Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World – by Naomi Baron

 

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BOOK REVIEW

Baron’s book, Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, examines various computer mediated communication (CMC) platforms and the effects that use of those platforms are having on spoken and written language, as well as addresses the ways that those platforms are changing the way people communicate with and relate to one another. She cites three major social and cultural transformations brought about by CMC: volume control, effects of increasing writing volume, and the end of anticipation (Baron, 2008, p. 6-7). First, she discusses the idea of the receiver’s ability to “control the volume” of information received by determining when to sign on to electronic media and deciding who to respond to and when, as well as the ability of the sender and receiver to multi-task when communicating electronically. Next, she examines the massive amount of writing that is now being produced through emails, texts, blogs, and other electronic media, as well as the profound way language rules and conventions are being challenged and how long-established communication practices and culture are being changed as a result. Lastly, as CMC allows everyone to be kept up to date about all major and minor events and happenings, she discusses “end of anticipation” in relationships and how that concept is changing the way relationships are constructed.

From email to instant messaging, mobile phones to Facebook, Baron examines how CMC is affecting both language and society. Chapter three deals with strategies used to control the volume of communication, including checking messages when the receiver is ready and multitasking when engaging in CMC. Chapter four discusses instant messaging (IM) and, as in other chapters, breaks down sample messages, by gender, into smaller units and compares that communication to speech and the written word. (Interestingly gender does make a difference as males tend to IM in speech patterns while females tend to IM in written patterns.) Chapter five discusses Facebook and IM, and the importance of online face management in both media.

Chapter six moves from one-to-one synchronous communication to one-to-many asynchronous communication and the challenges it presents to both sender and receiver. It raises such questions as who will read the message, is the information accurate, and can the sources be trusted? Chapter seven discusses cell phones and the issues that arise when one can be reached by voice in any location at any time of the day or night. Chapter eight switches focus, moving from specific CMC platforms to a discussion of online language rules (hint – those rules were few and far between in 2008), and the ease in which traditional language rules and conventions are violated with CMC. In chapter nine, Baron discusses the move from a written culture based on carefully curated thoughts painstakingly written by hand, to a written culture where a plethora of text is written in record time without the traditional thought and care normally associated with more formal writing. Chapter ten provides a brief overview of the issues brought about by CMC including unintentional plagiarism, virtual customer service, communication exhaustion, and a sense of loneliness.

Though the book was published almost a decade ago, when many CMC platforms were still in their infancy, the issues Baron examines are still valid today. Her discussion of employing CMC for self-expression was prophetic as the world of blogging has exploded, YouTube is worth more than $70 billion (Gerber, 2015), and the comment section of many online news articles gets more attention than the articles themselves. CMC has leveled the playing field and now allows anyone with a computer and access to Wifi to broadcast their thoughts and opinions to the world. Baron’s research on talk radio is as relevant today as it was when the book was first published, as people still use that medium as “a form of entertainment, a medium for education, and a way to perpetuate the idea of free speech” (Baron, 2008, p. 103). Even ten years ago, Baron was emphasizing the importance of not believing everything that is read online without double-checking the legitimacy of the source and the validity of the information presented.

Baron’s observations on language and grammar use in CMC are still relevant as well. Because of the rapid pace and sheer volume of writing made possible by CMC, many times words and phrases are abbreviated, punctuation is ignored, spellcheck replaces an offline dictionary, and sentences are fragmented or poorly constructed. But, she cautions, CMC isn’t the only culprit. The relaxing of linguistic rules can be interpreted as “a natural reflection of changing educational policies, shifts in social agendas, a move in academia toward philosophical relativism, and a commitment to life on the clock” (Baron, 2008, p, 169). She theorizes that a more liberal “linguistic whateverism” (Baron, 2008, p. 169) attitude is also at fault.

Ten years have passed since Baron’s book was published – practically a century or more in technology time – rendering some of the research dated (at that time, Facebook had just made its way off college campuses and was being adopted by the general public (Baron, 2008, 84)), and rendering some of the references obsolete (folks referred to their Blackberrys as Crackberrys (Baron, 2008, p. 229) and the iPhone was not on anyone’s radar.) A revised edition would be welcome, including platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. Updated research would also be valuable as many younger CMC participants have used social media platforms for most of their lives, and most older participants now boast a decade or more experience online. But even though much of the hardware and software Baron refers to in the book is no longer in use, many of the issues she discusses are still of concern and being debated in 2017.

This book would be a welcomed read for older CMC participants who are concerned about what they perceive is a decline in language as a result of social media platforms. Baron offers a bit of consolation that society will acclimate and language will remain intact despite the challenges of online communication. The book is also recommended for younger CMC participants as it provides historical background for the online world they take for granted, as well as a thoughtful discussion of why the integrity of language is important. Most importantly, the book urges a reader to take a step back from the online world, and think about how society is allowing technology to change our world in ways both good and bad.

As Baron says, “technology has always been Janus-faced. Automobiles are convenient modes of transportation but consume vast quantities of fossil fuel and kill more than 43,000 people a year in the United States alone. Refrigeration eliminated the need to go to the market each day but also meant that the food we eat now is less fresh,” (Baron, 2008, p. 213), and her examples continue. Always On serves as a reminder that the viability of language, the integrity of the written word, and how we communicate with one another – both online and off – is the responsibility of each of us, individually and collectively.

References:

Baron, N. (2008). Always on: language in an online and mobile world. Oxford, New York. Oxford University Press.

Gelen, B. (2015, May 27). Here’s how much YouTube is worth. Fortune. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2015/05/27/youtube-google-value/

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