I read of some fascinating research into comments on MySpace which show that emotion is central to online interactions. (The team was unable to access the more popular Facebook because of more stringent privacy procedures.) Professor Mike Thelwall of the Statistical Cybermetrics research group at Wolverhampton University  reports on interactions on MySpace which have a ‘high emotional plane’. He feels such strong expressive content cements and develops friendships uniquely.

“I’m not sure you’d find this in any other form of communication,” he says. “It plays an important role. It’s not just about discussing weighty matters. If you have a friend and you’re saying something nice to them, or you ‘luv’ their page, you’re saying ‘hi’. Though it doesn’t really say anything, it does something.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thelwall believes women are better users of MySpace. Women send and receive more emotional comments than men. They have more friends, and it’s certainly down to they way they use emotion. He points out that in MySpace, if you’re male, the majority of your friends will be female. Yet in every offline context, the majority of friends of men and boys over the age of five would be male.

The work on comments  revealed 97% of them contained at least one non-standard language feature in spelling, punctuation, grammar or capitalisation, such as typographic slang or abbreviations (omg, lol, hugz); and interjections (haha, muahh, huh).

Thelwall’s research also points out the decreasing importance of writing in standard English for many young people. “Social networking sites are so important for younger people – you could literally ruin your life by not being able to maintain friendships in them,” he says. “One clear mistake to make is writing in standard English in comments to your friends – it’s too boring, you’re obviously an outsider. [You should] vary the way you express things.”

Even for those of us who don’t take so readily to social networking sites, it is clear that standard spelling rules don’t need to apply for real understanding to occur. Try reading this at speed:

Olny srmat poelpe can raed tihs. I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

This is not to say that we don’t try to teach spelling. If writing is so impenetrable that it can’t be deciphered then one of the fundamental purposes, communicating, is lost. Let‘s take as given that children need to be shown the conventions of written language.  We need, also, to acknowledge the skills young people bring to learning and help them to work out when formal and informal communication is appropriate.