Against Technologization: Young People's New Media Discourse as Creative Cultural Practice



Educators, businesspeople, and journalists–all of them adults–seem very preoccupied nowadays with young people's supposed lack of “good” communication, leading to evaluation of their communication “skills” against standards of appropriateness and usefulness shaped by the needs of the market rather than everyday social and relational needs of communicators. This technologization of communication comes to a head in commentary (read: complaints) about young people's new media discourse, where concerns about “literacy,”“employability,” and “social order” are refracted through adults' often-conflicted feelings about technology. Whether young people are being lauded as ‘wired whizzes' or pilloried as ‘techno-slaves,’ invariably overlooked is the situated, meaningful, and creative nature of their communicative practices–precisely what the papers in this special issue demonstrate.

Against Technologization: Young People's New Media Discourse as Cultural Practice

“Text messaging corrupts all languages.”

The Economist, 24 May 2008

“The English language is being beaten up, civilization is in danger of crumbling.”

The Observer, 7 March 2004

It's not easy being a young user of new communication technologies these days. On the one hand, young people are faced with semiotic merchants like advertisers and marketers telling them that “If you don't have a cell phone, you’re effectively a nonperson.”1 On the other hand, when young people do take up the phone, they are lambasted by journalists and other language workers for destroying English, French, and any other number of languages. And, while they are about the business of corruption, young people are also apparently endangering the very fabric of civilization.

This unpleasant double-bind is something we exposed previously in a critical review of international news reports about young people's new media discourse–their use of language in, for example, e-mails, text messages, and online chat (see Thurlow, 2006, 2007). In this study, we found that public–which is to say, adult–debates about young people's use of new communication technologies are consistently negative and, for the most part, invariably overlook the meaningful, playful, and creative nature of young people's communicative practices. Take the following well-known case in point. On March 3, 2003, the British Daily Telegraph ran a story about an anonymous Scottish teacher who apparently claimed to have received from a 13-year-old pupil a composition supposedly completed entirely in the style of a text message. This is what the original article had to say:

British education experts have warned of the potentially damaging effect on literacy of cellphone text messaging after a student handed in an essay written in text shorthand. The 13-year-old girl, a student in a secondary school in the west of Scotland, explained that she found it ‘easier than standard English’. “I could not believe what I was seeing,” said her teacher, who asked not to be identified. “The page was riddled with hieroglyphics, many of which I simply could not translate.”

A year and a half after this Daily Telegraph article, and following worldwide coverage of the incident, another article (this time in the British Guardian newspaper) appeared under the headline Texting is No Bar to Literacy. In this second article, a segment of the girl's original essay was reported together with a “translation”:

My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2 go 2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3:-@ kds FTF. ILNY, its gr8. Bt my Ps wr so {:-/ BCo 9/11 tht thay dcdd 2 stay in SCO & spnd 2 wks up N. Up N, WUCIWUG–0. I ws vvv brd in MON. 0 bt baas & ^^^^^ .

My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York, it's a great place. But my parents were so worried because of the terrorism attack on September 11 that they decided we would stay in Scotland and spend two weeks up north. Up north, what you see is what you get - nothing. I was extremely bored in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but sheep and mountains.

What remains unclear from this apparently newsworthy incident is whether or not the story was true to begin with. Nor is it certain that the extract quoted by the Guardian was itself genuine. What is certain, however, is that the ensuing moral panic failed completely to address the young girl's original communicative intent or her linguistic (and institutional) awareness. It is not hard to imagine that she knew perfectly well what she was up to–both in terms of playing with language and playing with the teacher. What all subsequent news reports uniformly failed to acknowledge, however, was the undeniable creativity, wit and, indeed, literacy of the girl's piece. Instead, as with the original Daily Telegraph article, articles that ran this story (and there were hundreds of them around the world) chose instead to accept the story at face value and to condemn the incident as an indictment of new media discourse and of young people themselves. Extrapolating wildly from the original news report, this isolated, individual incident quickly became a statement about the “current generation of teenagers” in Britain and elsewhere, and about the deleterious impact of their new media discourse on standard language and on conventional, academic literacies.

