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An impoverishment of language or concentration on the essential?
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»smartphone neck« and short-sightedness.

»Smartphone neck« and short-sightedness are well-known consequences of excessive smartphone use. However, everyday life in our digital world also has other consequences: Our ability to communicate is also changing. In the digital world, we are almost always fed with easy-to-digest morsels of information. This has an impact on our ability to gather and process information.

An impoverishment of language or concentration on the essential?

For example, many people are already overwhelmed by the prospect of replying to an e-mail that contains more than one or two pieces of information. Formerly, when someone wrote an »a-mail« – an analogue letter – it usually conveyed a great deal of information. That was previously quite normal, but now, little chunks of information are sent to and fro via WhatsApp. Apparently, 55 billion messages are sent every day with WhatsApp alone – an average of 55 per user. And the number of messages is increasing rapidly. This means that we get interrupted in whatever we’re doing 55 times a day. Not to mention all the other distractions such as tweets and Facebook posts. Our work and thought processes are interrupted. Many people are probably no longer accustomed to thinking something through to the end. If the latest studies are to be believed, »digital natives« in particular have »not only a lower tolerance of frustration, but also a shorter attention span« – Prof. Manfred Spitzer, one of Germany’s leading neuroscientists (Recommended reading: Spitzer’s book »Digitale Demenz« (digital dementia).

Do short texts also result in shorter thought processes?

A thought can’t be properly expressed in a WhatsApp message. Communication is not only becoming more condensed, it is inevitably also becoming more superficial. Even 55 concentrated short messages don’t help – and that doesn’t only apply to communication between young people who just want to chill out, date or quickly diss each other. It also applies to older people, whose communication often draws the attention of a wider audience because they occupy key positions in society. The best example is the US president. Is it possible to make meaningful political statements in tweets with 140 or even 280 characters? Is a tweet a suitable way of communicating with other countries and leading world politics?

How condensed information becomes space-filling nonsense.

Another factor is that digital communication is naturally becoming increasingly important. Physical presence is pushed into the background by digital communication. When we make a phone call, we have at least partial contact with a person, but this is no longer the case when we use text messages. The importance of this factor is grossly underestimated. Purely digital communication lacks the elements of trustworthiness and assessability. We all know from personal experience that communicating via e-mail leads to misunderstandings. Why is that? It’s mainly due to the fact that language is increasingly regarded purely as an information carrier. The individual character of the language used no longer plays a role. The language used is becoming more or less interchangeable, ignoring the fact that not only what is being communicated – i.e. the pure information – is decisive, but also how it is communicated. It really matters how we express ourselves and how profound we are, because everyone interprets communication, even if this is often performed unconsciously. It is given meaning at the meta-level. We read between the lines, but that is difficult when a sentence consists mainly of abstruse abbreviations, emojis and typographical errors.

It is said that the language we use reveals our personalities. Language doesn’t only convey pure information; it also transmits »meta-information«. It expresses our individuality, emotions and creativity – an important part of what defines us as human beings. If it didn’t, AI (artificial intelligence) would in any case already have surpassed our capabilities. So does the abbreviation of language through digitalisation mean that a language becomes impoverished and that the inner wealth of those who use it also dries up? Or are the changes in our linguistic habits that are evident in digital media simply purpose-oriented? Does this »abbreviation« or »impoverishment« of our language only reflect the need for speedy information through digital media? Do we receive concentrated information that is concise, fast, and powerful?

»Fast food« texts – nutritious or inedible?

