Contemplation: A World Where Everyone Writes

My friend and yours, Evan, from OrangeCoat, sent me an article yesterday entitled “Nearly universal literacy is a defining characteristic of today’s modern civilization; nearly universal authorship will shape tomorrow’s” (Jesus that is the longest fucking title).  Later Evan wrote a personal response to the piece, which can be read here.  All and all, both the article with the preposterously long title, and Evan’s response are quite interesting, and provide some quality material for contemplation (which I haven’t done for a while).  I originally intended just to comment on Evan’s post, but realized that all my thoughts had the potential to get a bit out of hand and become something longer than that post I was commenting on.  Easier to just write it all down here then.

Why do we have writing?  Simple question really.  Why do many societies (though not all mind you) use a written language?  I am sure that anthropologists and linguists have many explanations for why written language exists, but I believe that probably the most simple and direct response is that written language exists to keep records of information.  The origin of writing, which is generally attributed to ancient Mesopotamia, started out as a means to keep track of goods and supplies.  These were very simple records, which because of their physical form provided a reliability over that of basic human memory (which is what people essentially had to rely on prior to writing).

Over time writing evolved from just serving the purpose of recording goods and supplies to being able to record laws, ideas, stories, etc.  It changed the way in which people communicated.  Where once people relied on oral traditions which, like the game of Telephone that many of us played as children, had the potential to distort and change an initial message, writing provided a means to get one direct piece of information down.  This does not mean that it was flawless mind you, writing, like all language, is open to interpretation and distortion of meaning, but writing does differ in that it is down in a physical sense which theoretically has a potential “infinite” lifespan (note: infinite in the theoretical, in the sense that we can not really comprehend the infinite.  Further, obviously a great deal of all that has ever been written has been lost and forgotten making its infinite existence moot).

So writing, where it came into use, changed how language was used.  Language was no longer simply a means of communicating but was now also a means of recording.  Now, flash forward through history to our present-day.  In all the thousands of years since ancient Mesopotamians first inscribed cuneiform characters  into clay tablets to our present-day and age of 140 character Tweets on the vast Internet, written language has gone through some considerable changes.  Not only have languages themselves changed and evolved but so have the numerous writing systems as well as the means in which we put words down and maintain them.  Over the past couple decades we have been witnessing one of those major changes as writing has increasingly moved from the physical world of books and newspapers to a digital world of computers and the Internet.  Now more than ever, we seem to becoming aware that the previous paradigms are in change, as numerous print medias close down and Google and the Kindle make books available in a digital format.

And this brings me back to the long titled article and Evan’s response to it.  According to Pelli and Bigelow (the authors of the SEED article), they believe that there will come a day and age in which there is “Nearly universal authorship.”  To qualify a piece of writing (whatever it may be) as published, Pelli and Bigelow suggest that it must reach at least 100 other people.  I think Evan has the right response in that this seems to “miss the point” a bit.  Reaching 100 people to be deemed published or an author is completely arbitrary as far as I am concerned.  Evan says:

 Authorship used to entail publishing work (usually written) produced through considerable intellectual effort and thought. Why? Because printing was costly and if your work was going to be disseminated through an expensive resource, it better be worth the read.

This is correct, but he misses the fact that furthermore, authorship and publishing possessed (and still does in a number of forms today) a degree of a vetting process.  Just because somebody can write something does not mean that they are an author, all it means is that they are capable of producing written language.  Being published is a bit more slippery in that essentially, back in the day of the “expensive resource” it can be imagined that anybody with a significant amount of money could publish whatever he or she wanted, regardless of its quality or intellectual value, but in general, published work was regarded as that which had gone through a process of approval through some third-party (an editor, publisher, etc).  Again, this does not suppose that everything which was produced was flawless, without bias, or even that good, but it does mean that there were limitations in the ways in which things were put into availability aka. published.

In contrast, in our modern times of Twitter and blogs and Internet Social Media, the ability to be “published’ is quite literally only a click away (when I am finished writing this post I will click a little button on my screen which says “Publish” to put this up on my blog).  So the question is, does just posting something on any of the numerous outlets available to Web users necessitate that it is “published” and that they are “authors” regardless of 100 people reading it or not (again, 100 is an arbitrary number used to promote a statistical model, but I do not think it is necessary at the heart of the discussion)?

I would say “no” all the while admitting that it really comes down to semantics (which in and of itself is interesting in that it is a clear example of how language can be interpreted in varying ways).

