Aug 21, 2012


The following is the main body of a speech I gave this evening as part of a Gr8 Debate held by the QUT Information Professionals Alumni & ALIA Queensland.

To celebrate 2012 as the National Year of Reading, the topic was "Digital Culture is Killing Reading and Writing". I was allocated as first speaker for the affirmative, which in a sweet coincidence was my usual position in high-school debates (only in adulthood have I really come to appreciate how awesome rebuttal can be; it scared me a bit as a teenager).

Given that other speakers came from professional and academic backgrounds - plus a politician, Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek - I thought there was no point in going for the weighty, thinky stuff, and that I might as well spend my time in the shallow end of the pool.

Dan Beeston very kindly helped me make up some memes for a Powerpoint display; it seemed a shame not to put them out on the web.

As an improviser, you can be sure I ad-libbed a lot during this speech; but hopefully the argument comes through. Thanks to all of the erudite speakers, and to IPQUT and ALIA for having me.


Ladies and gentlemen, I’m honoured to be among such fine company here tonight, and look forward to an evening of lively debate. As it happens, I wasn’t even AWARE this is the National Year of Reading, so thanks to whomever it was who tweeted that information to me earlier today.

And perhaps my general state of ignorance – I am a journalist after all – is a good place to start, on the topic of Digital Culture and whether it is KILLING reading and writing.

Clearly, as first affirmative, I must wholeheartedly agree. Ladies and gentlemen, we are through the looking glass. We’re so far through it, Lewis Carroll would be justified in suing us for seven years’ bad luck and a replacement mirror.

It may come as no surprise that I initially wanted to use as my main argument the biggest-selling book possibly of all time – the now notorious 50 Shades of Grey.

Surely the elevation of a hastily adapted Twilight fan fiction story – that features more creative uses of rope and cable ties than a Bunnings catalogue – is ample evidence of a brain drain sparked by our digital world.

Surely when we, collectively, as humanity, are reading books “just to see what the fuss is about”, something I thought we’d left behind with The Da Vinci Code – surely that shows the art of reading is turning blue and keeling over on the floor.

But it turns out I would rather stitch copies of Hansard to my eyeballs than actually READ 50 Shades of Grey to prove my point.

Which actually, when you think about it, proves my point (think about it on the way home, it's a quantum argument, you'll see I'm right).

But given I’ve still got a few minutes left of debate time,  I’d like to discuss another internet phenomenon with you, one that I think will demonstrate just how bad things have become.

I’m sure most of you will be familiar with the concept of internet memes; those childish picture-based capsules of web humour that spark seemingly out of nowhere, only to clog up your Facebook feed more thoroughly than even baby photos.

They began with lolcats, and moved onto other animals like sharks, llamas and sloths.

But a few months ago, one meme began that I really believe drove the iron nail into the coffin of reading and writing, then began a self-satisfied jig on its grave.

This image of a young girl, pulling a goofy face while holding some of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books, has become known as the ERMAHGERD girl, a slack-jawed pronunciation of “Oh My God”.

Now I don’t dislike this meme just because that girl could have been me circa 1992.

I dislike it because the language created by this meme is a bastardised, cauterised, ALMOST de-humanised version of English – stripped of nuance and care, and reduced to the sounds of so many cackling yokels.

Versions of this meme have taken off online [Ed: to save space, I won't put them all here; a quick Google search will bring up more than enough Ermahgerd memes!].

They’re even being used to subvert our democratically elected leaders.

That was one for the Minister [Ed: Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek, who was the first speaker for the negative, and sitting not two metres from me at the time].  But perhaps that’s a little touchy, so here’s something more palatable.

My concern is that our future stories will be written in this language. Infantile, simplistic, ridiculous.
Can you imagine generations that come after us, looking at what we produced in the most mass-consumed field of literature? Fan fiction and ERMAHGERD?

What about Ian Fleming’s suave super spy? Can we imagine 007 introducing himself to a sexy Russian informant or an exotic Caribbean beauty with…. this?

One of my favourites, Gone With the Wind, how could we forget Clark Gable’s perfectly delivered final line to Scarlett O’Hara? But how classic would it be if it were like this?

Would the frustrated, demented rage of Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver be as threatening or confronting, if…

But it’s not just pop culture; it’s our rich literary heritage. Sure, William Shakespeare was known to invent the odd word or two, but would we find Hamlet’s existential conflict so captivating if it played out like this?

And finally, the delightful, much-beloved work of Jane Austen, again, one of my favourites. Would we really find Colin Firth’s flustered Mr Darcy at all attractive, if he’d come across Elizabeth Bennett after his lake swim like this?

Ladies and gentlemen, in conclusion I would like to say that I wish it wasn't too late, that humanity hadn't already run off the shoulder of the information super-highway.

But it is. Digital culture is killing reading and writing. It's time to put the damn phones down.


  1. I find it interesting that you say ERMAHGERD girl has a slack-jawed pronunciation. To me, it's the voice of someone whose mouth is so tightly controlled by their braces/retainer that they can't move it enough to enunciate properly.

  2. I bet you were a fierce high school debater. Realise you don't need to agree to argue the affirmative so I was wondering if you DO agree with the premise Digital Culture is Killing Reading and Writing?

  3. I had a substantive comment but it was eaten.

    tl;not rewriting
    With the volume of stuff that comes across it is hard to sit down and read anything for pleasure.

    And then you see stuff like this:" service aggregation intersects with decomposed business processes" ermahgard new stuff is teh coolz would be an improvment


    I don't think the dialect represented in these pictures is born of respect, or with the intention that it should be emulated in business/literature/etc

    Above is a link to an example of a character who talks like that all the time - generally portrayed as shallow, petty, and stupid.

    I think the worst outcome you could possibly get from all this would be that it is commonly adopted as a shorthand for 'I am being an idiot'.

  5. As a hipster coming from the next generation, I understand your point of view as disturbing and immoral. Memes uses the modern incorrect form of verbal usage. Yet memes are a new piece of art in the world of today. They may be, as you would debate, piece of garbage, but in this garbage, in my opinion, is a piece of jewel. They sarcastically mock common events and people, purposefully using incorrect language. Why? To get the message across in a way that the general demographics can relate to and find a good bit of humor in that particular message. Hence the name, meme, which is an idea that spreads within groups of individuals of a society... I'll leave it at that.

  6. You're nothing but a dicknugget. I've put up with your bullying for long enough. Today I am taking a stand. How dare you make fun of people like this, making fun of me is one thing, but attacking my family? That's just wrong. You've crossed the line.