Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World

Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World

Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World

Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World


In Always On, Naomi S. Baron reveals that online and mobile technologies--including instant messaging, cell phones, multitasking, Facebooks, blogs, and wikis--are profoundly influencing how we read and write, speak and listen, but not in the ways we might suppose. Baron draws on a decade of research to provide an eye-opening look at language in an online and mobile world. She reveals for instance that email, IM, and text messaging have had surprisingly little impact on student writing. Electronic media has magnified the laid-back "whatever" attitude towardformal writing that young people everywhere have embraced, but it is not a cause of it. A more troubling trend, according to Baron, is the myriad ways in which we block incoming IMs, camouflage ourselves on Facebook, and use ring tones or caller ID to screen incoming calls on our mobile phones. Ourability to decide who to talk to, she argues, is likely to be among the most lasting influences that information technology has upon the ways we communicate with one another. Moreover, as more and more people are "always on" one technology or another--whether communicating, working, or just surfingthe web or playing games--we have to ask what kind of people do we become, as individuals and as family members or friends, if the relationships we form must increasingly compete for our attention with digital media? Our 300-year-old written culture is on the verge of redefinition, Baron notes. It's up to us to determine how and when we use language technologies, and to weigh the personal and social benefits--and costs--of being "always on." This engaging and lucidly-crafted book gives us the tools for takingon these challenges.


When Samuel Johnson first set about writing his landmark Dictionary of the English Language, he somewhat naïvely believed his task to be setting down, for generations to come, the composition of the English lexicon. More than a decade later, when the long-awaited volumes appeared, Johnson acknowledged his initial folly. In the famous Preface of 1755, he explained that word meanings evolve over time and that the pronunciations of these words do as well. A lexicographer, he wrote, should

be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has
preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his
dictionary can embalm language.

When it came to recording pronunciation, once and for all, Johnson was equally adamant about the futility of the task:

sounds are too volatile and subtile [sic] for legal restraints; to enchain
syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride.

In writing this book, I have felt comparable frustration in attempting to characterize a phenomenon in flux. This time the challenge is not words but technologies and the systems we build upon them for communicating with one another. Those technologies include personal computers and mobile phones, and the systems have such names as email, instant messaging (IM), Facebook, and blogs. An article on IM published in 1998 now reads like quaint history. Statistics collected six months ago are likely out of date.

That said, like Johnson, I am interested in language over the long haul. Terminology (like “social networking sites”) may evolve, but the character of the language (or language platforms) has greater shelf life. New forms arise . . .

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