Personally, I am always happy to receive an e-mail or a short message that is readable and relatively error-free. But that rarely happens. Text messages are usually riddled with inaccuracies and errors. The advantage to the person who wrote them is, of course, that typos can no longer be distinguished from spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. However, the author is also signalling a certain degree of disrespect for the recipient: »I don’t care if you, the recipient, get an inedible fast food text from me that is simply appalling. You can take it or leave it!« That’s the unexpressed message, a kind of non-verbal communication. A quick example: On the meta-level, simply writing »Best« to sign off a business e-mail conveys the message: »I can’t be bothered«. Respect for the recipient simply disappears, even if the sender does not really think like that and only wanted to convey information as quickly as possible. It really doesn’t matter how many abbreviations and typos my SMS messages, e-mails or WhatsApp messages contain, does it? After all, I have to write hundreds of e-mails every day. The main thing is that the recipient quickly gets the information that matters to me! Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Many people may not care if they have to read fast food text messages, but for others it is impertinent. Apart from the outer form of a text message, even the medium itself can be disrespectful when it comes to more important things than the usual white noise at the office. A blatant example of disrespect is terminating a relationship with a short digital message. Or quitting a job via WhatsApp. Nice one, Bushido! (Bushido, a German rapper, quit his job as a radio presenter after only two days via voice message.)

More communication, less information.

One aspect of the change in the way we communicate that has resulted from digitalisation is particularly striking: These days, everybody can immediately express their opinion. On the face of it, that’s positive. Everyone has more ways to communicate. However, due to the fact that everyone can write a message (even if they can’t actually write), everything is becoming more interchangeable and is losing its meaning. Language is just a means to an end, a way of bring something into the public domain, even if it is complete nonsense. And if the content is not significant, then there is no need for the form to be correct. Then it doesn’t matter whether you write »non-sense«, »nonsenns« or »nonsenz«, since it is still nonsense. If communication channels are as easy for everyone to use as they are today and public platforms are constantly available, then the users themselves treat these channels with a little less respect.

I was told of a time when my father wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper and asked my grandmother to read through it before he delivered it personally to the office of the newspaper. This was partly because back then, no one wanted to expose themselves to ridicule because they couldn’t string a sentence together properly. This is unimaginable today, since everyone can immediately trumpet their nonsense into the world through digital platforms without turning on their brains. (Where was the switch again?) No matter what you enter in a Google search, you will find a forum about the subject. When you read through the first posts from »HenryTheNinth«, »Furminator« or »LupusUlcus68«, you might well think: »Hey, did I miss something? What kind of language is that?« Not to mention the mistakes. I believe that error-free statements on the internet from private individuals are now threatened with extinction – or I personally haven’t discovered one in a long time, at least. But above all, the fast and anonymous possibility of expressing one’s opinion reduces the inhibition threshold and the fear of revealing oneself to be an absolute low flyer, in terms of both content and language. How else can it be explained that someone doesn’t even spell the key term correctly when exercising his or her freedom of expression? Digital communication seems to be sinking into a bottomless pit. Is it now just a means to an end? Whatever the case may be, it’s a reduction. Not only in the amount of typing, perhaps also in the amount of thinking.

An impoverishment of language or concentrated messages?

Everything is abbreviated as much as possible, especially when using a smartphone, of course. It’s naturally impossible to type correctly with two thumbs. On a real, non-virtual typewriter keyboard – long ago, in the Paleozoic era of typing, something called a »typewriter« was used to type texts – on a real keyboard like that, the thumbs are not supposed to type any letters at all, only hit the space bar. Typing on a smartphone, on the other hand, is quite different. The thumbs take full control. One tries to hit tiny letters with two thumbs that are much too large for typing, in the hope that one will occasionally tap the right letters and a halfway readable sentence will appear. No wonder abbreviations and emojis are used as the only way to deal with the impossibility of typing a reasonably accurate sentence. If the texting apps on smartphones didn’t have an autocorrect feature, then almost every message would probably be unreadable. Assumptions about what was meant would be normal, and misunderstandings would be pre-programmed. But perhaps that is enough for most recipients of text messages. You can always fall back on the dictation feature to avoid the embarrassment of a typo if you still feel a touch of residual shame and don’t want to babble something on WhatsApp.

Is digital communication always fast food and not gourmet food?

