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WRITING ELECTRONICALLY:
The Effects of Computers on Traditional Writing

by SHARMILA PIXY FERRIS
in The Journal of the Electronic Publshing

Writing for the web is different from writing for publication -- you can feel it in your bones. I was really looking forward to exploring those differences with this article but I came away feeling it had only scratched the surface. I'll quote a few passages (the brown text), following up with observations of my own.

Electronic writing is characterized by the use of oral conventions over traditional conventions, of argument over exposition, and of group thinking over individual thinking. The oral conventions are evident in the way people subvert or abandon traditional conventions of grammar and punctuation in electronic writing. Meaning is very often conveyed by cues recognized only by users of computer-mediated communication. Some examples are acronyms like BTW (by the way) and IMO (in my opinion), and specialized use of typography -- for example, *word* to signify italics and the use of nonverbal icons or emoticons like a smiley face :-) -- which differ from traditionally recognized textual cues.

The oral part. Well, yeah. A new medium frees authors of the traditional constraints of tradiitonal print media. But smileys and acronyms and *asterisks* were ways to overcome the limitations of ASCII text. I've written hundreds of thousands of words in my blogs, often pushing the limits of grammatical convention and getting in authority's face, but I've managed to do so without so much as one smiley. In a GUI world, I can have bold without the asterisks, so I don't use many of them either.

Scholars have been fascinated by the uninhibited, sometimes even aggressive approaches in computer-mediated communication... (e.g. flamers, trolls.)

Now flaming is an interesting psychological phenomenon, as are cracking and viruses, but I don't think it has that much to say about writing. Remember John Seabrook's article in New Yorker, My First Flame? He received an email that ripped him a new one in the coarsest street language imaginable. It left him reeling.

More interesting than the nature of the writing are issues of interacting from behind a veil of anonymity, hearing from people under the influence of drugs or personal demons, watching others act out their fantasies, and so on. Cool! Let's watch the freaks.

Finally, computer users often treat electronic writing as an oral medium: communication is often fragmented, computer-mediated communication is used for phatic communion, and formulaic devices have arisen.

This, I think, is a benefit. Writing that says what it means. Thoughts that are not distilled through the school-imposed filters of archaic written forms. Tell it like it is. Cut the crap. Get to the point. It's the Cluetrain Manifesto's message: Be honest. As Martha used to say, "It's a good thing."

Due to its emphasis on connectivity rather than linearity, hypertext discourages the use of coherent narrative (Gibson, 1996a, Gibson, 1996b). Traditional writing delivers a coherent narrative in large chunks of text; large chunks of text defeat the purpose of hypertext. Hypertext allows writers to organize information loosely, rather than in a well-developed thesis. Many Web pages are, in fact, simply loose collections of links thrown together by their creators to reflect, for example, a "few of my favorite things." Those favorite things may be of interest to their creator, but do not always clearly express a common thesis relevant to the reader.

WTFIGO? (Computerish acronym for What's Going On?)

Hypertext gives me the freedom to hop around; it doesn't force me to do so.

"Well-developed" is not always good, particularly if the author is not trying to sell his or her conclusion so much as to arouse curiosity or throw an issue open to debate.

And what, pray tell, is this article, if not a few of the author's favorite things? Its paragraphs may be of interest to the writer, but do not always necessarily express a common thesis relevant to this reader.

Reading traditional texts is a passive and solitary activity; reading electronic texts is an active and engaging process, as the reader makes choices about where to go, and then navigates using links and online forms to get there. Additionally, as Bolter (1991) observes, a reader who follows links is interpreting the author and the medium. Because the reader has a choice of which links to follow (and even whether to follow the links), the reader becomes the author's partner in determining the meaning of the text.

This strikes me as very important. If I can be the author's partner in discovery, I receive greater rewards than simply being an adoring fan. Our intellectual mission in life is to grow, is it not?

I enjoy writing online. While given short shrift in the article in JEP, I enjoy being able to process the words, i.e. to return to the original text to make it better. This also makes me a fearless writer, knowing that when I put on my editor hat, I'll tame down the words that could land me in jail.

I love having control over the appearance of my output. Wow. How can one complain about having more tools with which to do the job?

I should know better than to read academic journals in my leisure time. Their obfuscation and unwillingness to make a commitment drive me up the wall. This early paragraph should have tipped me off that I was going to be disappointed. The computer, developed in the mid-twentieth century, is undeniably a product of a literate and technological society. Prominent scholars like Bolter (1996), Heim (1987), and Ong (1982) consider computers to be late developments of the print age. Yet to consider computers merely an extension of the printed page is to ignore their unique nature (Ferris & Montgomery, 1996; Langston, 1986).

ROTFL.


________________________

Phatic = of, relating to, or being speech used for social or emotive purposes rather than for communicating information. (I had to look it up.)

________________________

ROTFL = Rolling on the floor laughing.


Posted by Jay Cross at December 30, 2002 06:42 PM | TrackBack
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