Evolution of Written Etiquette: A History

Etiquette in written communications evolves just as biological species do. Historically it has happened, perhaps not slowly, but generationally. Changes were reactions to societal views, significant events and, of course, technological changes.

Words constantly become more or less offensive over time as they lose their sharpness from overuse, develop new meanings or are just affected by a change in outlook on different issues. A good example is given in The Most Human Human by Brian Christian. The term “idiot” was once considered very ugly and was, therefore, replaced with the term “retarded” as an attempt at political correctness. Today, however, if a public statement called someone an idiot, it would be rude, but not shocking, while many would demand an apology if its replacement were uttered.

Changes in the technology of the printed word happened fairly slowly throughout most of history and were, perhaps, less a factor than social change with a few prominent exceptions like the invention of the printing press. Until recently the two main effects of modernization were the size of the population who could publish works and the size of the population who could consume published works. Improvements to the printing process lowered costs in time and money of producing books. This put books in the hands of more people and allowed book makers to print a wider variety of material.

The ability to consume written works was transferred from a population of elites to just about everybody who isn’t in poverty or oppressed. What writings were available to each individual varied, but getting your hands on information from others in some form is common. The wealthy or educated elite, like any specific subset of people, are going to have a more homogenous world view than society as a whole. Therefore, as those with access increased, readers became more varied. The number of sensitivities that needed to be heeded grew as overall biases of the audience became less clear. Relative to the producers of published communications, the consuming group grew quickly.

Until the advent of the internet, the ability to have your thoughts published for others to read increased reasonably for elites of all types, but very slowly for the average person. While much easier to get published in the 1980’s than in decades and centuries past, the probability had grown to merely unlikely from practically impossible. From the moment the internet took hold, the ability to be heard grew as fast as that technology became available. It developed into a matter of ease as much as access. These days anyone with an internet connection can produce writings at will which may or may not find an audience, but it is available.

Granted, the population with internet access still excludes large portions of world and biases viewpoints to those with at least a certain level of affluence and from certain geographies, but that bias has been, and continues to be, reduced rapidly. Huge inroads are not being made in generations, but each year. Social media has made it so that, presuming you are a member of the population with access, it is unusual to not publish thoughts at some level.

These many new viewpoint providers are not as experienced in the niceties of public communications as the elites and, therefore, more likely to make mistakes and damage themselves. Additionally, the changing audience and permanence is a challenge to both new and experienced communicators. Perhaps the biggest challenge to all is the immediacy of publication. No editors and no time oriented buffers separate the writer from audience in certain formats. Mistakes are not always caught, and they do not decay or get thrown away like an old newspaper.

Because the environment is changing faster than ever before, evolution of etiquette moves faster as well. The previous experts are no longer well versed in the needs and expectations of the consumer as they once were. In fact, they may find themselves at a greater disadvantage as they think they know the audience when they do not. The ignorant, but self-aware, may have a better viewpoint than the confidently incorrect.

In times past, a few individuals pushed the evolution of publishing forward by blazing new paths. Now millions of trailblazers, most totally unaware of their role, do this. All ages and cultures are represented as well as many, but not all, incomes. At the same time, the increasingly fragmented audience makes feedback harder to interpret and fashion into best practices for these kinds of communications.

As I make observations of new pitfalls, opportunities, rules and freedoms, I will try to point them out and interpret them on this blog. If readers would like to respond with their observations I would be interested in hearing supporting or dissenting viewpoints. As this is appearing on a Tumblr most readers are also writers, so it is something we all have in common.

  1. wsthursday posted this
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