What is the IMpact?

On some random pillow somewhere in the United States tonight a college professor will spring out of bed, wipe the beads of sweat from his brow and hastily try to recall a fleeting nightmare.

For now, all the professor can remember is the hiss of his red felt tip as it ceaselessly bleeds across a term paper, circling words like “ur” and “tonite” and “prolly” and noting misuses of “there” and “its.”

He trembles.

Capitalization is random, punctuation is sparse, syntax is garbled.

As clarity begins to overcome him, he thinks to himself that the words of his dream are like another language.

Another language, indeed.

Exactly what impact instant messenger has on college culture, it’s hard to say. For many of us, it is the toy we never outgrew. It serves as a medium for chit-chatting, arguing, making plans, sharing files and for some, falling in love.

It’s hard to deny its prevalence in society; AOL Instant Messenger alone — the most used IM service in the United States — boasts 30 million users. And as the corporate world continues to adopt the technology for efficient office communication, the effects of IM may not be limited to the generation that witnessed the birth and rise of the phenomenon and carefully placed it in its backpack and brought it to college.

Mass communications professor Larry Leslie is perhaps the type of professor who might experience a dream similar to the one above. He says people must be cautious with the technology. In embracing it with open arms, Leslie says, we could be leaving behind a bit of our humanity. To him, IM represents a giant step back in effective communication.

“It seems to me, electronic communication, e-mail or instant messenger, has, in my opinion, degraded the quality of human communication,” said Leslie, who discusses the impact of technology on society in his media ethics class. “It eliminates some key aspects we need to be in full communication with each other. We need to see their face, we need to see their eyes, we need to see their expression. I don’t care what kind of icons or colors or italics you use.”

Freshman Jared Aschenbrenner disagrees. Emotion may be difficult to convey over the instant messenger medium, but oftentimes, he says, communication can be more effective.

“If you’re in an argument, it’s much easier to get your point through,” he says. “You can have more intelligent conversations, I think, because you can form your thoughts before you send them and make a better argument.”

Leslie should talk to junior Demisha Thomas, who avoids IM at all costs. Instead, she supports Leslie’s notion that the intricacies of facial expressions, the tonality of the voice and the nuances of hand gestures all play a large role in effective communication.

“I want people to be able to see my face so they can see all my expressions,” Thomas says.

Added Leslie:”I’d rather have a human face smiling at me instead of that yellow face at the end of the sentence. I’d rather hear an actual laugh than see an LOL.”

The new wave of communication, largely propagated through IM and e-mail has not gone unnoticed in the scientific community.

USF anthropology professor Jacqueline Messing said some scientists are conducting studies on the impact IM has on language. She’s most familiar with David Crystal’s notion of “Netspeak” on which he expounded in his 2001 book “Language and the Internet.”

“As Crystal points out in his book, there has been the development of a whole new world of communication, one in which people may assume alternate identities through their usernames (i.e. gender can change), symbols like ’emoticons’ have been invented, and people speak more freely than they might otherwise,” Messing said in an e-mail interview.

On the issue of whether IM is a strong form of communication, Messing thinks that some underestimate the dialect, which represents to her a linguistic evolution of sorts as the technology becomes more prevalent.

“I take the linguistics view here, which is to describe how people actually talk, rather than taking a grammarian’s prescriptive view and saying ‘This is improper.’ On the contrary, Netspeak exhibits the same creativity involved in linguistic incorporation and change that takes place all over the world, in other context,” Messing said.

But most students probably don’t consider linguistics when tapping vigorously away at the keyboard, managing six disparate conversations and all the while adding the finishing touches to that term paper.

For senior David Lemmerman, who sees how the technology has both its pros and its cons, said the effect it’s had on him is indisputable. He’s able to write his papers faster as a result of his incessant IM use.

“(Instant messenger) taught me to type better,” he said. “I took a typing class in high school, but barely passed it. But keeping up with five or six conversations at once, you learn to be proficient.”

For others, it’s just an easy way to stay connected.

“(I use it) for family and stuff,” senior Ben Forlaw said. “You know, Mom and Dad get on there, too. I’d rather just say ‘Hey’ to them and be done with it.”

Responses like these irk Leslie, who thinks that most IM conversations hold little meaning and require minimal effort. Communication, in order to be perceived as genuine, should take some effort. We’ve become lazy, Leslie says, to the point where picking up a phone or writing a letter is seen as too much to ask.

As far as picking up the phone, a majority of students interviewed mentioned the use of IM as a means of cutting down on cell phone and long distance charges. As far as laziness, USF psychology professor Paul Spector thinks humanity’s leaning toward the lackadaisical probably isn’t a product of IM.

“Which came first, the laziness or the IM?” Spector said in an e-mail interview. “I suppose it is one more thing that can tempt people to stay in front of the computer (as I’m doing now) rather than doing something more active. I don’t know that I’d blame IM though for this.”

And then there’s USF students Rachel DeBolt and Evan Schmidt. They are the types of students that might have inspired the nightmare of the fictional professor that began this story. Both say that they have turned in papers for class that interpolated IM language with proper grammar. It was accidental, they said, but in the case of Schmidt, it didn’t go unnoticed.

In fact, he wasn’t the only one in his freshmen English class that made the mistake; his professor, he said, had to scold much of the class for committing the IM oversight in many of their papers.

DeBolt says she can’t help it. She even speaks the IM language unconsciously, using JK (just kidding) and OMG (Oh, my god) in her everyday vernacular.”It just comes naturally to me now,” she said.