Literacy in the Internet Age

I was recently asked to do a talk at a Rotary meeting on the topic of literacy. I felt honoured, and decided to talk about the effect of the internet on literacy, especially the changes occurring with youth in their communication online, and even offline. Here is my presentation:


The Egyptians used various icons of animals, plants, people and other symbols to tell a story about their lifestyle thousands of years ago. It was a simple way for them to communicate however the ‘pictograms’ that are popularly associated with this ancient language are not literal but partly representative of letters in their alphabet.

Hey, but our English language doesn’t use iconic symbols, isn’t that right?



Many of you, especially if you utilise social media, will be familiar with emoticons. They are a product of the internet age; as young people especially can replace whole words, mostly communicating a feeling or emotion in just a few key strokes on their mobile phone or computer keyboard. The key strokes combination is translated into an icon, such as a heart or a smiley face, which tells the person at the other end of the communication that they love or like something, or are happy about something. Replace the colon in the smiley face combination with a semi-colon, and the result is a winking smiley face that suggests the person is joking about something or is telling the recipient not to take what is said too seriously.

So what has brought on this iconography on social media?

Before the internet, we all learnt how to read and write, and our communication with each other was mainly verbal face to face or we wrote a letter. Some of us may have learnt to type, but even then, we reserved typed letters for formalities such as job applications and business letters.  Most of us had the ability to write quickly and efficiently, and were unrushed as replies took weeks to get back to us. Perhaps we’d end a letter with a smiley face or a sketch, but that would be it. The phone was the most immediate communication available for contact at a distance, and again our verbal abilities had no need for icons and symbols.

The internet has only really being with us since the 1990s, but its impact has been enormous. Suddenly, people could communicate in writing with each other instantly, and many without keyboard skills had to search and tap with one or two fingers. Facebook only emerged 10 years ago, along with Twitter and other social media. Social media became available not only on computers but on smart phones and other devices such as iPods, iPads etc.

Young people wanted to keep in touch with their friends but their lack of keyboard skills made it a slow process. The answer was to create a kind of shorthand that used abbreviations and symbols to get the message across faster. A colon and a close bracket looked like a smiling face on its side, a less than sign and the numeral 3 combined to make a heart on its side. And thus the first crude emoticons took form. Social media saw the potential, and made it possible to transform the crude forms into proper smileys, hearts and a host of other pictograms.

Actually, the crude emoticon smiley face has been around since the 1980s, but its use did not come into its own until the internet age.

Now, the other side of this need to shorten social media texts is to abbreviate, and young people especially have created so many abbreviations that a not so social media literate person is left confused by what is almost another language.

Try this one for size: ‘OMG! M8 IDK cos YOLO. BTW GTG but BRB’.

Who knows what I said? It translates to ‘Oh My God! mate, I don’t know because you only live once. By the way, I’ve got to go but I’ll be right back’.

Some of the other popular abbreviations include:

ATM: Not a banking device for withdrawing money but ‘At the moment’.

IRL: In real life

BBY: Baby

Soz/sozza: Sorry

LMS: like my status

ILY: I love you. This is more a casual term for affection rather than something more serious.

LOL: Laugh out loud

ROFL: Roll over floor laughing

The act of abbreviation will even extend to verbal conversation. You will often hear teenagers now saying LOL, YOLO and shortened or re-invented words.

Young people have also invented their own slang terms that they will use on and off their online chat sessions. Here are a few that are gaining acceptance into the language:

Derp: Something that is silly or dumb, clumsy

Nek Minnut: Next minute

Troll: Someone who spans, tricks or deliberately insults and criticises others.

Fan girl/boy: A girl or boy who is an excited fan about something or someone.

Facepalm: The act of expressing a sense that something/someone is foolish, hence slapping your forehead, but instead of doing it, you write or say the word.

Selfie: A photo of yourself taken by yourself (usually on a mobile phone or iPod)


Teens will also leave out words and punctuation in order to further shorten what they are texting or saying. For example, ‘Nek minnut trips over’ instead of ‘In the next minute he trips over’.

