What will happen to the written word?


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When I was a girl, I would disappear with a stack of lined paper and a sharpened pencil. I would write for hours, stories picked fresh from my imagination. I recently found the binder full of these stories. It is maroon, and I apparently used a stencil and a silver marker to write ‘KATE’S STORIES’ and ‘TOP SECRET’ on the cover. Dozens and dozens of stories I had written, and I know there were dozens more. Those were just the ones I kept. Fanciful, wildly imaginative and complex stories. I was so proud of them and I know they served as a dependable escape from a not-so-secure home.

I know I am not alone in my love of writing. However, I’m pretty sure  most girls and boys now don’t write stories with paper and pencil anymore. I don’t even do that. Our thoughts now pour out onto a computer screen, easily erased, easily altered. It changes the entire creative process. Your commitment to a thought and a sentence is less stringent now, as you can just press the backspace key. A good eraser back then used to be the key to successfully writing a story for me, although I seem to have used footnotes as well.

In any case, I was pondering my stories, along with a conversation I had with a twenty-something friend. I asked her if she was on WhatsApp or if she went on Facebook or Twitter anymore to talk to her friends. “No,” she said, laughing. “So how do you talk to your friends then?” I asked.

“Snapchat,”she said, and I’m pretty sure she is not an anomaly. For those who don’t know, Snapchat is a form of social media in which you share a picture or short video. Words are optional and it disappears within 24 hours. You can “chat” to your friends privately this way.

So young people now rarely write messages to one another anymore via text, email etc, let alone actually take the physical action of writing.

And Facebook, perhaps still the most influential form of social media (with 1.65 billion users globally, compared to WhatsApp with 1 billion, Instagram with 400 million, Twitter with 320 and SnapChat with 200 million), sees that this is the future. In a recent discussion, founder Mark Zuckerberg indicates his focus going forward is video and “augmented reality.” In other words, video is set to become the main form of communication. Pictures will replace words.

The written word, in this reality, is unnecessary. What kind of world will that create? What will happen to the process of having a thought, becoming aware of it, translating it to how it applies to the real world, rendering it appropriate to be communicated and understood? Writing is so much a part of this process, of communication. So what happens in a world in which nobody writes anymore and we only use pictures? It’s hard to see.

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