This is by no means a consistently applied public critique of new media. When, in August 2008, soon-to-be U.S. President Barack Obama chose to nominate his vice-presidential running mate by sending a text message to journalists and Democratic Party senators and supporters, the media were clearly enchanted by his use of new media and unrestrained in its admiration of his innovative communicative practice. One New York Times journalist characterized the event as follows: “Mr. Obama's use of the newfound medium is the widest use of texting by a presidential candidate in history.” The next morning, an NPR journalist talked about “the most highly anticipated text message in human history” (see Thurlow & Poff, in press, for more on this). At the time of putting this introductory paper together, the U.S. press had been similarly enthralled with the Center for Disease Control's decision to use microblogging (Twitter) to keep the public abreast of the swine flu outbreak. It seems that, when “grownups” take up new communication technologies, this is something to be celebrated. When young people do the same thing, however, their practices are reduced to “hieroglyphics,”“gobbledegook,”“technobabble,”“cryptic chat,”“hodgepodge communication,”“jumble,”“ramblings,”“cryptic symbols,”“gibberish” and “argle-bargle” to quote some of the media's terms of preference (Thurlow, 2006). Nor is this single-minded misrepresentation of young people's new media discourse set to shift any time soon if the following random sample of more recent newspaper headlines is anything to go by:

The death of English (LOL)

IM worms its way into schoolwork

Is our language changing for the worst?

It's no laughing matter as cyber-slang rewrites teen literacy

Secret of teen talk: The bizarre language of our texting generation

Cellular alert: As texts fly, danger lurks

Parents fear online chatting ruins kids' language skills

Technology leaves teens speechless

The idea that young people are in any way “speechless” is, of course, patently absurd. In fact, as we have noted elsewhere (Thurlow, 2005), it seems hard to imagine that for any other major social group defined, say, by race, age, or sex, would it nowadays be acceptable to speak about people in such homogenizing, unapologetically negative, offensive terms. Young people are evidently fair game. This, we are told, is “generation grunt”–“the thickest, most incoherent, and subliterate generation for centuries.” Young people's ways of communicating are easy targets in what Mike Males and others see as a more generalized attack on youth (Males, 1996; also Giroux, 2000). Indeed, public/adult commentary about young people's new media discourse emerges also as part of much larger discourses about communication and especially about young people's communication.

The bigger picture: the technologization of communication

In 2005, the State of New York announced its commitment to becoming the first state in the United States to adopt a system for formally assessing high-school students' “work-readiness.” According to news reports (e.g., Saulny, January 29, 2005), at least four other states have also been preparing to make this move, responding to an initiative coordinated by the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) in collaboration with state and commercial partners such as the Chamber of Commerce. The policy is driven in part by reported complaints from employers “across the nation” that young people do not have the “basic skills” to succeed in the workplace.2 The New York State scheme being piloted involves a computer-administered test which will assess high-schoolers' so called “soft skills” in 10 areas—including the “ability to communicate.”

Based on a larger project called Equipped for the Future, the NIFL-led consortium has also developed what it calls a Work Readiness Profile for entry-level jobs based, in part, on a survey by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM, 2001) of 600 members, representing CEOs, managers, and personnel officers; the survey concludes with the following:

The major areas of concern have shifted from technology skills back to the fundamentals, with basic employability skills cited as the number one deficiency for both current hourly workers and applicants for hourly positions. Poor reading, writing, math, and communication skills were also significant concerns.3

At the heart of the NIFL's Work Readiness Profile is the creation of a series of skill sets that specify “what adults need to do to meet their responsibilities as workers, citizens, and parents.” Although framed more broadly as “lifelong learning systems,” these are actually skills prescribed by the NIFL for the workforce, and being adopted by state policy makers.

While some scholars may initially be heartened to see communication featuring so prominently, these NIFL initiatives apparently make important, and potentially problematic, assumptions about communication; for example, in their instrumentalist operationalization of communication (e.g., “speak so others can understand,”“cooperate”), their unqualified reduction of complex social interactions (e.g., “observe critically,”“resolve conflict”), and their decontextualizing lack of precision (e.g., “solve problems and make decisions”). Whether in theory or in everyday practice, it is never possible to separate neatly “doing sociability” from information exchange (Jaworski, 2000), however a model of communication such as the one presented by the NIFL arguably also isolates and favors the more instrumental dimensions of communication at the expense of its more interactional or relational functions (cf Giles et al., 1992). In other words, the notion of communication being promoted by the NIFL (and others, to be fair) is akin to what undergraduate students come to understand as the psychologically oriented Sender-Message-Receiver model of information or message exchange, as opposed to the more sociologically oriented understanding of communication as dynamic, negotiated meaning making (Fiske, 1990).

