A higher level of education should not be a surprise in a world that has access to the largest library ever. It should be a given.

Words are powerful, they spark a theatre in the head. People reading your words make their own pictures at a speed pictures could never be transmitted. Instead of giving one image you create a gallery, one that you will never see, but your readers do. And this gallery is very personal to them and thus gets remembered much more. Of course words can cause controversy, misunderstandings and can hurt. But even then they can spark a conversation and make you realise the effect of your actions much more than a “like” or an “upvote” could ever do.

The old saying that a picture says a thousand words is true when it comes to explanations. Re-hashing memes and jumping on bandwagons based on current pop culture references that will be impossible to grasp a month later doesn’t say a thousand words. It basically says “I am lazy, here is a quick laugh to hint at my creativity”. We are blessed to be able to transmit our thoughts to an audience we will never be able to meet physically. We should not squander this.

Please, use your words. Turn on that grammar check, re-read that tweet before you send it. Write a short sentence instead of posting a meme we’ve seen thousands of times before. And don’t get discouraged when people don’t jump on it and thank you or go nuts about it. This is not for fame, this is for you. If all technology fails, words and gestures is what we have. You can exercise and train your brain to paint with words, to create gorgeous constructs. You get better the more you push yourself to not be lazy and use the obvious word but one that is more specific. Words are beautiful. Paint with them, compose with them, woo people with them.

Share on Mastodon (needs instance)

Share on Twitter

My other work: