I waved goodbye to my last full-time role in the newspaper industry six years ago and immediately found myself embroiled in an online row regarding the quality of the blogs the company I had just left were introducing.
The subject matter of the blogs was not the issue. The poor spelling, grammar and overall style of many of the individual posts was, however, proving a major source of distraction and irritation.
It wasn’t just me complaining, regular readers were not impressed either. When such mistakes were pointed out, apologies were forthcoming…initially.
But there came a point when the newspaper, the bloggers and their editor went on the offensive and stopped apologising for the regular mistakes. “The rules have changed,” I was reliably informed. “This is blogging, it isn’t journalism. So that stuff about spelling and grammar doesn’t always matter these days.”
My argument did not change. It came down to credibility – the bloggers might not be journalists, but they were writing opinion-led content under the newspaper’s banner. In the end we agreed to disagree.
Perhaps my attitude was shaped by the years spent being harangued by news editors and sub-editors about a misplaced apostrophe in a front page exclusive splash – never mind about the quality of the story, my credibility was smashed by failing to apply that apostrophe correctly.
Over the last six years my attitude has changed, but only slightly.
I still maintain that strict standards need to apply – magazine copy, promotional material, website content all needs to be faultless (although you can’t always legislate for human error). Corporate communication also needs to be carefully monitored for such mistakes.
However, when it comes to more informal lines of communication the standards are relaxed a little.
I know some friends and former colleagues would happily argue that point with me all day. They maintain that strict standards always apply, whatever you are writing.
But I believe that a large degree of informality is inherent in social media channels, such as Twitter, Facebook and blogging platforms, which makes such a strict approach unnecessary and unwelcome. How we read and absorb information is constantly changing, so should our attitudes.
How we write and type information is also changing – from PC to smartphone, we can now publish information on the internet with the push of a few very small buttons (so small, in fact, that mistakes are bound to be made).
Social networking is about generating a conversation between two, three, four, as many people as possible. During the course of a face-to-face conversation you do not regularly check that the person speaking knows the correct use of “you’re”, or that when they say “accommodating” they are saying it with two c’s and two m’s (if you do, then that conversation won’t last very long).
The same can and does apply during an online conversation. Mistakes are made as you type quickly to maintain a conversation on Twitter and Facebook, but that doesn’t need to devalue the conversation or what is being said.
It is hard enough to keep up with some online conversations, especially if there are several people chipping in with their own viewpoints, without correcting simple and genuine mistakes along the way.
Equally, a simple mistake in an informed and interesting blog post on a very technical issue does not make the point the blogger is successfully making worthless. As in a face-to-face conversation, it is often what is being said that is important and not how it is being said.
As some social networking sites restrict word count for updates, our use of language is changing. The way we get a point across in 140 characters or less is a lot different to writing a 2,000 word essay on the same subject.
Having said that, media, publishing and design companies must always work hard to cut out glaring mistakes whether that is in print or online. That issue of credibility still applies, particularly if you want to be seen as a respected provider of news and information or you are acting on behalf of a client and producing corporate communications.
After finishing my first week on a newspaper many years ago, my new editor told me he only gave employees one piece of advice: “Learn something new every day.”
I nodded at his wisdom and thanked him for his advice.
“I haven’t finished with you yet,” he then added, dropping a copy of the paper on his desk and pointing to a page lead article I had written.
“Your lesson today is that millennium always has two l’s and two n’s.”