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being realistic about the needs of the workplace; it is also clearly right to advance people's employment opportunities. Nonetheless, highly institutionalized discourses such as these are also ideologically powerful in dictating not only a particular version of communication but also in privileging a certain vision of social and economic life (van Dijk, 1993). Indeed, for critical discourse analysts, what the NIFL program exemplifies is the way communication is nowadays often fetishized in many postindustrial countries as a panacea for any number of social and economic ills (Fairclough, 1992 and 1999; Cameron, 2000; cf Katriel & Philipsen, 1981). As a central feature and outcome of this process, human communication becomes increasingly “technologized” (Fairclough, 1992) and commodified—valued, in the NIFL's own terms (above), as a matter of employability before citizenship and domestic life. Primarily to satisfy the particular demands of the workplace and enterprise culture, therefore, otherwise-complex interpersonal processes are consequently rendered by policy makers and, in turn, educators as discrete, quantifiable skills or competences rather than meaningful, situated, power-embedded social practices. What is more, this move toward valuing communication exclusively in terms of its instrumental functions is an increasingly international trend (Cameron, 2000). It is no wonder, too, that social networking, microblogging, and text-messaging–all technologies for relational communication–are devalued and derided. It is also no coincidence that, against the backdrop of this technologized communication, public attention has been increasingly focused on the communication of young people and especially in their capacity as future workers.

Within the broader context of all-too-familiar adult anxieties about youth, morality, and the social order, public discussion in countries like the USA and Britain has been growing noticeably preoccuppied with the need to improve young people's communication (see Thurlow & Marwick, 2005, for more on this). Mirroring current concerns in commerce for more flexible, service-adept workers, government, and educational policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic have become openly concerned with instructing young people in the ways of ‘good’ communication (Cameron, 2000; Thurlow, 2001). A more scholarly concern, however, is the tendency for these types of policies and practical interventions to promote overly instrumentalist and insufficiently contextualized notions of communication (Sprague, 1993; Fassett & Warren, 2005). This bias may arise partly as a result of what some scholars (e.g., Hall, 1989; Lannamann, 1991; also Sprague, 1993, and Fassett & Warren, 2005) see as the traditional paradigm arising from within communication scholarship itself, where communication has often tended to be conceptualized in largely quantitative, behaviorist-cognitivist, and objectivist terms. One particular manifestation of this tradition has been the production of competence-based models and educational initiatives designed accordingly with respect to preconceived, standardized measures of communication. The influence of this perspective is seen in the ubiquity and popularity of subfields such as Communication Competence (e.g., Duran & Spitzberg, 1995) and Communication Apprehension (e.g., Richmond & McCroskey, 1998) in instructional/educational communication research (Sprague, 1993; Fassett & Warren, 2005). Approaches such as these are explicitly predicated on the quantification and assessment of individual behaviors or putative cognitive constructs, usually assessed by means of lengthy “tick-box” questionnaires.

By echoing many aspects of dominant, lay discourses about communication (i.e., communication as a cause for social change or personal growth rather than as a process of change itself), our own academic approaches have in turn been taken up with enthusiasm by educational practitioners and public policy makers for whom a lack of communication skills on the part of employees is a more easily targeted issue than widespread structural-economic challenges (Cameron, 2000; Sprague, 1993). However, these and other assessment-driven models are, for some scholars at least, epistemologically and pedagogically troubling because they run the risk of unduly technologizing everyday communicators (Fassett & Warren, 2005; Cameron, 2000; Fairclough, 1992). The question which remains is whether there are not better ways to address the practical needs of the marketplace while recognizing and respecting (a) the complex, multifunctional nature of human communication, and (b) balancing externally motivated, instrumental demands on young people with more sociologically and phenomenologically grounded understanding of their existing communication needs and experiences.

The point we are making here is a simple one: It is our responsibility as scholars to offer alternative, more well-rounded perspectives on the nature and purpose of communication; to insist, for example, that mediatized hype about young people's “attack on English” and their apparent speechlessness (see above) be framed properly by the breadth, diversity, and inherent sociability of all human communication. David Buckingham (2007, p. 3) expresses it well:

We need to move the discussion forwards, beyond the superficial fascination with technology for its own sake, towards a more critical engagement with questions of learning, communication, and culture.

What this means, as Buckingham indicates, is a shift away from placing undue emphasis on technology for the sake of technology–from being caught up in the apparent newness of it all–to recognizing young people's uses of technology as embedded cultural practices. This, in turn, requires that we give voice to young people's own experiences and understandings of communication rather than reinscribing the externally derived standards of business people, policy makers, and some scholars. We are thus also able to start challenging popular adult stereotypes regarding the supposed inarticulateness and communicative ineptitude of young people. More than this, however, scholars should certainly be looking to play a more active role in shaping both public policy and media discourse which have such a powerful role in defining and judging communication–especially when it works against the diversity of meanings and experiences of everyday communicators and our own theoretical understandings. All of which brings us to the nine exemplary papers in this special issue.

