Tweeting the Next Great American Novel

The Influence of Social Media on College Writing

By Kathleen Lamanna

The incoming class of college freshmen can likely not remember a world without smartphones. The technological boom that has engulfed our culture has produced a society of thinkers who are dependent on social media outlets. 

The technological advances that have been adapted for popular use within the last several decades have allowed the formation of social media outlets to blossom in today’s culture. The pervasiveness of Facebook and Twitter has caused some controversy among students and educators, as well as the wider public. While some believe that social media hinders one’s thoughts and ability of expression, others believe the opposite. Linda Lohn, professor of English at Wells College, has strong views about the negative components of social media, claiming that “the character limitation creates short, perfunctory communication that eliminates reflection, metacognition, and informed opinions.” Lohn suggests that Twitter encourages “grocery list” style writing. 

However, these “grocery list” burst of thoughts may have a purpose in the world of literature.  

Twitter, for example, allows users to compose “tweets” in 140 characters or less. This allows for the expression of thoughts and emotions in brief bursts. This form of communication has the unfortunate side effect of encouraging poor grammar and unconventional  spelling. However, is it possible that Twitter and other social media outlets are actually encouraging the creative process, thus breeding a generation of writers? 

I say yes. And so do many others. 

Before the age of email and Facebook, there were far fewer opportunities for the average person to make their written self-expression accessible to a vast audience of friends, acquaintances, and anonymous readers, such as social media provides. If people were not professional writers, the opportunities for written expression were pretty well limited to writing individual letters or entries in a private journal. With the development of social media, anyone with a computer and internet access is able to write expressive quips about their day to share with an expansive community of followers. This writing can be (and often is) predominantly juvenile, but it is writing nonetheless. In a 2013 Journal of Higher Education article by Stefani R. Relles and William G. Tierney, entitled “Understanding the Writing Habits of Tomorrow’s Students: Technology and College Readiness,” the idea that “each profile signifies the way its author chooses to represent himself or herself online” allows for the realization that “all profiles are identity arguments.” 

According to Twitter’s website, a tweet is “an expression of a moment of idea.” The 271 million active users of Twitter produce 500 million tweets per day. But how does this transfer into the field of literature?

Relles and Tierney argue that “writing in online environments develops the same argumentative skills used to compose college papers.” They support this claim through the New Literacies Theory, which advances the idea that students are able to create a more meaningful thesis because they are acclimated to writing for an audience on social media. This idea can easily transfer from collegiate writing to producing more advanced creative works. 

Bruce Bennett, emeritus professor of English at Wells College, has been able to see first-hand the effect that social media and the texting revolution have had on student writing. Bennett believes that technology has made students more acclimated to writing, allowing for a more natural and authentic product. “It occurred to me fairly early on,” said Bennett, “that they [students] have enjoyed writing personal essays and write them fluently because they were already writing regularly to one another on email.” 

Social media has influenced writing even on the professional level. In an interview between Mashable and actor/producer/writer B.J. Novak, Novak discussed the multiple literary benefits of having a strong community through social media. “When you write on social media, there’s an audience,” stated Novak. “I think there’s a chance we’ll have a better generation of writers than we’ve ever had because of the social media age.” 

Yes, social media may be a breeding ground for bad grammar and poorly researched, barely intellectual arguments. However, social media encourages expression. It allows people to write without consequences (or at least without academic restrictions). Users are able to compose freely, discovering their own voice and developing an ease to their writing. Although the next great American novel may not be a series of tweets, it will undoubtedly be influenced by Twitter. Social media produces the confidence needed to sit down and craft an original, artful, creative piece of written work.

Kathleen Lamanna is a senior at Wells College majoring in English with a focus in creative writing and a minor in history. Wells College is home to the Xi of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.