Social Media Mythbusters

Along with sound and witty advice about how to write well in the workplace, the Third Edition of Business Writing: What Works, What Won’t busts a few myths about social media . . .

MYTH: Social media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) have contributed to the erosion of writing skills today—in schools and in the workplace.

Not so fast—please. As experts as well as John Q. Public debate the cause of declining writing skills of those entering and those already in the workplace, several are quick to blame this generation’s shift to social media, among other reasons:

Some agree with me that there is no cause and effect here. For centuries, the older generation has faulted the younger for its careless ways. The inability to write well preceded the advent of social media.

As noted author Anna Quindlen said, “The age of technology has both revived the use of writing and provided even more reasons for its spiritual solace. Emails are letters, after all, more lasting than phone calls, even if many of them r 2 cursory for u.”

MYTH: Not much good can be said about social media today or its place in business writing.

Are you serious? Mobile devices have become legitimate platforms for conducting business. First, social media invites interaction between customers and companies and between workers whose geographies make it difficult to communicate in any other way. For small businesses with limited budgets, using social media offers an affordable way to reach and engage customers. And large companies can become more relatable to customers.

Second, social media offers more people than ever the opportunity to communicate—and that, in turn, provides plenty of writing practice! After all, you learn to write by writing.

Third, social media encourages concise and clear communication of ideas and facts. Texting and the challenge of a 140-character limit forces writers to compress. They must learn to make their point quickly. Again, getting to the point quickly is essential to business writing. How can that be bad?

And, fourth, texting fuels better workplace writing. So many people use it—and it is so easy—that it helps eliminate writer’s block and procrastination in the workplace! Its availability and immediacy can go a long way to achieve business results quickly.

MYTH: Business writers today are getting dumber. And critics say social media is the cause because it devalues meaningful conversation and proper grammar.

Not so! It’s just that with social media, mistakes are more visible for the world to see. But mistakes have been around for a long while. Now, however, they can go viral quickly. That’s not necessarily bad. After all, these mistakes can serve as lessons about what not to do with social media. In fact, online sites exist that mock the errors and publish the mistakes. Thus, we can learn from social media! It has its own watchdogs to guard our language and behavior.

MYTH: Social media encourages bad behavior that will hinder professional opportunities.

Let’s get real. Professionals have long adhered to the so-called New York Times ethical test well before the advent of social media: That is, they behaved in a manner that their mothers would approve of reading about on the front page of the newspaper. Social media doesn’t force people to act involuntarily—they, not social media—bear sole responsibility for what information (Spring Break photos, vulgar language, or bad grammar) they post. Social media does not initiate destructive behavior—it merely communicates it.

MYTH: Formality is essential in business writing and social media corrupts that formality.

Whoa-no! Social media mimics conversation. Not just with friends and family. With business customers as well. The formal memo or proposal absolutely do have rightful places in business writing today—but the current corporate environment has changed from stilted to sensible.

Corporations and customers alike are seeking authenticity and a more conversational style in their written messages. No one has time for long-windedness or overly formal, stale, and tired expressions. The social media platform encourages practice in brevity and using a more write-like-you-talk style. The best writing ought to resemble idealized speech—that is, it ought to capture the rhythm and active sentence structure of conversation while eliminating the ungrammatical nature of some talk.

Of course, sometimes this dichotomy between formality and informality presents a dilemma. How do we serve both in the workplace? As an example, look at today’s intergenerational workplace. A veteran worker may be trapped in a formal model of writing and believe that is what all business writing should be, while the newly minted graduate is all about making the point quickly, informally, and getting results. There’s a delicate balance of the two views – to be formal or not to be formal—to achieve what’s more appropriate in today’s business climate.

MYTH: Correct writing is good writing. Social media isn’t real writing because it is rarely “correct.”

Huh? Correct writing isn’t always good writing. Just because a memo is written correctly doesn’t mean it’s written effectively. Next time you read an email or report, ask yourself: Is it interesting, engaging, concise, logical, easy to follow, and clever in its solution to a workplace issue? “Good” writing is all of these and more.

MYTH: Having more words is better. Thickness counts. Social media doesn’t allow for that.

Thank goodness it doesn’t! The space restraints embedded in social media enable busy professionals the time to sift through many more messages than ever. In business writing, less is more. Precision is valued more than volume. Quantity is not a sign of healthy writing. In academic settings, students bloat their writing to accommodate word-count requirements. But through practice using social media, a business writer can close the gap between counting words and making every word count.