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Review of  Always On

Reviewer: 'Sandra Greiffenstern' ['Sandra Greiffenstern'] Sandra Greiffenstern
Book Title: Always On
Book Author: Naomi S Baron
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Book Announcement: 19.2647

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AUTHOR: Naomi S. Baron
TITLE: Always On
SUBTITLE: Language in an Online and Mobile World
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2008

Sandra Greiffenstern, Humboldt-Universität, Berlin

In the preface of this book, Naomi Baron explains that she wants to understand
the synergy between technology and language and today's language usage in the
larger cultural context of literacy and the print culture that emerged in the
English-speaking world by the eighteenth century. Her focus is on
electronically-based language and the question if it alters linguistic norms and
language usage. If it does, she wants to understand the nature of these changes
and their impact on social life and linguistic usage.

The book's intended audiences are – in Baron's words – ''people curious about the
Internet and mobile phones, teachers and parents trying to get a fix on the
likes of IM and blogging, students of new media, linguists seeking a scholarly
analysis of online language'' (p. 10). Baron provides a lot of historical and
also more recent background information, e. g., about the emergence of blogs or
Facebook. Moreover, she presents several studies. All these studies were
conducted with college students in the USA, so their results should neither be
applied to people elsewhere nor to different age cohorts, as Baron states
herself. Furthermore, due to the relatively small samples and the way they were
chosen, she wants those studies to be seen as pilot tests.

The first chapter, ''Email to Your Brain – Language in an Online and Mobile
World'', deals with the domestication of email and other forms of electronic
communication, i. e., with the way they become embedded in our everyday
practices. The main question posed in this chapter is: ''How does our language
evolve, along with changes in the way we interact with other people, as
communication technologies become increasingly domesticated?'' (p. 4).

For Baron, one of the main effects is the growing ability to control when we
interact and with whom. Another effect Baron sees is the amount of writing
people nowadays do and the possible consequences this new quantity may have on
the quality of writing. Replacing spoken interaction with writing could change
the quality of writing. A third effect of this domestication which Baron sees is
what she calls ''the end of anticipation'': due to new technologies, people
communicate more often and no longer have to wait to meet face-to-face to tell
each other news.

In chapter 2, ''Language Online – The Basics'', different forms of electronic
communication and the related terminology are introduced. These forms of
communication are divided into different categories according to the following
characteristics: asynchronous and synchronous; one-to-one and one-to-many. In
the resulting four groups we find email, text messaging, instant messaging (IM),
newsgroups, listservs, blogs, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, computer conferencing,
MUDs and MOOs, chat, and Second Life. Baron presents those forms of or
applications for electronically-mediated communication and explains their
functions. Then she gives an overview of recent statistics dealing with internet
access, mobile phones and the usage of electronic communication.

In chapter 3, ''Controlling the Volume – Everyone a Language Czar'', Baron
introduces a metaphor to describe and analyze technologies and techniques for
manipulating conversations: the volume control on a radio or television.
According to this metaphor, people turn up the volume when, for example, they
check their email or are available on IM. They turn down the volume when, for
example, they ignore an incoming call on their mobile phone or block someone on
IM. Another important aspect in connection with electronically-mediated
communication and with 'volume control' is multitasking; in this case 'cognitive
multitasking'. Nowadays, many people engaged in electronically-mediated
communication multitask, for example, they answer a phone call while being in an
instant messaging conversation. This can affect cognitive performance,
especially when two similar activities are concerned. Moreover, it is another
way of controlling the volume as people prioritize their communicative activities.

In chapter 4, ''Are Instant Messages Speech? – The World of IM'', Baron looks at
the instant messaging habits of American college students. The
speech-versus-writing question, which often plays a role when analyzing
electronically-mediated communication, serves as framework for the analysis, in
which gender turns up as an additional variable. The chapter contains a rather
detailed analysis of the language used in instant messaging, and Baron comes to
the conclusion that instant messages are not speech although they contain
speech-like elements and we generally speak of IM conversations and not IM letters.

