I like to imagine that many mouths dropped when the news broke back in 2011. A sacred institution had been vandalized. Foreign agents had slipped under the radar and left their mark.

Who was to blame? Liberals? Cyber hackers? Young people? Most importantly, how could the damage ever be undone?

What happened?

March 24, 2011: “LOL” and “OMG” were added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Somehow, these three letter internet acronyms had “officially” joined the ranks of our prestigious English language. What the hell? Acronyms… words that were made up of other words that were already in the dictionary. Seriously, what the hell?

This story highlights a common occurrence with language and communication in the digital age. Simply put, our language continues to evolve and change. New words are “officially” added each year, and countless more are introduced in the form of cultural/group slang. You might be wondering why I’m using quotes around “official” and “officially” – to be honest, I’m not sure if any word gets a concrete induction into a language. I’ve always thought of language as a fluid social construct that is relative in nature, but that’s a debate for another day.

My point with all this is simple: in our world of digital technology, we have seen a change in the way we communicate. Not only are the very words changing, the means and contexts we use them in are changing as well. The internet and social media have created an entire new world of communication for us to shape and explore. Computers have bridged global communication gaps. Digital text has even challenged the necessity for handwriting. All of this change has been a mixed blessing. Some people see the promise of a better future with better technology, while others question how much we’re giving up.

Some individuals even point to examples like the one above as proof that our communication is diminishing. Children are no longer learning to write in cursive. Teenagers are forgoing face-to-face socializing in favor of online encounters. College graduates are entering a job market that demands greater communication skills than they possess. In light of all of this, it’s easy to assume that email, social media, and texting are “dumbing down” the way we communicative, especially when it comes to talking.

So, is talk quickly becoming irrelevant in this digital age?

The Origin Of Talk

Without giving you a semester’s worth of historical context regarding communication, it’s helpful to know how talk, listening, writing, and reading have played important roles in history. That way, you can get a sense of how our communication has evolved over the years. For example, did you know reading and writing are human inventions?

Okay, you probably knew that. If you didn’t, then congratulations, you have a fun fact to share with the family.

It’s pretty obvious that oral communication came before written communication, but it’s important to think about this implication. Different cultures developed different symbolic representations of language at different times. The earliest forms of writing included pictographs, representational stones, cave art, etc. The form of writing we’re most familiar with (i.e. alphabets, words, phrases, etc) is a relatively recent invention that had a long development lifecycle.

Before we had any of this, we only had the spoken word. Everything that a culture had to pass down, including traditions, beliefs, and knowledge, had to be communicated orally. Stories, fables, songs, poems, and other creative forms of oral communication became historical records.

It’s safe to assume that the ability to speak effectively was an important skill to learn in these times. Today, many cultures still pass their histories and knowledge through these same means. Even the technologically advanced cultures retain a degree of oral tradition. If you don’t believe me, just think about how you learned your ABCs.

The Role Of Writing

Many agree that the invention of written language was a revolutionary point in humanity’s history. With the ability to write came the ability to keep permanent, concrete records. Writing allowed people to communicate across greater distances without the message becoming lost or distorted. In some cases, is completely revolutionized how a culture operated. The invention of writing is also part of the reason we have a rather extensive historical record of this world today.

Sadly, the invention of writing wasn’t for everyone.

Literally, the knowledge on how to read and write has been historically reserved for a select few. For example this is one of the reasons why we have the written Bible. Many historians believe that writing gave religious figures the ability to maintain control over the interpretation of certain religious beliefs. Followers who were unable to read the Bible therefore had to rely on the spoken word of the religious figures who could read.

Historically, the ability to read and write was reserved for people in power; those who could afford teachers to teach these skills; and other lucky individuals. As a result, this meant that writing was a tool of power. Information that could be put down to paper was only accessible and could only be controlled by the people who possessed these writing communication skills.

It wasn’t until the industrial age that writing became more commonplace. When technology got to the place where writing text was more easy and accessible to the common masses, the demands for reading and writing skills naturally increased.

