An online world that has such writing in't

Final lecture in Weblogs and Wikis, spring, 2006

draft 16 april 2006 | 6 May 2006 | 13 May 

I've been reading a lot on blogging, social software, wiki work, speculation by writers, news releases, blog posts ... and that has me thinking about what electronic, online, digital modes might mean to the role of professional writers.

The general claim is that we're moving towards a more collaborative construction of texts and knowledge, including weblogs and wikis, but also facebook, flickr, tagging... The claim to understanding and knowledge will be shared more and more; that the less-heard voices will be heard with the others; that we can see the world in a different way; that we will construct identities (online and rl) differently (add your weblog template to your wardrobe); that pro writers and other content creators will be a smaller part of a larger collaborative; that the threshold is lowered for admission into the club; that new literacies, new rhetorical strategies are going to be valuable (new ways of reading and understanding what we read and writing); that print will be a part of but only a part of the larger textual and image stream.

Our way of understanding an event, for instance, will come of reading a dozen or more accounts of that event and synthesizing - and writing the synthesis - of that event - much as a historian does.

Project: New ways of seeing the world idea: gather up 100 blog entries from across the world on one day. Or have 100 people around the world blog on the same event at the same time.

A culture in draft

We are moving towards a culture always in draft mode - always tentative, labeling much as "notes towards," at least until we gain confidence. Even when we move to final, the work isn't final but becomes the stuff of a remix. Blogs, wikis, tags, photo collections are in constant update. Creative Commons encourages writers to permit dervis, and pass that permission on.

Everybody writes - not just the professional writer

The general trend is that everybody writes. The CEO now keeps a blog. The owner of a business has a marketing department, but also keeps a blog to address the market directly, and in a different mode than marketing. The observer now blogs on political issues. The amateur now blogs on ecology, biology, political matters: the amateur in every area joins the respected amateurs in natural science, astronomy, weather and phenology. IT people keep blogs covering tech events, as well as creating tutorials. The city manager keeps a blog concerning city projects: the new heating plant, road repair, visits from policians. These people may not consider writing their profession, but they write, publically, as part of their profession. We all record what we're doing as part of our profession.

When everyone writes, the role of the professional writer changes - and by "pro writers" I mean writing in print genres as well as electronic forms and genres: by "pro" I mean all who would use writing as way of making a living. The presence of the pro writer changes. The pro - to distinguish herself as a pro - is now blogging, contributing to Wikipedia, watching for places to enter the text stream and bringing her expertise to a range of authoring positions. She collaborates, she keeps a blog, she offers council and advice and insight for free since she's writing anyway. She gives broader permissions to read her work.

The editor, the writer, the gatekeeper, and her linguist

In print, the editor plays the role of gatekeeper. Online, there are too many gates to keep. Some traditional editorial practices are sidelined. The formal usage and punctuation customs based on paper that editors like to wield are lightened online. Print editors find themselves in a space with new customs, waving a red pen in a keyboard-driven digital space.

This is to say that online spaces demand not prescriptive practices - practices that narrow meaning by excluding variations and keep out the uninitiated - so much as descriptive observation and flexibility. Editors need to learn new customs.

  • The editors of Wired were on the right track with their Wired Style guide (1996!).

  • Mandel and Van der Leun sketched an accurate map of the online editorial country in Rules of the Net (1996 again).

   • Linguists like Crystal (Language and the Internet) and Baron (Alphabet to Email) have more to say to online editors than StrunkAndWhite prescriptivists (Truss, Eats Shoots and Leaves is a good read, but dubious editorial practice.)

  • Courses like Elements of E-Rhetoric come into their own. 

Readers respond

Writing online means readers will respond to your work in kind: not just private letters but comments, online critiques. Readers become writers: everybody writes, not just those who write for a living.


Online work means new opportunities for freelancing, for publishing and getting noticed, both inside and outside the dominant publishing field. I've been seeing more and more of the self-made writer, who starts with some initial expertise and a load of interest, and defines a writing space, makes her presence known in a number of areas.

The range of what writers are expected to contribute is changing. Image, text, voice, and video are all within reach - and the writer may will be expected to employ them, combine them, make them talk to each other.

Writing for hire changes. Publishers, businesses, colleges are going to be demanding and expecting facility - rhetorical and stylistic deftness - with electronic forms and modes. Technological expertise is assumed so the focus will fall on rhetorical expertise and range. Resumes will no longer read Facility with Word and Excel, but Deft and decorous blogger, experience with efolios, collaborative facilitator on wiki....


Genres have changed. The personal weblog is now an uber-genre in which we present our lives or ways of thinking in reverse chronological order: newest at top. This means our weblogs - to the extent that they are autobiographies - are written not as memoirs but from within the event stream we're writing about. Which means we write in anticipation of the future but without knowledge of the significance of events in the future. We're forever writing like Pamela in her closet. We're writing as we live: from the moment.

It feels immediate, but it isn't read that way

I'm not convinced weblogs are less mediated, more immediate, than other modes of writing. I'd argue that they are possibly more mediated than most forms, and at very least as mediated as any form of writing.