Chapter 5, ''My Best Day – Managing 'Buddies' and 'Friends''', deals with away
messages on IM and with Facebook. It contains a small study of away messages
which shows the different functions such messages have, as for most IM users
they are not just messages to indicate that they are not at their computer. They
are described as a form of ''onstage'' behavior in contrast to IM messages as
''backstage'' activity. People use away messages to present a certain picture of
themselves, for example, regarding their social activities, or to convey
messages to friends, to entertain them, to filter whose message they answer
without hurting anyone's feelings, or to inform about the mood they are in. In
the second part of the chapter, the features of Facebook are described, and then
instant messaging and Facebook are compared with regard to their usership, ways
to publish information about oneself, social affiliations, possible ways of
interaction, privacy, and attitudes towards access.

Chapter 6, ''Having Your Say – Blogs and Beyond'', takes a look at blogs, YouTube,
and Wikipedia beginning with a historical perspective in which they are
presented as further developments of speakers' corners, letters to the editors
of newspapers, and talk radio. According to the analysis in this chapter, people
write and read blogs for several reasons. They see it as a form of
entertainment. They read them for educational reasons, or write them to have a
platform for free speech. Some read and write blogs because they feel lonely and
need companionship. The chapter concludes with the statement that all three
kinds of platforms or applications – blogs, YouTube, and Wikipedia – give people
the opportunity to have their say, to express themselves and participate, and
that this opportunity builds on historical precedents.

Chapter 7, ''Going Mobile – Cell Phones in Context'', deals with mobile phones and
compares mobile phone use in different countries. Attitudes towards mobile
phones differ from country to country as Baron shows in a comparison of the USA
and Japan. She also shows different attitudes towards text messaging, which is
far more popular in Europe and other parts of the world than the USA, where
instant messaging is used more extensively. In a small pilot study of mobile
phone use among US college students, Baron poses the questions if they use their
mobile phones rather to talk or to text message, if they use them to fill dead
time or for emergency purposes, and in how far usage patterns differ across age
and gender. Moreover, she looks at aspects like decorating phones and at
attitudes towards the appropriateness of talking on the phone in public, and of
answering a call while talking face-to-face with someone else. In a second pilot
study, she compares text messaging and instant messaging with a focus on their
linguistic features.

In chapter 8, '''Whatever' – Is the Internet Destroying Language?'', Baron takes a
look at notions of language change and language decline in relation to
electronically-mediated communication. As Baron puts it, there is ''active
disquietude about English language standards'' (p. 162), and as one scapegoat for
language change electronically-mediated language is named. It is assumed that
due to emailing, instant messaging, and text messaging young people use more
degraded language which they then use in other writings, e. g., school
assignments, too. There seems to be an international perception that computers
and the Internet affect everyday language in a negative way. Based on the
results of her studies, Baron concludes that ''electronic language is at most a
very minor dialect variation'' (p. 163). In this chapter, Baron also examines the
question if electronically-mediated communication is a linguistic free-for-all,
or if there are shared rules that users either follow or violate. Baron traces
current changes in language back to an increasing informal behavior which she
finds in US society. In her opinion, the speed in which written language is
produced today and a ''whatever'' approach towards language rules are the main
reasons for the sloppy style which can often be found in written language today,
while computers and the Internet, in her eyes, only magnify the ongoing trends.
She concludes the chapter by pointing out that the Internet does not destroy
language: ''If you look at the effects - direct or otherwise - on traditional
language, the case is highly tenuous'' (p. 180). She does not see many effects on
written language and even fewer on speech.

Chapter 9, ''Gresham's Ghost - Challenges to Written Culture'', looks at current
changes in written culture which were fostered by new technologies. People today
often write emails or text messages instead of talking on the phone or
face-to-face, which increases the amount of writing they do. Some, for example,
also write blogs or articles on Wikipedia. This raises the question if these new
forms of writing drive other writing out of circulation and if, for example,
people still buy books if they can obtain the same text on the Internet for
free? The chapter deals with changing attitudes towards books and written texts
in general and with reasons for writing and also reading. Moreover, it looks at
what kind of writing is produced and under which circumstances. While some say
that computers and the Internet fostered an epistolary renaissance because
people write much more today, others point out that this writing is often done
under time pressure and lacks quality.