A number of existing words have been given new meaning or adapted for the internet and computer usage.

‘Text’ is now a verb used to describe the act of keying in text for a mobile phone message.

‘Hardware’ has been adapted from its common meaning of hammers, nails etc to refer to the physical parts of a computer.

Nobody’s in trouble when you ‘save’ on a computer. You are simply retaining the data and information on a digital ‘file’ to the computer.

You might still get caught in the ‘web’ but there is no spider to bother you. The web describes the visible portion of the internet that embraces web sites throughout the world.

You won’t catch fish or butterflies with this ‘net’, which is short for the internet or the network of computer servers that service the web.

There is no need to drive anywhere to go to these ‘addresses’ as they are the coding for finding web sites on the internet.

Friend has become a verb as ‘to friend someone’ or include them on your social media account, giving them access to your ‘posts’ that have nothing to do with letters but statements and comments you place on your social media account site for others to read.

There is no small rodent involved when the computer user talks about their mouse, which is the device used to ‘navigate’ around any computer program without keying in directions.

Just like finding your place in a book, you can use a digital ‘bookmark’ to mark websites that you use regularly, enabling you to find them easily.

When I talk about the ‘cloud’, you don’t have to look up or out the window. I’m not talking about those puffy things in the sky. The ‘cloud’ on the internet is a storage site online where you can place your documents and digital photos, and access them from any computer linked to the internet anywhere in the world.

‘Ports’ are no longer somewhere ships can dock, but digital pathways on your computer.

But the internet has also made it necessary to create new words to describe things that don’t exist in the physical world. Here are some new terms that have come out as a result of the internet and computers:

Software: Digital system that enable computer users to perform different functions such as wordprocessing, displaying and manipulating digital photos, keeping accounts and so on.

Browser: A software package that lets you view web pages, graphics and most online content.

Email: Essentially electronic mail. Email software enables users to send and receive messages, letters, documents and photos in digital format.

Blog: Short for ‘web log’ which is a modern online writer’s column. People can talk about anything or create blogs on specific topics that interest them, and others can read these blogs. The act of creating a blog is called ‘blogging’.

Download/Upload: The process of transferring a file from online to your computer or from your computer to online.

Malware: A malicious software used by hackers to gain access to your computer and files.

Phishing: Methods used to defraud people of their personal accounts.

Punctuation marks have also not escaped the impact of the internet on our language. People have adapted some punctuation marks to get around issues presented by this new medium for expression. At this stage, social media users cannot italicise words to place emphasis on words or phrases. Instead they use forward strokes before and after the word or phrase.

Similarly, the rarely used tilde (~) has been brought in to replace a dash for quotes and the author of a quote.

The asterisk (*) is used to indicate a corrected word or phrase and can be placed before or after the word or phrase.

The hash (#) has also been given new life as a hashtag that is used to highlight a topic in social media, allowing others to find comments and posts that are tagged as such.

The ‘at’ sign (@) has been given the job of linking to a person’s profile and in email addresses. It is also growing in use on signs, posters and advertisements as a contemporary sign for ‘at’ such as ‘come to the show @ 4pm’.

It is curious that these rarely used punctuation marks are now gaining new jobs while common punctuation marks – like commas and apostrophes – are being abandoned. Young people especially, don’t want to be burdened with applying traditional grammar rules if they can get away with dispensing with punctuation and spelling, to get the message across as quick and as efficient as possible. Social media has become a creative ground for a new kind of shorthand – Words and phrases are shortened or abbreviated, any ‘unnecessary’ words are dropped, and symbols used to convey whole words and phrases.

What does this mean for literacy in our Brave New Generation? Literacy has become more visual and less about words and their construction. Ambiguity has crept in where words and misspellings, mis-punctuation can mean other things. The new generations don’t know the difference between the possessive itsand the contraction it’sfor it is. They mix up there, theirand they’re. And yourand you’re. They have no idea of past and present tenses.