In their own words: Overview of the special issue

In conceiving of this special issue, the goal was to answer a simple question: What are young people really doing with new communication technologies? To this end, papers were sought that examined young people's actual discursive practices through empirically grounded, situated, and contextual research, and addressing the following types of more specific questions:

  • How are young people reworking standard linguistic forms and practices?
  • How do young people themselves talk about new technology and/or its role in their lives?
  • How are new technologies seen to be supporting young people's interpersonal needs?
  • How are young people using technologies for artistic, educational, political, and other creative purposes?
  • how are new communication technologies connecting different groups of young people?

We are pleased that, together, the papers now in the special issue address all of these questions and more besides. From a number of different countries, papers rely on discourse analysis, surveys, ethnographic work, interviews, and participant observation to access and better understand young people's new media practices. In doing so, a couple of overriding themes emerge. One is an insightful view of the ways in which young people skillfully adopt and creatively adapt new media for their most pressing personal, social, educational, and cultural needs. A second theme running through all nine papers is a shared concern to challenge precisely the kinds of dominant narratives of decline and decay that we characterized above. Each of these papers in its own way makes a move against the technologization of young people's communication.

With this in mind, we chose to start the special issue with Graham Jones and Bambi Schieffelin's excellent critique of precisely the kind of popular metadiscourse that we ourselves find so troubling. Jones and Schieffelin also weave both of the special issue's overarching themes into their study of young people's creative engagement with TV mobile phone advertisements that make fun of text messaging language. The ads had a second life on YouTube, where they became a point of dialogue between young people and adult language purists. Jones and Schieffelin argue that young people have taken up the language of text messaging, as employed in mobile phone television advertisements, in a playful metalinguistic fashion online. While TV ads have been treated in the news media as evidence of language decay, they have also been a source of agentful, inventive, egalitarian counternarrative on You Tube.

Around the world, young people's new media cultural practices also mix the local and global in very creative ways. In their overview of a fascinating programme of research, Sirpa Leppänen, Anne Pitkänen-Huhta, Arja Piirainen-Marsh, Tarja Nikula, and Saija Peuronen find creativity and hybridity in the language mixing, or heteroglossia, of young Finnish people's forays into new media environments. These young people work skillfully and playfully with new media to develop their social selves in both local and translocal settings. Translocality–a user approach to new media that looks outward and is oriented toward hybrid identity formation–is exemplified by this mixing of language registers, genres, and styles. In one case, for example, we read how digital social environments not only allowed young girls to present themselves within a virtual social group but to creatively develop their values, lifestyle, and self-image via a range of creative activities.

As we noted above, the dominant complaint in mainstream news discourse about text messaging is that young people are nowadays unable to speak or write “proper” English. In their paper, however, Bev Plester and Clare Wood's preliminary research correlates preadolescents' use of text messaging with literacy skills. In doing so, they are able to counter some of the popular assumptions that high-frequency texting necessarily has a negative impact on children's reasoning skills or language abilities. This research, using standard literacy tests in the UK, is some of the best scholarly/empirical evidence we know for debunking the negative media coverage on a so-called decline of language skills and a stunting effect on literacy.

For anyone reading JCMC, it comes as no surprise that digital media are a potential source of social support and powerful identity resource for a number of marginalized groups. Sometimes the marginalization may be geographic, other times it may be cultural, economic or political. In their pursuit of the newsworthy negativity, journalists more often that not overlook these kinds of stories–stories which are told well in the four papers that form the backbone of the special issue. Christine Greenhow and Beth Robelia demonstrate how a particular social networking site can be an important resource for low-income youth. Mary Gray likewise shows nicely how online explorations and connections can help young queer people in rural settings find meaningful, comforting narratives for fashioning their identities. By the same token, Lisa Tripp and Rebecca Herr-Stephenson consider just how vital digital access at school can be for disadvantaged young Latinos, even though the restrictive environment also squelches many poor young people's online needs. In her work, meanwhile, Tanya Notley makes a compelling case for the need for education policy to recognize the importance of online connections to the inclusion needs of disadvantaged youth in Australia.

In their paper, Greenhow and Robelia found that a social networking site helped low-income youth gain emotional support, find self-expression and also help with homework. While students did not make that connection for themselves about their online pursuits, Greenhow and Robelia argue that online writing contributed to the “new literacy” that is important to education reform efforts. They argue that the so-called nonacademic literacies that students gain outside of school are equally vital for development.