Everything is getting shorter and faster – nobody wants to read long texts. Fast food has superseded slow food, even when referring to writing. Communication can easily be compared to food: We also consume information. Are text messages, e-mails, tweets and forum posts inferior types of food for the brain? Do these emaciated disjointed texts taste good to us, and are they still substantial enough? One gets the impression that form and content are going down the drain. But is that really the case? When I was studying German philology, I had to read a great deal of complicated additional literature. A single sentence written by Kafka was cleverly interpreted over several pages. A lot of it was so clever that it was incomprehensible. Isn’t a short statement on Twitter much closer to reality? Much more compressed, much more informative, much more effective – and thus exactly the opposite of an impoverishment of language?

It probably just depends on what you have to say. What is the point behind the text – regardless of whether it is short or long – what is the idea? And do you have anything to say at all? In the final analysis, Ludwig Wittgenstein was right when he wrote: »Anything that can be said can be said with clarity; anything that cannot be said must remain unsaid.« In a way, even Wittgenstein suffered from the impoverishment of language. Be that as it may, it is impossible not to feel that there is a world of difference between the impoverishment of language that Wittgenstein referred to and WhatsApp babblings.

Bite-sized texts – our modern method of communication.

The general tendency to create short, easily digestible bite-sized sentences in digital media stems from the need for simplification and streamlining – despite the fact that it is obviously not easier to read a sentence that is full of abbreviations. It has exactly the opposite effect: our ability to express ourselves is adipose and sluggish. When we are constantly exposed to fast food language we get used to it. Subject, predicate, object – that’s all there is. Sentences with more than 5 words are already considered to be nested and an almost insoluble task for the reader. If a sentence includes a subordinate clause, many may see it as something akin to an indecipherable DNA sequence.

It has been proven that for many years, the linguistic capability of young professionals has been in free fall. This is certainly also related to the linguistic customs practised in social media. There are no nested sentences in social media. People don’t stare at their smartphones as they are walking because they have discovered a fabulous nested sentence from Thomas Mann. Certainly not. We want to see, not read. Our hunger for information should be satisfied by visual stimuli, not by text. Kindles are possibly also so popular because they are so nicely slim. A Kindle is no fatter when it contains the 1,292 pages of »Lord of the Rings«. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Many a reader would certainly prefer to look at a few pictures rather than this discourse about the digital disparagement of language. Maybe some pictures of cute kittens. They would stimulate the right hemisphere of the brain, which is responsible for emotions, while a pure desert of text is handled by the left hemisphere, which is used for analytical thinking. We crave food for the right hemisphere. We are quite happy if the left hemisphere – which, incidentally, is also where the speech centre is located – loses a little weight. The fun factor is simply higher on the right than on the left. When we have the choice, we always opt for a holiday photo and not for a sentence by Arno Schmidt. Or why does a photo of a triple-deck hamburger naturally get a thousand times more likes than even the most tasty aphorism? Fast food beats slow food – also in digital communication.
Conclusion: Long story short, IMHO, at the EOD, bite-size texts deliver 0 info, they are just annoying. ROFL.

What does all this mean for digital customer communication?

How are you addressing your target group via digital media? Are you using the right channels and target group-specific messages? With the aid of our expertise in digital marketing, you will develop the right strategies to prevent linguistic impoverishment and exploit the full potential of diverse digital communication in a targeted manner. Suchdialog will support you with marketing strategies that taste good to your target group. Instead of using fast food marketing, you will be able to rely on the merits of rich content marketing with a long-term effect.

About Rainer Rupp.

Rainer Rupp studied German philology and philosophy before he was drawn to the advertising industry in 1995. After several years training and travelling with large agencies, he started his present career as a freelance copywriter in Heidelberg in 2003. In addition to writing copy for the service industry – which earns his bread and butter – the author is also passionate about writing literary texts. Despite AI and all the other bells and whistles, there is one thing that the digital world cannot do without: the human brain and its inimitable neuron fireworks. We see things much the same, by the way.

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