Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Thumbs rule

The thumb’s first moment of triumph was when the opposable thumb proved its worth. The difference between those who could grasp and those who couldn’t sent human beings on a fast track to invention. We haven’t stopped since and the thumb has been with us all the way. It pointed up and down for the Romans. It helped us thumb through a book fast. It proposed rules of thumb that might not be exact but would get us started. And today it has brought a whole new way of communicating to life. When I wrote the sisomo book I talked about people starting to talk with their thumbs. Back then texting was in its infancy but you could already sense the potential. Two trillion text messages later (that’s the current annual number) you have to wonder why people still get antsy about all the tricks users resort to to get their messages through as simply and as fast as possible. Abbreviations, code-like acronyms, extreme punctuation or no punctuation at all. I love the creativity and invention of it all but I do empathize with those who have come through an education system obsessed by spelling. If you talk to a linguist about the rights and wrongs of thumbspeak you’ll get a surprise. They assert that most people who tap out CU L8R on their phones do in fact know how to spell and that the couple of trillion messages they send are too small a fraction of our global communications to worry about. That puts it into perspective, right? Who cares about two trillion? The objection to thumbspeak turns out to be more emotional than functional. People who have been taught to write one way don’t like their rules to be ignored by the next generation. What a surprise. Wait until texting is increasingly integrated with visuals and sound and a whole new wave of vocabulary and shortcuts sweep over us. It’s going to be GR8.

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