literacy

Literacy and language: two different concepts

The academics are in for a treat. Or maybe not: I bet they’ve paid for the biggest golden retrievers they could find for their grand daughters, and well, with this inflation thing, it’s come at considerable cost the affection you’re supposed to show in gestures instead of cuddling or whatever it is that kids are assimilating these days. One of the most interesting pages on the newly nicknamed “hellsite” was (still is; have faith) “Thoughts of Dog“.

So, basically, of course I have to say that I have a Linguistics background, and I have a faint memory of addressing the whole issue of what that means in America and what it means here (TL;DR: computer languages began to be considered languages like any other, including natural, sign, etc.), but my way of explaining it is that the dog tweets in his or her own rhythm, making pauses marked by dots — and I think the dots are fucking hilarious. But I mean, you have to look at this stuff to understand. The example below was the latest I could find, and it didn’t disappoint me — it made me smile, then laugh, then almost cry.

Dogs have Twitter accounts! Call the Armed Forces!

The account has nearly 4 million followers, and this tweet, by the time I screenshotted it (I hope the FBI doesn’t knock on my door), had nearly 58 thousand likes. And no, I’m not even barely interested in how that translates into all these things people keep shoving into our feeds: “conversion rates”, “engagement metrics”, “analytics”, “marketing strategy” or whatever the hell they wanna write in capital letters to make people feel stupid. It’s a great account. I hope they’re making good use of the money, and honestly, if they’re drinking champagne every night, I don’t fucking care. Amazing stuff.

But then I come into another point. First, you might have noticed that I’m using what some people call “lewd”, “explicit”, “vile” or “inappropriate” language. If that’s you, door is open. For you to leave, just to be clear. Notice how we don’t need articles anymore? “The door is open for you to leave”: that’s a grammatically correct sentence; but awfully rude, isn’t it?

Well, here we are, in 2022, debating whether or not “fucking” has become a mainstream word. Give me a freaking break. And I won’t explore the semantics of “vile” or “explicit”; I’ll actually point out there’s nothing “lewd” about it; that’s completely different and if you want a word salad go run your experiment with whoever’s on the news now talking about innovation. The important thing to remember here is: even grammar is changing; pronunciation always does; with some solid argumentation, you could say rules are temporary and also apply to context. But hey, I’m not a lawyer. You see… I just wanted to say: idfc.

There you go, no caps. Guess who’s categorizing this as what previous linguistic research labelled as “acronym”, which was carefully differentiated from “abbreviation”, but nevertheless still referred to as “short for” the feeling I expressed about how people make money on social media — as long as it’s good content. I could go on, you could jump in, but here’s what I really wanna talk about: literacy.

What is literacy?

I’m not really the best in the field. The concept of literacy in the Brazilian context probably started to take more of a solid shape when prominent educator Paulo Freire started his writings, witnessing levels of education in the country that needed to be improved so that a wide group of people could be properly included in civil society.

Not knowing how to read and write was that divide; but the author didn’t just write, he spent a life trying to tackle issues and even served in office (as Secretary of Education in our biggest city, São Paulo). Knowing a range of Brazilian audiences, it’s predictable enough that someone would point a controversy: why did he go to São Paulo instead of keeping his work in the under-privileged areas of Brazil? But well, maybe these people haven’t read him. He addresses that sort of “dilemma” in his work “Pedagogy of Hope” (on Amazon, if you’re from abroad), and I remember it because it made me nod and sigh and whisper to myself: “yeah… that’s the whole thing: people think we’re trying to be better, but they always seem to ignore how we’re aiming a better society as a goal”.

I know it’s a wild shift, but consider Facebook. Did it contribute to a better society? That’s a high-school debate, I guess. And really, I’m just guessing — I have no idea what high-schools debate these days, and honestly, I have to point out it depends where and if it costs to study there. Notice that I’m not even touching on the issue of investment bringing actual numbers. I could just start rambling about Joe Biden; I won’t. Primarily, because I feel like I can’t; but most of all, because despite how annoying the ranting gets, you can rest assured you’ll learn something new.