Chapter 10, ''The People We Become - The Cost of Being Always On'', deals with the
effects of being ''always on'' in a networked and mobile world. They can be
observed regarding personal terms and social interaction as well as ethically
and cognitively. People nowadays publish information about themselves or their
thoughts on the Internet. At the same time the increased amount of communication
and online exchanges can lead to a sense of loneliness. Some use their mobile
phones to talk or text message when they have to walk somewhere alone or wait
for a bus. The Internet seems to have altered some notions of ethical behavior,
too. Many do not hesitate to download the latest music or movie. Moreover, the
spread of computers and the Internet lead to more multitasking. The way some
people see social interactions has changed, too. One example is the way people
seem to collect friends online and list them on websites like Facebook. Many of
them are just acquaintances and sometimes these online friends do not even know
each other in reality nor do they have many exchanges online. Thus, the number
of weak ties is rising but as people spend more time online the number of strong
ties with friends in reality may decrease. Another consequence of
electronically-mediated communication Baron sees is the loss of a sense of
place. You often do not know where your interlocutor is because email addresses
or mobile phone numbers do not indicate his or her whereabouts.

Baron points out that you cannot completely blame new technologies for these
changes and that they are not the only cause of changes in social practices.
People should use modern technology responsibly and keep an eye on possible
linguistic and social side effects. Baron concludes that it is probably too soon
to fully understand the impact of new technologies and electronically-mediated
language because these are rather recent developments.

This book gives an extensive overview of forms of electronically-mediated
communication, of the platforms and applications which foster this communication
and of the consequences it has or might have. Unfortunately, for linguists, who
are familiar with Baron's earlier studies about electronically-mediated
communication, it does not contain many new findings or insights. Baron presents
a lot of background information about online platforms and applications but
sometimes it seems too much. For example, who needs to know about the history
and development of Facebook in detail when most readers' focus probably is on
electronically-mediated language? Linguistic aspects appear to be in the
background, while the sociological effects of computers and the Internet are in
the foreground.

The book is written for people curious about the Internet and mobile phones, and
teachers and parents who want to understand phenomena like instant messaging and
Facebook but I am not sure how much useful information it contains for them. Do
parents want to read why their children might block them on their instant
messaging system sometimes? And who among the intended audiences wants to know,
for example, how many young people decorate their mobile phones? Furthermore,
the book seems to be mainly for an American audience because nearly all the data
and information refer to US college students. Only sometimes there is a more
international perspective. Of course, the attitudes towards and effects of, for
example, instant messaging or mobile phones are interesting topics. At the same
time, Baron points out that these attitudes and effects probably differ from
country to country. Thus, someone interested in such attitudes and effects in
other parts of the world might not find the book very interesting.

I am not sure if some of the effects of electronically-mediated communication
presented are really new and have far-reaching consequences. I am mainly
thinking of some examples of ways how people filter whom they communicate with
and when. Baron mentions the examples of blocking someone on instant messaging
or not answering a call on your mobile phone, where you often can see on the
display who is calling and can even assign different ringtones to different
people. I doubt that this is part of a new phenomenon worth mentioning in such
detail. Before the spread of computers, the Internet, and mobile phones, people
had ways to avoid certain conversations and encounters, too. Baron even
describes some of them herself. People do not answer certain letters, they
ignore someone in the street, do not answer the phone, or use an answering
machine to filter whose call they take. The new ways of avoiding certain
conversations are similar to those already existing. They are not caused by
computers or mobile phones, people have just adjusted their behavior to those
new forms of communication.

When dealing with the changes in social interactions and the shift from
face-to-face interactions to online interactions, I had hoped for the
description of some effects this might have on language use as well. Baron
points out that people are concerned ''that if we are spending more time in
virtual rather than in face-to-face communication, our weak ties may grow but
strong ties shrink'' (p. 222) and describes some of the sociological effects this
might have. But what are the linguistic implications of such a shift? The
relationship between strong and weak ties with language usage and changes in
language have been studied by several linguists, e. g., Milroy (1992) and Labov
(2001). Milroy, for example, stresses the fact that the relative strength of
network ties is a predictor of language use and that strong ties prevent or
impede linguistic change whereas weak ties are more open to external influences
and facilitate linguistic change (cf. Milroy 1992: 176). It might be interesting
to confer these findings to the new situation regarding social ties and language
use and change in connection with electronically-mediated communication.

