grammar awareness as a pop phenomenonThese days you judge people's interest by "shares" of clever Facebook memes. If somebody like George Takei or the Grammarly PR people can come up with a clever statement pointing out an essential truth of human nature (one of these being the grammar is important), then, by virtue of people sharing it, and lots of people getting a chuckle out of it, or whatever, these smart people have received lots of free advertising.
In George Takei's case, I'm not sure why he wants it; if he has a company, or is making money off of all those "hits," I'm not sure how. But in Grammarly's case, their money is well spent. They are quickly becoming the #1 grammar advice provider in the nation. They have worked hard in every aspect of the PR business to get this distinction. They have an aggressive PR program, offering rewards for essays, and putting their ad on every google search that includes words like "grammar" or "spelling" or "grammar-check". And this has been going on for a while.
But by far the most effective thing they do is this "grammar-consciousness" program on Facebook. They get somebody to scan the cartoon websites, for example, and copy every cartoon that is grammar-related onto their site. They make posts that comment on "there/they're/their", "two/to/too" or "its/it's" and this touches a nerve with the millions of Facebook users who are irritated daily by their friends' errant posts. People "share" their posts and this is free publicity. Other people in turn "like" their page; it is now over 500,000 in "Likes". The repeated sharing of these "memes" in turn ensures that grammar is in our face, more often, since Facebook in general is where the masses are hanging around.
I wouldn't have noticed this, necessarily, since so many of my friends are ESL/EFL teachers, and tend to like and share this stuff anyway. In fact I think your perception of the new "grammar-consciousness" is entirely colored by your relation to the problem. If you are an English teacher, you very likely know the difference between "their/they're/there" and are not particularly threatened by somebody who is poking fun at those who don't. If you have trouble with it, on a regular basis, you might have an entirely different view of these things. You may even be threatened by them.
As to the question of why America, Americans, or Facebook users in general seem to be obsessed with grammar all of a sudden, I'd like to point out a few things. One, this whole idea of spending a half-hour, an hour, or whatever, per day/night, on Facebook, is relatively new for everyone. We are reading much more informal English than ever before in human history. The definition of informal is, essentially, that it's less important that you get these things right. People, on the other hand, are quite critical of themselves and others and, due to in many cases years of training, are unable to simply let go of that critical nature because they "know" this is an informal environment. If they do refrain from criticizing or pointing out grammatical errors, they don't refrain from judging people or even wrestling with their own consciousness about how to handle the situation. This sets up an ongoing tension that is often best addressed by using these "memes" or cartoons. In fact I'd like to do a study on the kinds of people who repost them, and whether they share any common features or attitudes. But whatever is happening, it is like a wildfire, and Grammarly is right there selling fire extinguishers on the edge of it.
Finally, I'd like to point out an interesting sidelight which may or may not be related to the above phenomenon. Virtually everyone uses spell-check these days, which is natural, because it's there, and it works, and you have to use it. But not everyone uses it properly; therefore, we no longer see "non-words", or at least, we see much fewer of them. But though non-words have entirely disappeared, mistakes like "to/too/two" have not, because spell-check cannot (yet) determine when a mistake is being made. Cupertinos still abound; a cupertino is when a spell-check user makes the wrong choice, as in, "I will defiantly succeed" instead of "definitely". The change in the kind of errors may make it seem as if the too/two/to ones are more common, or it may be that they are in fact more common, because more people have come to believe that, because of spell-check, it is now unnecessary to commit oneself to learning spelling. And this may be increasingly more true of young people coming up, who are doing an increasing amount of the writing we see on Facebook (as I get older, my Facebook friends get increasingly younger). There are a number of trends happening here, and one has to do with grammar (there are grammar cupertinos as well), but I won't address them here.
Bottom line: I don't know what to tell international students. Of course you have to learn the difference between to/too/two. If your computer has spell-check, learn to use it properly. Remember that the grammar police are everywhere even when they're silent. It's bubbling over to the point that you could call it a (grammar) "police state." And people are not going to "let go" and stop worrying about it. On the contrary, you might as well have your computer make every "to/two/too" into a neon sign.
Espinosa, J. (2013, Jan. 3). Blackberry, Trident, Grammarly and others among this week’s top PTAT gainers for product and service pages. Inside Facebook. http://www.insidefacebook.com/2013/01/03/blackberry-trident-gammarly-and-others-among-this-weeks-top-ptat-gainers-for-product-and-service-pages/. Accessed 1-13.
Nahori, E. (2012, Oct. 23). America's Obsession With Grammar and What It Means, HuffPost. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elad-nehorai/grammar_b_2002875.html. Accessed 1-13.