The Degradation of Writing
Ask a new hire to build you a financial model, and you will likely get exactly what you asked for– a fully functional and integrated tool with all the ‘bells and whistles’ that makes you think, “wow, this is amazing.” Ask that same new hire to draft an email explaining what the model is and how it addresses a fundamental business problem, and you will likely get something back that makes you think, “wow, has this kid ever written an email before?” It is not only embarrassing, it is also very sad.
We live in a society where communication is done 140 characters at a time. It is a society that embraces expression through photos, emoji and messaging. Interpersonal communication has been degraded to the point where we have removed the “personal” part to live within digital communities. When was the last time you hand wrote a letter to somebody? There is a generation that still embraces handwritten letters, personal emails, and general written communication. Unfortunately, that generation is not the one that our future relies on.
It is all about efficiency.
The proliferation of social media through mobile has enabled an on-demand world where personal communication is “hashtagging” a photo, posting links to others' content, ‘liking’, re-tweeting, multimedia messaging, or SMS texting. Terms like “LOL”, “OMW”, “NP”, “BRB”, and “IMO” are now common place at home, with friends, and even with coworkers. Large corporate enterprises have also adopted internal messaging platforms that have replaced communication that used to be done exclusively through email. This phenomenon continues to morph as we see more platforms embrace short-form and new types of communication. The new communication paradigm is all about efficiency – saying more with the least amount of words, or in some cases, no words at all.
Efficiency comes at a cost, but also presents an opportunity.
So while the new communication paradigm offers us speed and efficiency, it also fundamentally degrades our ability to create and write. Some say writing will fall into obsolescence in a similar way that texting has replaced phone calls. I disagree. Just like there is no replacement for hearing someone’s voice, there is nothing that will ever replace the ability to articulate thoughts, observations and ‘a message’ via a well-constructed, coherent piece of writing. It may become less important, but it will never go away. As short-form communication continues to overshadow traditional writing, the ability to actually write will become an increased area of differentiation in the workplace. But, great writing (especially in business) needs to embrace the same type of efficiency that we have grown so accustomed to - it needs to be framed in a way that differentiates the 'truly important' from the 'merely interesting'.
Creativity on the decline.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that people are no longer creating original content; they are merely 'sharing' or 'liking' other peoples’ work. A recent article indicated “original broadcast content” sharing on Facebook is down 21% year-over-year, a further decline from the 15% decline seen last year. Just to be clear, original content is not defined strictly as long-form writing – it also includes one’s own pictures or other self-curated media. However, this trend does point to a larger theme - the overall indifference of being original in today’s society.
There was a movie in 1995 called “Mr. Holland’s Opus” about a music teacher (Glenn Holland) who tries to get his students to embrace the arts through unorthodox teaching methods. Towards the end, he receives news that the school has budget issues and will need to cut all curriculum around the arts. As he tries to fight for his passion, he says:
"Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want…Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about."
It is an impressionable quote because the movie was made over 20 years ago, but it speaks to the very issue that embodies the troubling Facebook statistics – it is far easier to share somebody else’s work than create your own; it is far easier to text than to write….it is far harder to exercise that portion of the brain that values self-expression as a fundamental driver of personal identity.
Bringing it full circle.
The ability to build a financial model or another analytical tool is an extremely valuable skill. However, for all the people that can build and automate those tools, there are few that can synthesize their value in written communication. The value today actually resides with the people who understand the tools and problems they try to solve - those that can "bridge the technical with the practical". Clients don't care about your models; they care about solving problems. After all, I have seen analytical tools become completely autonomous, but I have never seen the automation of interpersonal connection that explains the answers to the very questions that people ultimately care about.
Writing is nothing more than the distillation of a lot of ideas to provide an informative perspective. As social media continues to drive our communication, I think it is more important than ever that we not lose sight of the fact that even the most sophisticated emoji will never explain a perspective, nor will 'liking' somebody else's work ever be as valuable as sharing our own. To enhance our digital and physical communities, we need more people to contribute their unique perspectives on the issues that they find most important. Only then will we fully appreciate the importance of thoughtful and original communication in a digital world.