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English Degrees in the 21st Century: The Role, Importance and Power of Words

The Role, Importance, and Power of Words in a Digital Society

The world is currently experiencing a Gutenberg moment. The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century and, later, the proliferation of public education gave literacy to the masses for the first time in human history and displaced elite control of language. Today, the rise of the Internet has once again changed the game, spreading the control of language further as traditional paper-and-ink publishing is replaced by user-generated content, blogs, and social media. So great a shift has this been that for the first time in history, a person with an internet connection and a WordPress account can enjoy an audience of millions free of cost. As a result, words are at the disposal of nearly any person who has something to say and wants to make a difference. With the idiomatic landscape shifting daily, these purveyors of language are more important than ever before.

Stop the Presses: Words and the Internet

The end of the twentieth century was most likely the beginning of the end for newspapers and magazines as people traditionally knew them. Since 2007, fourteen major “dead tree” newspapers have shut down their presses for good and another eight have moved to a partially online or online-only model. And print magazines have fared no better, with hundreds of titles moving online or folding completely since the early 2000s. Where have all the writers and readers gone? The answer is, of course, online. People are now more frequently turning to the instantly available, instantly updated wealth of information found on the internet, and the old-fashioned printing press—once the pride of Johannes Gutenberg— just can’t compete.

There are many reasons to lament the demise of the printed periodical. Veteran journalists and readers alike know that in-depth analysis, clever headlines, AP style guidelines, and paid classified ads will soon go the way of the laserdisc. However, the internet, the cause of impending death for so many print newspapers and magazines, might in the end help make our free press more free. Online periodicals such as Slate, Huffington Post, and iVillage encourage communication between the reader and publisher in a way that their paper-and-ink counterparts never could. In a New Yorker piece from 2008, Jonah Peretti, one of the founders of Huffington Post, explains that internet-based news is “a shared enterprise between its producer and its consumer.” The wall between the editor/writer and reader has been blasted away thanks to the comments section, which provokes discussion and debate between readers and writers, giving new life to an article that, in print, would have been dead upon arrival.

A New Lexicon

The rise of blogging and social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook has injected the language itself with new life, thanks to the breakneck speed with which an idea, phrase, or image can travel between users online. The Urban Dictionary stands as an example of how the internet can foster new relationships between people and language: its entries include words and phrases that have taken on new meanings (“viral,” “epic fail,” “meme”) or entered the lexicon out of thin air (“Lolcat,” “unfriend”), and the definitions are provided by users, to be voted upon by users—although the site’s editors still have the final say. The average person today has the power to coin new words, leaving his makr on the world forever. Editorial power regarding dictionaries has typicaly resided in the palms of the powerful and elite.

Young writers today have a more difficult job than previous generations sorting through all the available platforms for the written word, each of which has its own rules and vocabularies. But for those who are able to navigate the vast ocean of the English language as it exists online, it’s possible to write something today that’s seen by millions of people tomorrow. Through crowdsourcing, anyone can contribute to encyclopedias, dictionaries, and science projects. Bloggers can become experts in just about any field, from fashion to history to Hollywood gossip. The middle man—in the form of the editor, publisher, or agent—is no longer always necessary, and, even with the massive amounts of information available on every topic under the sun, it’s easier than it ever has been to get heard (and maybe even make money while doing so). 

You Say You Want a Revolution: Words and Social Change

Occupy Wall Street is a social and political movement that has spread across the United States and the world, a loose affiliation of protestors attempting to “create change from the bottom up.” Using platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to spread their message, the occupy movement was inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings that began in Tunisia and were in large part the result of communication via social media. The narrative of the Arab Spring movements was made all the more poignant because the countries involved do not give their citizens the right to a free press. The Internet, then, was a way for protestors to circumvent the restrictions placed on them by their government, using the democratic nature of the internet to create an underground network of unrest.

It’s hard for critics of social media to argue that these online forms of communication are insignificant after they’ve been so effectively used to oust dictators and spread democracy around the world. However, the role of social media in these movements raises as many questions as it answers. With the stakes so high, it becomes more important to help online readers tell fact from fiction, a difficult task when the appeal of the Internet is its openness and anonymity. And how should the private corporations that own these social media sites react when governments try to control access and censor content? These are the sorts of issues that the coming generations of writers will contend with as they sort through the online universe of the future. The only thing that’s clear is that an understanding of words and the power they hold will be of crucial importance as we continue to rush forward into the unknown.