So, back to Facebook: it sounds reasonable to say the approach would be better received if we touched upon the history of media. But isn’t that, like, boring? And at the risk of sounding like one of those very carefully scrutinized figures the dating apps and nobody else decided to call “moderates”, aren’t we supposed to address to policy violations, the rampant toxicity in speech and even the concept of polarization and what everyone decided to call “fake news”? There we have it: this is all literacy.

Fake stories didn’t make a first appearance when Donald Trump decided to turn to Jim Acosta and call the network he worked for “fake news”. If you want me to be really boring, I’ll have to get back to you when I find out whatever the hell happened with what people call the “dot com burst”. And no, I haven’t read the wiki — yet, or maybe I just forgot.

Is Wikipedia literacy? Yes. It’s actually knowledge, but to be more accurate, you’d have to say it’s a network where people across the globe have contributed and are still doing so with entries for a very burdensome task of creating a version of the old physical encyclopedias, but somehow more or less susceptible to bias.

Is “bias” a concept in literacy? Yes. But “trust” isn’t. Trust is a concept in life. Bias, because of its media interpretation and considerable, undeniable influence, is tendency to favor someone, often marked by strong language, as opposed to something we should probably know about. And that latter one is my best definition of literacy. So in case you’re wondering, it’s very personal — just like bias, and you can scream all you want.

Going further, it’s “relevant”, today, to know what the biggest apps in the world are. Why? Because communication turned to the digital media massively and rapidly, especially with the introduction of smartphones in global marketplaces. The rules weren’t designed yet; the products were. Here alone, we have much debate in the future.

The example from Twitter is just a funny joke, right? Well, okay. But it’s a funny joke that you probably won’t get if you haven’t spent enough time on the platform, witnessed how communication changed within it, and maybe participated — willingly or not — in some of the biggest interactions people were having. It was too crazy for some people, who preferred other kinds of communication, platform, people. At the beginning, Twitter was all about a short text. For the less well-read (excuse me, I don’t mean to offend), the 140 character format was specifically that because the same length was the maximum for SMS.

Things have changed a bit. It’s going to be very exhausting to talk about image, video, intersect the whole debate with copyright and user behavior, the question of verification, media roles and map out the entire geopolitics of Twitter while speaking an arbitrarily chosen language; but yeah, we have Spaces, for example.

Live conversation, that being speech, on the platform — you can just join and listen, if one of the people you follow is hosting one of those. I personally like it, but this was an evolution from a certain kind of response to both a culture of image, a perhaps separate culture of video, and also long reads that nobody could stand anymore. Communication needed to find new ways to improve. And so came the podcasts. But did we forget about videocalls? No, we certainly did not… and then the concept of “literacy” becomes oddly mixed with “experience”, all in a considerably short timeframe.

Thoughts of Dog is a funny page — for some. A lot of people won’t get it; but maybe, eventually they will. That they don’t laugh at the tweet if you show it to them doesn’t mean that 1) they’re stupid; 2) they don’t like dogs; 3) they have something against Twitter, and so on. It just means they couldn’t grasp it at that moment, or maybe that their attention was focused on something else. Maybe they’d think: “wait, someone made an account pretending to be a dog?” — nothing to worry about. But there are many cases where you probably would, as impersonation has been making headlines.

Still, we have a factor to consider: language is organized. Mechanisms we use to convey information, emotion, perception, opinion or any other range of things you may want to classify: these mechanisms are structured. You see an image on the screen, but you also know, hopefully, that there are many kinds of image formats. Some people don’t — or at least they would have a hard time talking about it. In that area, we need to be more careful.

In terms of what language has to offer, we can surely hope for some more laughs. More bonds, more positive connections. But as I pointed out in the beginning, “language” is now a very broad term. And specific areas actually use the word “terminology”. There’s the language of health, the language of finance, the language of music, the language of design, and so on.

English is a language that a great number of people at least attempt to speak well enough. But what happens if you don’t speak it, and you also don’t know what the biggest apps in the world are? Then, what happens when you try to speak, but you’re seemingly unable to make yourself understood? This isn’t about literacy; it’s about empathy. And by correlating concepts that we learned to describe accurately enough, we absolutely can and should make more people participate in civil society effectively and in more meaningful ways — even if they don’t know how to build a platform, or they can’t tell what’s so funny about the dog on freaking Twitter.

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