Category Archives: Advertising

Poetics of electronic writing

An executable code poem by GreyLau

One of the questions that motivated me while I was working on my master’s degree was the differences between handwriting, printing and digital writing. Dennis Tenen’s new book, Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation, contributes to to that discussion.

Tenen points out that the major change between electronic writing and previous forms is that in electronic writing there is a separation between the act of writing and the support (i.e., what the writing is written on).

This becomes evident when we ask ourselves, while looking at a screen, “Where is the text?” Of course on one hand the text is on the screen; but on the other, it exists in electromagnetic storage somewhere we cannot directly see. In some sense, the writing is in both places. Tenen writes, “One must be translated, transformed into the other.”

This transformation occurs in what Tenen calls the formatting layer of electronic texts, which is where we may find censorship, DRM, ads and even spyware. Thus what we see on the screen is only the tip of the iceberg. Tenen:

At the maximally blunt limit of its capabilities, format governs access. Commands render some words and sentences visible on-screen while suppressing others. … The formatting layer specifies the affordances of electronic text. More than passive conduits of meaning, electronic texts thus carry within them rules for engagement between authors, readers, and devices. … Whatever literary-theoretic framework the reader brings to the process of interpretation must therefore meet the affordances encoded into the electronic text itself.

Tenen focuses on developing theoretical acuity for interpreting digital texts. This is vital, because if we do not develop such thinking, we’ll be quickly be strung along by forces beyond our understanding. We’re already at the point where some algorithm-generated texts are indistinguishable from human-generated ones, for instance.

And when it comes to social media (how we spend more and more of our time), if we do not learn to critically analyze the texts around us, we will miss out on what’s going on. John Lanchester writes poignantly on this in the London Review of Books:

For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company. … [But] even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. … I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

Separation between the act of writing and its support, indeed.

Is ALL CAPS hard to read?

A common belief, especially among typographers and designers, is that text in all caps is difficult to read.

The common wisdom argues that this is because capital letters offer fewer visual clues as to their identification. It’s said that lowercase letters are more easily distinguished because of their ascenders and descenders. This seems to make sense if we consider the shapes of each letter:

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

It’s clear that, in the case of the capital letters, each has exactly the same high (except the tail of the Q), while the lowercase letters vary. According to some, we rely on this variation to identify letters quickly.

Besides individual letter recognition, some argue that we recognize whole words at a time. That is, for some words we don’t analyze the individual letters that make it up, but rather we focus on the form of the word in its entirety. The longer it takes us to recognize a word, the slower we read. To illustrate this, let’s consider these two words:

danger dancer

It’s possible that DANGER and DANCER aren’t as easily distinguishable as danger and dancer, no doubt because of the descender on the lowercase g. But is it really likely that we store images of every word in our mind? Perhaps for very common function words such as copulatives and articles… But words like dancer?

Even with all this in mind, we can’t conclude so easily that text written in all caps is inherently difficult to read. In a study by Fryser and Stirling (1984), librarians were tested on their speed in looking up records written in various formats. The results demonstrated that there was no difference in performance between the records written entirely in caps and those written with initial caps. Greer, et al., in 2005 reached similar conclusions in a study of emails in a business setting, except with the caveat that users were less likely to want to read texts written in all caps.

It seems that we may truly have an easier time reading lowercase texts, but not because of any inherent difficulty with reading texts in all caps. Instead, it’s simply a question of frequency. We see lowercase letters more often, so we read them most easily.

Is logo recognition correlated with word recognition in young learners?

The mdonalds logo from the late 90s

McDonald’s logo from the late 90’s, Wikipedia

Children are much more observant and cognizant than we perhaps once thought. It is clear, for example, that young children can recognize many popular logos and know which products or services the logos represent. In a seminal study, 3- to 6-year-old children matched logos with pictures of products on a game board. Twenty-two logos were tested, including those of Camel, Marlboro and Disney Channel. The study concluded that “very young children see, understand and remember [logos]”, even those that aren’t specifically marketed to children–the cigarette brands, for instance.

Further research on this concept has focused mainly on health—the research dedicated to link fast food restaurant logo recognition to obesity, for example. This research program was also spotlighted in the 2004 film Super Size Me, in which interviewed children showed a surprising aptitude for recognizing fast food-related cartoon spokespeople.

Before they enter school, children have already encountered a wealth of print language, from fast food logos to clothing labels and from television programs to appliances. A vein of research has suggested that children’s literacy instruction is most successful when it harnesses this previous exposure to print language—young students’ sociocultural knowledge—as an educational tool. In one 2011 study, for example, alphabet knowledge (the ability to name and associate a sound or sounds with each letter) and print concepts were both improved among young children who were instructed using activities relating to pop culture to “capture their attention and motivate their interests.” Perhaps this type of education also happens informally: For example, young children may learn to associate the pronunciation of “McDonald’s” with the logo.

Are children who can recognize logos better than their peers at recognizing printed words? More specifically, are they better at distinguishing strings of characters that form a word from strings of characters that do not form a word? If so, we can say that they are exhibiting advanced signs of emergent literacy. Indicators of emergent literacy include knowledge of print conventions (e.g., left-to-right reading in English, spaces between words and punctuation) and letter knowledge (i.e., the association of letters with sounds). If children can distinguish words from non-words with some success, they must already be beginning to synthesize these skills.

I suspect that children who are more successful at recognizing logos are also better at distinguishing words from non-words.

These results would have an important pedagogical implication. Establishing a link between logo recognition and emergent literacy lends support to pedagogical approaches that use logos and other elements of pop culture as springboards for literacy instruction. The results also suggest an important parenting strategy: Perhaps if, early on, parents make an effort to point out logos and other examples of pop culture print—rather than relying on their children’s own observance—they will exhibit signs of emergent literacy earlier on. And because studies have shown that the onset of emergent literacy skills can be a predictor of reading achievement later in life, it seems that the earlier children attain emergent literacy, the better.

There are many opportunities for the extension of this study. I would like to see studies done that compare SLI children to normally developing populations. Additionally, more detailed aspects of emergent literacy—letter knowledge and print concepts—should be examined for a more nuanced understanding of the literacy acquisition mechanism. Clearly, there is still much to be explored in this area.

This article is a shortened version of a research proposal I wrote for a class on first language acquisition. Want to read the whole proposal? Find it on