The Imbalance Of Writing & Talk

Today, with digital technology and social media in particular, it can be easy to assume that writing has taken the place of talking. This can be especially true when you think about the capabilities modern technology has given us.

For example, think about how email has change the world. If you were alive before the internet, you might remember a time growing up when having a penpal was a unique experience. To be able to talk to someone across the world and get a perspective that was completely different from your own was an exciting moment. You just had to wait several months for your letter to get there, for your penpal to write a response letter, and for the penpal’s letter to get back to you.

This unique childhood experience would be foreign to children today. Email has given us the ability to reach virtually anyone across the globe almost instantaneously. If you think about all the other text-based communication mediums, it becomes clear that technology has increased the range of our written word.

So does this mean that technology has made spoken communication obsolete? After all, writing itself made talking more obsolete by allowing communication to exist longer in a more accurate state. Is it therefore logical to assume that the internet, email, and social media have also made talking more obsolete?

To say this is true would mean ignoring one important fact in history: technology has also enhanced oral communication. For example, the invention of the radio did the same thing for oral communication that writing did for communication itself. Radio gave us the ability to speak louder and farther than was possible before. The invention of audio recording devices allowed our words to exist much longer than before.

Essentially, the technological advancements of the 20th century not only enhanced both written and oral communication, it also balanced them out. So what has the invention of the computer and the internet in the 21st century done to communication today?

Digital Technology & Oral Communication

Does technology favor the written word? If you had asked this question ten years ago, the answer would have undoubtedly been “yes”. Both the computer and the internet started as textual technologies. Graphics were only a theoretical dream when the first computers rolled out.

Today, however, we’ve been exposed to greater technological offerings. While the multimedia capabilities of the internet have only recently included audio and video, these capabilities have quickly changed how people are using technology. The prevelance of recorded oral communication is clear. Consider the following statistics on YouTube from 2014:

  • 1 Billion Youtube Users
  • 4 Billion video views a day
    • 1 Billion mobile views per day
  • 100 hours of video uploaded per minute

YouTube is a good example because of its popularity and prevalent use, as well as for the milestone it represents for technology. Our multimedia capabilities have brought face-to-face communication to the digital world. For example, another popular program known as Skype has finally bridged the gap between telephones and face-to-face communication. In other words, we can now communicate at the same distances that we’ve been able to through telephones, while still maintaining the depth of communication we get from face-to-face talk.

These are just two examples of the growing capabilities that digital technology has to offer oral communication. Essentially, digital technology has enhanced both written and oral communication to the point where they are almost inseparable in our daily use. For both written and oral communication, this technology has increased the power users have over their communication. This technology has increased user control, as well as the quantity and quality of voices that contribute to the digital marketplace of ideas.

Why Does This All Matter?

Given these examples and our daily experience with these technologies, it is safe to say that talk does still matter in our digital age. This doesn’t address one last question however: why does all this really matter?

The answer to this question is simple. There is a major difference between the capabilities technology gives us, and how well we can use these capabilities. In the case of talk, the enhanced and extended capabilities that the internet allows today doesn’t ensure that the quality of our communication is also enhanced. We still need good communication skills in order to have good communication.

Technology might enhance our communication by increasing the range and the permanence of our talk, but it will do little good if we don’t know how to communicate effectively. This is an example of how technology is neutral. Technology can be used for good or evil, better or worse, effectively or ineffectively – the thing that really determines the difference is the user.

Since it’s clear that these multimedia technologies are here to stay for a while, we need to recognize the demand for better communication skills. Right now, communication demands are growing in the workforce and in our personal lives. As I said before, college graduates are entering the job market where their communication skills are failing to meet professional communicative demands.

This means that talk matters more than ever. We can no longer assume that our natural communication skills are enough. This is especially true when the numbers and the statistics suggest otherwise. This is exceptionally true when our own experiences also beg to differ. As a result, we need to make sure our education (professional and personal) is meeting the demands of our ultra-communicative world.

There you have it. Does talk still matter in this digital world? Hopefully, you can see by now that the answer is a resounding “yes”.

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