Baron points out that electronically-mediated language is a rather new
phenomenon and that there are no fixed conventions and rules for its usage yet.
Thus, its effects on everyday language usage cannot be evaluated yet, either
(cf. p. 172). Although these effects cannot be evaluated yet, she states early
on in the book that ''the actual linguistic impact of electronically-mediated
communication was surprisingly small'' (p. 29), but does not give any data to
prove this. Her conclusion seems to be based on the opinions of an expert taking
part in a symposium on language and the Internet some years ago. Later in the
book she comes back to this topic and writes that people tend to blow the scope
of instant messaging or texting language out of proportion and that ''there are
relatively few linguistic novelties specific to electronically-mediated language
that seem to have staying power'' (p. 175). She writes that there are new
abbreviations and acronyms but in her opinion the ''idea that everyone under the
age of twenty-five knows an entire new language is simply poppycock'' (p. 175).
Here, it might be worth noting that Baron changed her mind about the impact of
electronically-mediated communication. In her first studies of
electronically-mediated communication (then called computer-mediated
communication) she wrote: ''When one mode of communication becomes well
publicized or is valued as a source of prestige, that modality can actually
influence the linguistic shape of another modality. And so, for example, norms
appropriate to speech may be adopted in writing, or more to the point, norms
characteristic of computer mediated communication may change generally accepted
standards for spoken or traditionally written language'' (Baron 1984: 123). Now,
more than twenty years later, there are still no fixed rules for
electronically-mediated communication but Baron seems to have changed her mind
about possible effects on language usage. It is probably still impossible to
predict how and to what extent electronically-mediated communication influences
written and spoken language. Baron's arguments from her early studies and those
in this book both sound plausible.

I agree that electronically-mediated communication did not cause a new language
– although Crystal even calls it a ''fourth medium'' (Crystal 2001: 240) – but in
my opinion Baron neglects some changes in language usage today. I am thinking of
the neologisms and new metaphors caused by computers, the Internet and
electronically-mediated language. Crystal points out that many words and phrases
have emerged, which are needed to talk about Internet-restricted situations,
operations, activities, and personnel. He calls this ''one of the most creative
lexical domains in contemporary English'' (Crystal 2004: 84). Others point out
the emergence of new terms and phrases, too (e. g., McCrum et al. 1987, or
Cheater 2006). The permanent presence of computers, the Internet and mobile
phones and thus electronically-mediated communication facilitates new metaphors,
too. Even when using computers, there are metaphors; just think of the desktop
metaphor which helps users work with their computer. As Aitchison points out,
''the computer image has taken over as perhaps the most widely used metaphor,
with phrases such as software, hardware, input, output, flame, spam, and so on,
which have become part of everyday speech'' (Aitchison, 2003: 42).

All in all, the book contains a profound overview of different forms of
electronically-mediated communication and probably serves as good introduction
to the topic for readers interested in electronically-mediated communication and
its social and linguistic effects. But the social effects are obviously in the
foreground, so linguists interested in its effects on language itself might be
disappointed. Moreover, some of the conclusions drawn are debatable. However,
such a debate cannot come to a concluding result yet because
electronically-mediated communication is still in flux and its effects are not
fully foreseeable yet.

Aitchison, Jean. 2003. ''Metaphors, models and language change.'' In Raymond
Hickey (ed.) _Motives for Language Change_. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Baron, Naomi S. 1984. ''Computer Mediated Communication as a Force in Language
Change.'' _Visible Language_ XVIII 2.

Cheater, Angela P. 2006. ''Beyond meatspace – or, Geeking out in e-English.''
_English Today_ 85, Vol. 22, No. 1: 18-28.

Crystal, David. 2001. _Language and the Internet_. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Crystal, David. 2004. _The Language Revolution_. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Labov, William. 2001. _Principles of Linguistic Change, Volume II: Social
Factors_. Malden:

McCrum, Robert, William Carn, and Robert McNeil (eds.). 1987. _The Story of
English_. London/Boston, Faber and Faber.

Milroy, James. 1992. _Linguistic Variation and Change_. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sandra Greiffenstern is a PhD student at the department of English and American
Studies at Humboldt-Universität Berlin. Currently, she is working on her
dissertation which deals with developments in the English language due to the
increasing use of computers and the Internet and looks at the impact
computer-mediated communication has on everyday language use.

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