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Winter 2014

Inquiry Magazine Archive


Texting Toward Utopia

Tweets, texts, and emoticons are replacing wordy screeds among today's youth. And that's not a bad thing. By Dr. Ben Agger, Professor of Sociology

illustration of texting

Let’s do the literary math. The average 18- to 24-year-old American sends 109 text messages daily. Assuming, cautiously, that each text has 10 words, texting alone could produce a printed book of about 175 pages every two years. And this doesn’t even include all of the other writing kids do, on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. The average young adult is writing up a storm.

And yet—is this “real” writing? And at what cost is it done? Teachers and parents worry that their kids aren’t listening in class, preferring instead to focus on their phones and Facebook. A study of college students in Texas revealed that 40 percent of the reading that college students do is online. And we elders were taught that “real” writing does not lean on emoticons, slang, and acronyms.

But according to a Pew Center report, 75 percent of people under 30 read a print book last year, compared to only 64 percent of over-30s. Beware generational profiling, which, in describing, exaggerates.

Clearly, plenty of text is being produced. Yet we are experiencing a decline of discourse overall as writers of all ages choose to tweet instead of write wordy screeds that evaluate the world’s problems. And this talkative, if post-textual, age is also an Age of Opinion—thus, dogma dis­places data. Imagine if Tom Paine tweeted Rights of Man or Tom Hayden the Port Huron Statement. But also notice that young public intellectuals are posting their political takes at interesting sites such as feminist­ and

In my recent book, Texting Toward Utopia, I stress the upsides of voluminous youthful writing, “reading” the young for their implications, anxieties, and yearnings. Just as books are com­ing unbound as pulp publishing declines, e-writers are composing e-books as well as emails. I pore over pixelated discourse both because I was young once and now seek solidarity with my chil­dren and students, and because young people are a minority group who are, in effect, protesting their subaltern status.

That kids hate school should be read as meaning­ful if we agree that anti-intellectualism is a significant social problem. Kids protest in the prison code of texting and tweeting, and inhabit the night as vampires. Urban Dictionary is their database, YouTube their means of pro­duction. Nighttime is downtime, when they are away from the adults who enlist them in a pre-labor force where every waking hour is devoted to “performative”—gradable—work, all in the name of resume-building.

Adult authoritarianism abounds in schools, families, and sports. Adults keep kids busy and alert so that they don’t imagine different, better worlds in which work can become play and mind and body merge. Kids understand intuitively what it means to cooperate and live off the clock, and they model egalitarian relationships online and offline.

Kids text toward utopia because adults have largely failed them, even as we elders are quick to blame a distract­ing media culture. It is easy to observe that youth today have a different relationship to texts than “we” did, but more challenging to read their discourse as secret writing.

What is needed? Libraries to be kept open and pulp pub­lishing, including newspapers, nurtured. Reading assigned and writing expected. Flexibility about what counts as writing. Empathy.

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