This Thursday, I’m giving a university-wide public lecture at my alma mater (Drake). This would normally be terrifying, except that I did essentially the same thing last year at Trinity University (“Professional Writing and the Rise of the Amateur“), and loved it.
Writing a one-hour speech is different than a typical essay. For one thing, the stakes are higher. There’s an implied social contract between speaker and listener: the former will keep it interesting, while the latter will pay attention.
One can stop reading an article at any point. One can’t walk out of a lecture without being a dick.
My title for the Drake talk is “The Challenge of Writing in a Digital Age.” My thesis is that in the age of the internet, good writing has become both more important and more difficult. And while my speech is directed at a university community, part of my premise is that the distinction between “academic” and “professional” is artificial and irrelevant. A university isn’t “real life with training wheels.” The same issues that matter on a history paper about the Reconstruction come into play in business memos, screenplays, annual reports and US Weekly.
There are (as of now) seven qualities I want to examine. But since this is in fact a digital age, it seems appropriate to invite readers to comment upon and redirect my theses. So have at ‘em:
When I was a student in the early ’90s, if you could find it in a book or magazine, it was a fact. You worried more about citing it properly than questioning its accuracy. But when you’re using online resources, who’s to say whether a source is worthy of inclusion?
I’m using “authority” to denote the confluence of expertise and reputation on a specific subject. For example, I have a lot of authority on issues of screenwriting, not only because of my credits, but because of the consistency and accuracy of my articles on the topic. Although I’ve written about mathematics, I have a lot less authority on this subject, and you’d be foolish to include me in any serious paper on imaginary numbers.
And yet, as evidenced by the virulence of internet hoaxes, way too many readers seem to believe whatever they read online. They’re still treating life like a early-90’s term paper.
I was calling this “copying,” since it’s largely about plagiarism and copyright infringement (related but frustratingly incompatible issues). But I went with “authorship” in order to cover what I think is a bigger issue: the degree to which you can claim and defend work as your own. To me, it has less to do with the law, and more about how you define yourself as a brand.
As a writer, I’m very careful not to steal, and not just because it’s illegal or morally wrong. I don’t steal because doing so would gravely hurt the reputation of John August, Inc.
One thought: If every class paper you turned in went not only to your professor, but also online for the whole class, would you be less apt to plagiarize? I think the social pressure would be enormous, and helpful.
With the rise of blogs and internet forums, the boundaries between public and private, publisher and reader, have disintegrated. For all of the positive benefits — reaction, clarification, the gadfly factor — it’s brought a lot of bad writing into the world. Worse, I think it’s reinforcing the two-sides fallacy, where extreme positions are given equal footing by the “real” media in a misdirected attempt at fairness.
There’s a term for when this happens in forums, which I’m finding impossible to Google. It’s something like tumbleweeds. If this rings a bell, please share.
It’s an over-used term, so I’d love to find a replacement. I’m talking about how difficult it can be to identify the source and motivation behind a message.
On last night’s Desperate Housewives, was Bree’s shopping spree at Macy’s a scene, or an ad? A bit of both, it turns out. And while there have always been “advertorials,” the rise of stealth marketing makes it harder to trust any sources.
Do you want to see what johnaugust.com looked like in 2003? It’s all there, archived for eternity. Along with every comment you typed in a forum, and what you wrote on your friend’s Facebook wall. Pre-internet, 99% of what we wrote disappeared, with term papers thrown away and diskettes rendered obsolete. For better — but often for worse — an increasing percentage of our work is everlasting, retrievable not only by the author, but by anyone else.
During production, AICN put up a review of my script for CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Only it wasn’t. It was a complete fabrication, an intellectual masturbation that was actually labeled “a loving work of fiction.”
When I complained, they put up a follow-up article saying that, “Oh, yeah, that wasn’t real.” But they still left up the original fake review, with no amendment.
The flip side of permanence, I’m talking about how difficult it can be to lock down the “final” version of anything. Links break, and articles are revised. When Variety first published Michael Fleming’s article about the Fox writers’ deal online, the quotes kept changing. Every 20 minutes, it was a slightly different article, with a slightly different spin. Once upon a time, you yelled, “Stop the presses!” Now you just click “update.” It’s not just less dramatic. It’s a fundamentally different act, with the stakes so lowered that there’s less pressure to get it right the first time.
Not only does news (or its bastard cousin, “entertainment news”) get reported more quickly today, but the reaction to it is much faster. Chris Crocker got his 15 seconds of fame not because of a particularly insightful reaction to Britney Spears, but because of a timely one. If he’d delayed one day, it wouldn’t have been worth mentioning.
But it raises an obvious question: If 24 hours makes something unimportant, was it ever important?
Journalism pundits will argue whether the rush to be first has eclipsed the need to be right. But I think it misses the larger point — that we’ve all essentially become journalists. By allowing anyone to reach a global audience, the internet has destroyed the traditional channels. The challenge is to find a way through the chaos.
My hunch is that it depends on Authority, Authorship and Transparency — a way to trust that the individual writer is speaking honestly about a subject within her sphere, with verifiable facts. In academics, this happens through peer review. I think it’s a similar type of social pressure — the need to be liked, to be respected — that will ultimately shape writing in the digital age.
Thoughts? Examples? Objections? That’s the point of the hive mind. If you have something to share, please do.