We are all regressing. And I have proof from an authoritative source: the state of children’s books.
The underlying reasons lie in the digital means by which we communicate, forcing increased — and often unreasonable — expectations of speed and brevity, no matter how complicated the concept.
My evidence for declaring this probable cause and effect? It’s threefold.
1) Twitter, Facebook and text messaging. At last estimate, Facebook had more than one billion users worldwide. Twitter, as of last summer, had 500 million active users. For Twitter that added up to a 2012 daily average of 400 million 140-character tweets, and for Facebook, more than 2.5 billion brief items shared. That doesn’t include the billions upon billions of text messages sent every year using a mobile technology that turned 20 in December and, by design, is limited to 160 characters.
Debate the usage numbers, but not the impact. After two decades in the wild, SMS might as well stand for Short Mental Span. It doesn’t help that Twitter, in building upon that standard, has made us all bird-brained.
2) PowerPoint. Much has been written about this Microsoft-spawned scourge of thoughtful narrative and analysis. It was even blamed by an investigating board as a contributing factor in the space shuttle Columbia disaster, as a PowerPoint-presented NASA report minimized the danger of possible wing damage. But in the decade since that report and criticism, PowerPoint has nothing but gained in use and influence though, as information theorist Edward Tufte wrote then, a typical PowerPoint slide contained 40 words, or about eight seconds of reading.
I’ve seen signs of this degradation of detail and nuance in comments from some of my own consulting clients who appear surprised I’d go through the trouble of preparing an actual written report instead of an easily created and consumed presentation. As one business blog recently put it, the ugly truth is “PowerPoint is (now) used like Word.” Only, apparently, without the investment in content or thought.
3) Blog posts. The third factor is the predominant literary form of the digital age: the blog. Or, specifically, the numbered blog post. Like this one. (Part of the problem? Guilty.) These compendiums of really short items proliferate because they are excellent “link bait.”
God help us, we like lists. We click on links leading to lists. We share lists. Leading to lots of numbered blog posts about creating numbered blog posts (including a rather telling reason number three, “lists are easy to write”), and counter-posts decrying — even making fun of — the practice. As one on list-happy humor site Cracked.com notes, “The idea behind numbered lists is to give all the endpoints of a well formulated argument, without having to form one.” Plus, each item is mercifully brief, reducing cognitive demand.
(Thus ends item #3 of this blog post. )
Now, let’s look at another data point: children’s books are selling well compared to other paper book genres. Very well.
New Nielsen BookScan data shows while overall unit sales of printed books dropped nine percent in 2012, two relative bright spots were children’s, or “juvenile,” non-fiction — up 5.4% — and children’s fiction, dropping a mere two percent. And children’s book sales over the holidays were strong. It was an observation backed up by a visit I made to Magnolia’s Bookstore in Seattle, which saw healthy sales of kidlit. Children’s titles, staff told me, were up slightly, and young adult fare — such as Harry Potter, Twilight, the Hunger Games and similar titles — were up a lot.
Is it any wonder noted actress Emma Thompson just committed her writing talents not to an novel or self-help tome — but to the first authorized new volume in the classic Peter Rabbit series?
So what’s the endpoint to this argument?
First, consider the average word length in English is 5.1 letters — a number, perhaps not coincidentally, that had been increasing since the 19th century and began shrinking at the end of the 20th.
Second, consider that the average sentence length is 8-10 words for fiction in a children’s book aimed at second-grade students.
Finally, consider the 140-character tweet. Fit into it the declining average word length combined with the average second-grade children’s book sentence length. You’ve got about three sentences. Which is right in the range of the number of sentences per page in easy readers aimed at six-to-eight year olds, such as those popular children’s books.
So let’s all join together and thank social media and digital communications for doing something philosophers have been advising us to embrace for centuries: retaining a child’s view of the world. Or at least in this case, of the word.
Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He tweets @FrankCatalano and consults as Intrinsic Strategy. He always buys one children’s book for his wife at Christmas, but as a playful gesture, not an indicator that it’s all she can read.