However, the evolvement of a new form of shorthand visual language demonstrates how the Brave New Generation can adapt to a new way of communicating. Language is always evolving. English is a complex language with roots in German, Latin languages, French, Norse and older European. We don’t use the thee’s and thou’s of an older form. Literacy is about effectively been able to understand each other through our written and spoken word. Keep your hand on the tiller to explore the seas of the internet age.

Fluff words or … please don’t tell me, show me

a lioness hunting worthogs in the western corr...

a lioness hunting worthogs in the western corridor of the Serengeti Deutsch: Löwin jagt Warzenschweine in der Serengeti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You know them … the words that tell you what the author sees, but you can’t see anything because the author has not shown you what he or she actually sees. What do you see when a writer says ‘beautiful’, ‘ugly’, ‘dangerous’ or uses verbs like ‘kill’, ‘loved’, ‘swam’ ? … words that are full of air and no substance. The writer has so much opportunity to portray an image in the reader’s mind that can seem more real than reality itself. You’ve heard the term ‘Larger than life’ – which is what a good writer can do. It is an escape from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Okay, let me demonstrate what can be done. Take the first example word ‘beautiful’. Say the author writes ‘It was a beautiful sunset.’  The author knows what they say, but is it the same as the reader can see, and will the reader be able to use as many of their senses in re-experiencing that sunset? Yes, more words need to be used, but the description then becomes powerful. Consider the following expansion:

‘A warm breeze, filled with the burnt-honey scent of melaleuca blossoms drifted across the verandah as a flock of fruit bats flapped across a golden sky in their hundreds, creating black silhouettes as they flew to their nightly roosts. Shafts of light were cast through the clouds like stationary search lights. I raised a wine to my lips as the sun melted into red and yellow as it sunk into the ocean.’

Here the sunset is not just a narrow visual image but filters across into the senses of feeling (warm breeze), smell (scent of flowers), taste (the wine). It is a much more sensual experience that shows you so much more than a mere sunset. You have a sense of tropical Australia with the fruit bats (flying foxes), melaleuca (tea tree or paperbark) and verandah (Queenslander style house). You can then experience what the author is saying is beautiful.

Let’s move on to the verb ‘kill’. An example: ‘The lioness killed the zebra.’  That’s nice and neat. There’s no emotional involvement for the reader, who can remain aloof and unaffected. But what about this:

‘The lioness lunged out of its crouching position in the grass. All her will was focused on the zebra as it noticed, too late, that it was being pursued. The zebra snorted and ran. It’s heart was pumping rapidly as it tore into full flight. The lioness zig-zagged in step with the zebra’s frantic attempt to elude capture. Long claws dug into hide as the lioness cloaked the body of the zebra, then sunk its razor teeth into the animal’s neck, tearing and pulling until the zebra lost balance and collapsed, tumbling along with the lioness as she maintained pressure …’

The reader finds themselves now as part of the experience. My example may be rough but it does convey much more than merely saying that the lion killed the zebra. You can feel the zebra’s panic and the weight of the lioness as she pulls it down. Notice, however, that I am using a smattering of adjectives. They are like seasoning … use just the right amount and it is agreeable.


Little words doing a big job

Air France - KLM Douglas DC3

Air France - KLM Douglas DC3 (Photo credit: FrancoisRoche)

What would happen if we left out all those little words – the definite and indefinite articles? I can hear lots of people asking ‘What are they?’ … and indeed, I had to remind myself of their uncommon description, which only English teachers and writers with good grammar memories would know. Okay, you will know them when I show them to you. Three words come to mind, those being ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’. The first two are what are called indefinite articles, which simply means that they are used in front of nouns if the writer is not specifying anything. For example, I went on a flight on a DC3. I am not referring to a specific flight, and I am not referring to a specific DC3 plane. However, if I said, I went on the 4.50pm flight on the DC3 to Birdsville (yes, that is a real place in Australia), then I am specifying the flight as the 4.50pm one, and on the one plane going to Birdsville at that time.

The indefinite article ‘an’ is used if the noun begins with a vowel or the noun is pronounced as a vowel, as in a silent consonant. Examples are: An apple a day and An honest opinion.

As long as you remember the function of these three small but important words, then that is the main thing.