Personal weblogs aren't merely immediate expressions of a person who writes: they are written expressions enacted in public. And the blog encourages ways of reading suited to its public nature: we don't read a weblog like a private journal or letter. On weblogs, the persona of the writer - the person who composes the weblog, more or less consciously and conscientiously, comes forward, is always present: there is no transparent style on weblogs. And because the persona stands forward, the weblog becomes as much about a way of understanding as about what it said. In short, the voice of a weblog is constructed, and the voice is telling.

When read as literature, weblogs are read as an enactment of you-acting-in-culture: scholar, school kid, college student, out of work writer of fiction cooking her way through Julia Child's cookbook. They are about the project as much as the writer. They are read to see what you see, seeing through your eyes for a moment, casting you as observer and transmitter of events. But they are simultaneously read with a focus on you-as-subject; read, that is, with you as the main character in a narrative you're writing. Oscillation, Richard Lanhm calls it: switching between looking through and looking at. And this means that you as a writer don't get the final call in how it's read. In oscillation, you are seen an interpreter from within the event stream, of limited perspective; readers are interpreters of you and the events from outside the stream.

Online aesthetics

Oscillation I've mentioned. But textual aesthetics online deals with

  • fragments, templates, variations on themes; 

  • collage and bricolage; 

  • immediacy and roughness favored over polish and archness; 

  • lists over paragraphs; 

  • the link as gesture; 

  • association added to and cutting across hierarchies; 

  • polymodality and polyvalency: image, music, text; 

  • free signifiers permitting mixdown and remix and mashup; 

  • brevity; 

  • semiotics as an increasingly dominant approach because, online, meaning becomes important. 

Semiotics tries to explain how the messages work, how they mean; and new semiotics draws in the visual and aural as well as the textual. It's a less tedious semiotics this time, however, in keeping with moving online. Less theory, more practice. Less concern about theoretical purity. And semiotics answers post-modernism because semiotics can explain what post-modernism is reluctant to.

I'm not sure what position taste will play in the online aesthetic, how much we will rest our understanding in taste, which is often a failure or refusal to do the hard work of analysis. I hope that we'll find more to say about meaning online than "it's a matter of taste." Semiotics can help here.

Relation to traditional print

[rough section] I'm unsure when and how online writing - the noun - will be acknowledged or find a place among the print group. Print tends to cast online writing as a service course: online is a handmaiden, a utility, tolerable when in the service of print, but not its own end. The critique echos Socrates's critique of writing in The Phaedrus. Or the position of the poet in The Republic. The poet's republic has no room for the online author. The print poem is The Real; the online poem derivative, a shadow of a shadow. Materiality is significant in crafting aesthetic objects and creating meaning, granted; and so the materiality of print production and consumption is significant to meaning. Affordances - the capabilities and constraints of the material - differ. And so the poem online does not mean the same as the poem in print, which does not mean the same as the poem in longhand, which does not mean the same as the poem in the mind of the poet. That is a major premise of 21st century rhetoric. But the leap from an acknowledgment that the medium changes meaning to the declaration that one medium is superior seems to be a defensive leap, mainly. Painting with a broad brush. A blind spot, perhaps.

At the same time, we have not yet had the kind of work in online writing that we have had in print. We don't have a canon yet, a collection of works that define the written online space; we don't have works that re-define a new aesthetic in the re-mediated space of online. No masterpieces. And because of the temporality of digital - nothing lasts long - we may not gain accepted masterpieces (which are evaluated not on their master pieceness so much as their material longevity.) In fact, the space for masterpieces may be collapsing in the new aesthetic.

So for a while, the attitude of print pros towards online professionals will range from condescension to sour grapes.

The interesting stuff will happen when the next generation of writers, who learn their alphabet on cell phones and IM, turn their minds towards screens - and they already have. Among the 13 - 16 year olds in the UK, only 5% of their written communication is done in handwriting.  

Suffice it to say this: the online professional writer - poet, novelist, non-fiction, scholar, freelancer ... - has a larger, more accessible space to work in than the print writer: a larger place to meet an audience; a broader range of texts to write.

Rethinking the professional writer

We need to re-think the professional writer. The garret is long gone; it never was. The garret has been a potent romance for some writers who still define their professional selves as forging a personal self in the smithy of their soul. And for the last 75 years, the Academy has been the writer's home, but that's collapsing. Now it's ... where? Home? The coffeeshop? The train?  Where do we write?

We can create (knowingly) a new romantic notion of the professional writer: specialized, living anywhere, going lots of places, and recording it all - not just in aesthetic forms of poetry, and new forms for online, but in communicative genres: the blog entry, the wiki contribution. The blogger-author. Authors are going to be more responsible for re-mediating forms - as they have been for 10 years. But the blogger-author might be - might cast herself - no more than text and image of the world on a screen: mysterious as you want to be, but also capable of being anywhere. The online writer is responded to - comments are part of her writing - and she can read - and respond to herself - what others write about her writing.

And the new professional writer will be always forging a self: a work in progress realized as daily postings to the blog.

images of traditional and online writers

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