Slightly OT: How the web changes writing

An interesting essay on the internet and its effects on the deep structures of writing style and imagination. Money quote, which follows a brief summary of the opening of a novel:

The internet is inhospitable to that kind of quietness. If your browser were to happen on such a page, your eyes would likely go blank with impatience. Who is this guy? Why aren’t there any links? And, more damningly, Is anyone else reading this? A text on the internet rarely takes for granted your decision to read it or to continue reading it. There is often, instead, a jazzy, hectoring tone. At home my boyfriend and I use a certain physical gesture as shorthand to describe it. To make it, extend your index fingers and your thumbs so that your hands resemble toy pistols. Then waggle them before you, like a dude in a cheesy Western, while you wink, dip your knees, and lopsidedly drawl, “Heyyy.” The internet is always saying, “Heyyy.” It is always welcoming you to the party; it is always patting you on the back to congratulate you for showing up. It says, You know me, in a collusive tone of voice, and Wanna hear something funny? and Didja see who else is here? This tone is not absent from print; in fact, no page of New York magazine is without it. Certain decorative effects in language may be compatible with it, but it seems to be toxic to imagination.

There certainly is a lot of YELLING and noisiness and hectoring online, and though I’m not so sure the internet is the sole or primary cause (aren’t Oprah and Jerry Springer and Rush Limbaugh and the museum-of-me talk culture part of the issue here, too?), the writer’s making an important point about a certain loss of thoughtful reflection and contemplation that has attended digitized, online discourse.

In my own case, I’ve noticed that four years of mostly steady blogging have shortened the focal distance of my mind and more or less permanently sped up the rhythms and patterns I think in. When I blog, the result is not always brevity but a certain tendency toward the punch-line, the zinger, and pseudo-cleverness … Heyyyy!.

My non-bloggerly writing has been effected as well: I have trouble imagining the shape and trajectory of essays or other forms of writing that exceed 500 or 1000 words, and I get much more restless, much faster at the writing desk than I once did. This summer I’ve started working on a long-term project that will no doubt take years to complete, and it has taken me most of the past two months just to re-acclimate myself to the habits of mind and body that it takes to think and write for the book-length horizon rather than the POST NOW immediacy of blogging.

I don’t know that this is all bad. For one thing, blogging keeps me alert and much more immersed in a wider range of interconnected issues than I ever was before. And that interconnectedness cross-fertilizes almost every other area of my life beyond blogging. Besides, complaining about the effects of the internet, which is here and here to stay, is rather like saying, “if things were different, they wouldn’t be the same.” But there probably is some value is keeping one eye on this stuff.

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Comments

  1. philip elwood wrote:

    Would dearly love to see Cabel Cain and his boyfriend pointing their fingers at each other with a wink a waggle and a dip of the knees. A world away from sg’s goldfish bowl(judging by the lack of response). Or is it? Heheh.

  2. Revpaul wrote:

    Yawn! On the blogs, I guess it doesn’t matter whether I’m affected or effected by it all. ;)

  3. Bill Filer wrote:

    Great post. Consider the songwriter and the phenominon is compounded. Blogging-akin to short attention span theatre. Then factor in the internal clock always ticking in the back of your mind desperately trying to get everything under a radio friendly 3:30. Even this comment is too long, lost my train of thought like three times, what with all these droll little words, no hyperlinks, pics, or anything that rhymes!

  4. judi wrote:

    Frankly I don’t know if blogging is a cause or an effect of shorter attention spans. I used to think just the younger people I was teaching had short attention spans, but now that I’ve been immersed in “hypermedia” for the last 10 years or so, my own attention span is much shorter, too, and I’m too old to even be called a Baby Boomer! I find it hard to watch “classic” movies that have a slow pace; it’s rare that I actually finish the novel for my book club without skipping to the last chapter mid-way through; and I, too, have trouble writing anything much longer than 600 words, even on my blog. Although some would blame these changes on old age or worse yet, incipient dementia, I think something in the culture is at work as well. And I keep wondering where it will end. Once thoughtful essays have given way to IM and thorough, Ken Burns-style documentaries have been supplanted by You Tube, will we even have a public discourse anymore? And once most content is forgotten, what will the Museum of Me actually contain? Oh well, your regular fans want you to get back to SG, I’m sure, as soon as possible!

  5. Rick wrote:

    There is an article in Atlantic Monthly this month about the internet’s (particularly Google) effect on reading that complements its effect on writing. It can be found here: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/2008og07/google

  6. CVH wrote:

    I think judi’s comment is particularly insightful; there is indeed something evolving on a cultural basis as well. It’s not just about blog writing, it’s about reading as well. I’ve been a lover of books my whole life and read all the time, but even that seems to be an increasingly lost art in our ‘bullet-point’ culture.

    Interestingly, Phil Cooke has a related thread going on his blog:

    http://www.philcooke.com/reading_for_a_change#comment

    I’m all for the advances in communication that technological changes bring; but personally I think if we ever lose the desire to read or the sense of context and enlightenment that longer-form content can bring, we’re going to be a sadder culture for it.

  7. Scott wrote:

    I don’t blog. But I do email and I do send quite a few IMs. I’ve noticed a change of voice in my writing. I now have to work hard to put forward my more formal tone. My sentences are more short, more pithy–more conversational. I rely on dashes all the time.

    I can’t decide if all this is a good thing or a bad thing.

  8. Bari-Tone-Def wrote:

    I dont think it is the blog or the internet that has caused the short attention spans. I tend to believe that it is the short attention spans that have brought the blogs to the mainstream. Most people no longer care WHY you think and act a certain way, they simply want to know what you think and what your reaction was to certain stimuli …. briefly.

    No one listens anymore, they simply wait for their turn to speak.

  9. quartet-man wrote:

    AFIK, the web hasn’t changed a thing in the way I write IMHO. I have had a LTR with the web. BTA, it may others may have changed OTOH, although OTTOMH I can think of no examples. TAFN, TTYL, BRB.

  10. Brian wrote:

    #4 Judi…”Regular Fans”? Would you mind expounding, ever so briefly, so that our feable SG minds can comprehend? Wow, I think we have been insulted.

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