Taking this side of the question is Clive Thompson, author of the new book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. Thompson says he is “regularly astonished by the quality and length of expression I find online, the majority of which is done by amateurs in their spare time.”
The length part, at least, is inarguable. Thompson, a journalist who has specialized in covering technology, asserts, “Before the Internet came along, most people rarely wrote anything at all for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college.” Now, according to his back-of-the-envelope cyphering, people compose about 3.6 trillion words a day via e-mail, blogs, and social media—the equivalent of 36 million books, give or take.
Lord knows, most of those words are horrible, as Thompson readily acknowledges. He cites Sturgeon’s Revelation, sometimes called Sturgeon’s Law, formulated in the 1950s by Theodore Sturgeon, in response to high-culture dismissals of the genre he worked in, science fiction: “Using the same standards that categorize 90 percent of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90 percent of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap.”
But some substantial minority of amateur online writing—probably well below 10 percent—is pretty or very good, in a distinctly new way. “We are now in a global culture of avid writers,” Thompson says. He goes on to quote Francesca Coppa, a professor of English at Muhlenberg College and an expert on the enormous fan-fiction community: “It’s like the Bloomsbury Group in the early 20th century, where everybody is a writer and everybody is an audience. They were all writers who were reading each other’s stuff, and then writing about that, too.” Another scholar Thompson quotes, Andrea Lunsford of Stanford, says, “We’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we have not seen since Greek civilization.”
The Internet is full of unexpected treasures that instruct and delight. Anyone with a particular interest—whether fantasy football, or cooking, or topiary—will recognize the experience of coming on one or more first-rate blogs on the subject, with authoritative, sometimes quirky, always opinionated, and occasionally brilliant writing. The Web has spawned intriguing and surprisingly capacious new genres: not only fan fiction, but the TV-show recap, the product review, and, of course, the tweet. Gertrude Stein famously told Hemingway, “Remarks are not literature,” but Twitter has occasioned a kind of apotheosis of the pithy remark as well as a renaissance in wisecracks.
All of these forms are and have to be brief. While that imperative leads to some limitations (to be treated in Part II of this post), it can also be quite salutary. In his rousing new book, How to Write Short: Communicating With Power in an Accelerating World, Roy Peter Clark argues, “A time-starved culture bloated with information hungers for the lean, clean, simple, and direct.” That is exactly what Internet writing—at its best—provides.
I have never met or talked to Daniel Nester, an associate professor of English at the College of Saint Rose. But I somehow encountered him on Facebook, friended him (or maybe he friended me), and have come to both (in a certain way) know him and enjoy his writing in this forum and on his blog. Just in the last couple of days, he has been putting together and writing about a “Double Clap Single Clap” Spotify list—that is, a playlist on the music-streaming site Spotify containing songs with such a hand-clap pattern. His original Facebook post on the topic now has 44 comments, many containing wit, discernment, passion, and specificity, such as the most recent one: “Sam Cooke’s ‘Chain Gang’ has the right rhythm and was performed with the claps when he did it live, but I don’t think the claps made it into the mix.”
You may say this and similar explorations are a waste of time, and that’s of course legitimate. But I would ask you to define “waste” and “time,” and I would be frankly surprised if you could do so in such a way that would win me over.
Even much of the not-so-good stuff out there represents a positive development because writing—specifically, writing for an audience, no matter how small—concentrates the mind wonderfully. Thompson quotes a passage from a search-engine entrepreneur and (of course) blogger named Gabriel Weinberg:
Blogging forces you to write down your arguments and assumptions. This is the single biggest reason to do it, and I think it alone makes it worth it. You have a lot of opinions. I’m sure some of them you hold strongly. Pick one and write it up in a post—I’m sure your opinion will change somewhat, or at least become more nuanced. When you move from your head to “paper,” a lot of the hand-waveyness goes away and you are left to really defend your position to yourself.
(By the way, that paragraph is a good example of some of the ups and downs of even the non-crap 10 percent of online writing. Over all, it’s good, with a nice conversational tone—note the split infinitive in the last line, and the use of second person—an air of authority and conviction, and that vivid and rather charmingly awkward coinage “hand-waveyness.” On the other hand, a line like “I think it alone makes it worth it” cries out for a copy editor.)
The best online stuff is as good as it is in part because of emerging from a brutally Darwinian environment: If you are not interesting, you will die (that is, you will be ignored). A caricatured criticism of Twitter and other social networks is that people are constantly reporting what they just ate and the like. To the extent that’s true, those people’s dispatches are not read. Tweet, blog post, or whatever, you’re always to some extent auditioning when you’re writing online. Thompson cites several studies finding that “when it comes from analytic or critical thought, the effort of communicating to someone else forces you to think more precisely, make deeper connections, and learn more.” In my own teaching, over the past couple of years, I have required students to create WordPress blogs and post certain assignments on them. Guess what? The level of the writing is consistently better.