In her paper, Gray found that queer youth living in rural areas use online resources to explore their identities, find communities, and, ultimately, to “come out.” The narratives of queerness that these young people find online provide a basis for their identity projects in otherwise isolated/isolating settings. Confronted with “heteronormative/homophobic burdens” that are different from those of young urban people, young queer people rework, adapt, and enact their identities in ways that help them negotiate the conservative settings in which they live.

Tripp and Herr-Stephenson take a similar concern for marginalization into the classroom. Their ethnographic case studies show how computer usage restrictions and the nature of computer learning in school are often at odds with teens' own interest in online popular media. This “disconnect” between students' interests and the strict parameters of school computer use is barrier to the greater potential of such technologies in the classroom. This is a particularly acute problem for those students from working-class Latino background who did not have computers at home and whose creative interests were simply not being met at school.

Along the same lines, Notley examines social inclusion in online networks for students not in a mainstream school because of because of reasons that include pregnancy, homelessness, and mental illness. Young disadvantaged people such as these seek out online memberships to make connections and find social support in parenting, gaming, and other networks. Notley is thus able to present a compelling argument in favour of the Australian government shaping its educational policies better around the need for digital access and social inclusion.

In the last part of the special issue we continue to extend the usually very U.S.-centric perspectives of new media scholarship. We are particularly pleased to be able to include the insights of scholars working in Estonia which has, until now, never been properly covered by JCMC.

In her paper, Sun Sun Lim also finds internet access directly related to skill development, although with a slightly different twist. She finds that young people with home and/or mobile access made intense use of the internet that was at times even “burdensome.” Those who used the internet at school or public locations had much more intermittent use that was adequate, however they did not hone their skills to the same extent as domestic users. As with some of the other studies reported in this issue, school access has content restrictions that can hinder the kind of literacies that are otherwise desired.

Finally, and taking us to yet another geographic and cultural setting, Veronika Kalmus, Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, Pille Runnel, and Andra Siibak consider the ways young Estonians are more likely to create online content within structured environments such as social networking sites than by simply creating their own blogs or websites. However, these authors propose that less structured environments tend to enable and promote media literacy more than do social networking sites. The reasons people used social networking tended to be in order to connect with others, while blog creators valued individuality and audience.

This special issue marks the first time that the JCMC has devoted such a space to thinking specifically about young people. The nine papers here represent an important body of work that provides irrefutable evidence for just some of the ways young people, particularly those facing challenging circumstances, are using “new” communication technologies in meaningful, creative ways. Their inventive uses of the digital possibilities puts paid to many of the circulating discourses about the decline of conventional literacies. It is a real pleasure to have facilitated and brought together research that gives voice to young people and, in several cases, allows them speak for themselves for once.


  • 1

    This slogan comes from an earlier marketing campaign by Orange–one of Europe's leading mobile service providers.

  • 2

    For information about the NIFL's Work Readiness Credential see Terminology quoted here is taken directly from the NIFL's own documentation; in particular, its account of the Equipped for the Future program; see

  • 3

    The NAM survey also conceals—or at least fails to address—a potential class/race bias. Its ranking of “the most serious skill deficiencies in current employees” identifies “poor reading/writing skills,” the “inability to verbally communicate” and “poor English language skills” as three of the most frequently cited management concerns (32%, 25% and 24% of respondents respectively) regarding hourly-paid production staff; however, these figures drop considerably (to 10%, 16% and 2%) for salaried professionals. It is likely that hourly paid production staff and salaried professionals come from very different socioeconomic backgrounds and that the former command non-Standard American English literacies. To attribute worker productivity simply to poor communication may not be unwarranted, but it is nonetheless overly simplistic.

About the Author

Crispin Thurlow is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at University of Washington where he also holds an adjunct position in Linguistics. His research addresses two main areas: young people and new media discourse, and global mobility and tourism discourse. His books include Computer mediated communication: Social interaction and the Internet (Sage, 2004) and, most recently, Semiotic landscapes: Language, image, space (Continuum, 2009). He serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication and the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication. Email:

Address: Department of Communication, University of Washington, Box 353740, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.

Katherine Bell is a former journalist and a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Her research interests include celebrity “activism” and philanthropy, and the ways in which celebrity is a site for producing contemporary notions of social/political engagement. She is concerned with how celebrities use their capital to engage in social issues and how celebrity power can reinscribe or challenge hegemonic discourses in the mass media. Email:

Address: Department of Communication, University of Washington, Box 353740, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.