I’ll admit it: I’m a grammar nazi. When I see a poorly punctuated tweet, I cringe, and when I see a blog post with a comma splice in the title, I want to tear my hair out. I’ve fantasized about a supper club for copy editors — the folks like me and my husband, who begin any restaurant meal by proofreading the menu — a fantasy that turns out to resonate with many fellow nitpickers. I’ve even got admin rights on the blog of a brilliant friend whose blog I refused to read unless I could correct his typos.
So it has long blown my mind that so many professional and corporate websites and social media presences are riddled with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and just plain old-fashioned bad writing. Don’t people care about the English language? Don’t they cringe at all the mistakes they’re putting forth as part of their public image? Don’t these companies know what they’re doing?
No, no and yes.
No, most people don’t care about language — not with the obsessiveness that we linguistic nitpickers regard as the minimum standard of acceptable usage. No, most people don’t cringe at their mistakes — because they don’t see them.
And yes, the companies that allow spelling and grammatical mistakes to become part of their online presence absolutely know what they’re doing. In fact, they may be smarter than the companies with Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook presences that could get 100% on a high school English test.
Because social media isn’t a high school English test. It’s a conversation: a living, breathing dialogue with an organization, and between an organization and its customers, members or supporters.
And like any conversation worth listening to, it’s spontaneous, authentic and messy. In fact, unless you’re running a social media presence or web community for English teachers, you can only have an authentic presence if you are willing to put up with that messiness.
Any social media pro worth her salt will tell you that the foundational principles of a successful social media presence are authenticity, spontaneity and a willingness to relinquish some degree of control. Disciplined copyediting — the consistent attention to every last comma and vowel that’s necessary to achieve a flawless written record — is just another way of exerting control.
If you’re insistent that your company or organization’s social media presence live up to the highest standards of your high school English program, then you are condemned to a model of control that is the enemy of social media success. The alternative is a policy of trust: trusting your employees and community members to exercise good judgement about what to post, and even how to spell.
Learning to live with erratic spelling, incorrect grammar and even the occasional profanity is an extension of the trust principle you have to adopt in order to generate a lively, engaging and reflective social media presence: one that anyone in your organization feels like they can participate in or contribute to.
That means allowing and celebrating contributions from people who’d end a blog post with a dangling preposition, even if they’re not the kind of people you’d have a copyediting dinner with.