The reason why I would say no is because I think we are missing the point that we are dealing with paradigm shift in regards to written language and how it is used on the Internet.  “Authors” and “Published” are words that are used to describe a different form of writing.  We continue to use them on the Internet, not necessarily because they have the same intended meaning (I call Pelli and Bigelow “authors” above; I will “publish” this post), but because we currently lack other words to use in place of “Author” and “Publish.”  Ultimately the consensus may rule that “Author” and “Published” are used for writing on the Internet, but their meanings at that point will be different than they were in the pre-Internet world.  On other hand, we could come up with other words that we choose to use.  “Blogger” is already quite common in the lexicon, so is “Post.”  I would say that we could use words like “Web Writer” of “Contributor” to describe those who write online regardless of whether on a blog or just as a 140 character Tweet or short comment.  But again, ultimately it will be a matter of semantics and what the consensus is that determines just what written language on the Internet, and the people who produce it, are called.

The next important part to focus on from Pelli and Bigelow and Evan’s response, is the importance of influence in regards to Internet writing.  Again, I think Evan get’s it right when he says:

If everyone is influential, no one is influential. Influence requires a disproportionate weight within a community and if everyone weighs the same, who’s the influential one? What will happen has already happened — talent separates, clumping of influence emerges, the conversation gets crowded with noise, it eventually fractures, and the party moves next door with less noise.

This is true, influence cannot be evenly distributed.  There will always be people or groups that possess more influence than others.  What changes with writing on the Internet, is not that people will certainly gain more influence, but instead that they may possess the potential to reach a greater audience and thus more people may have the ability to have a degree of influence. 

Let me put it like this.  Essentially, it can be assumed, that anybody who has unrestricted access to the Internet, could find and read my blog, and could, in turn, be influenced by my writing.  With this consideration I have a pretty wide potential for influence right?  Well kind of.  Sure the potential is there, but that doesn’t actually mean that I have any major influence.  On any given day I usually get somewhere between 100 – 200 unique visits to this blog, which is by no means a very large number considering that there are some websites getting millions of hits a day.  While millions of people could feasibly access my blog and read my writing, they do not.  Why?  Probably because my actual influence is quite low. 

So where does influence come from?  It does not come from the fact that one can create ideas and make them available.  We can all do that.  Even before the day and age of the Internet we could.  What creates influence is a sense of Talent, Authority (yes, note the “author” in there), and Relevance.  Prior to the Internet, anybody who willed it could stand in the middle of town and start ranting and raving about whatever ills he or she imagined, but likely his/her influence would be limited at best.  However, if they possessed a degree of talent, or had some actual authority on the topic, or were touching upon a particularly relevent subject their influence had a potential to increase.  If they had a combination of some or all of these elements then it makes sense that their influence would increase even more so.  As such the President of the United States of America giving a speech on the State of the Union over the radio would have far more influence than a person protesting the new street development in a small town.

Of course there is the reach, and that is where the playing field get’s a bit more leveled.  As I said above, essentially anybody who has access to the Internet could get to this blog and read this post.  As such, that person on the street corner protesting new street development, could create a blog, or post multiple Tweets, about their thoughts or interests, but without those elements of talent, authority, and relevance their actual influence is limited at best.

It is reasonable to assume, as Pelli and Bigelow have, that there will be a time in the future where the majority of the World’s population has access to the Internet (or something very similar to it) and have the opportunity to write on it through multiple outlets.  It is further reasonable to assume that the social and open nature of these communications will continue, so that people all over the world can access any posts or writings and partake in part of a discussion with them.  However, this does not mean that everybody will share influence, it will merely dictate that the potential for their writing or communication to be accessed will be greater than it probably would have been in a pre-Internet world.

A problem and perhaps irritation, that I often encounter with all this news about how the Internet is “changing the way we live,” is that it often strikes me that people are jumping to conclusions a little bit too fast.  That isn’t to say that the Internet won’t (or hasn’t) change society or the world, it is just that so much of what is claimed to be the next “big change” jumps the gun and seems to fail to take into consideration a whole slew of other factors that play importance in human interaction and life.  I think Pelli and Bigelow have written an interesting consideration (which I in turn am choosing to provide a further outlet of spreading and sharing) on the way that people communicate and how the Internet will possibly affect writing, but I also think that they fail to a degree to consider that for thousands of years writing has been changing anyways, and that it will inevitably continue to change even as more and more people write online.  The Internet is big news because it, and all the tools it provides us, is present, but that does not make it the pinnacle of human achievement or potential, it is merely another moment in the ongoing fluidity and dynamics of human kind.

All and all good stuff.  Thank you to Pelli, Bigelow and Evan for getting my brain wheels turning this morning.  It’s been real.

~ by Nathaniel on October 28, 2009.

3 Responses to “Contemplation: A World Where Everyone Writes”

  1. Wow, that was more of a lit-review than a blog post. So many thoughts, but can’t remember all. I like what you said about people jumping to conclusions. Isn’t it enough of a miracle that our literacy rate has risen so dramatically? Can’t we revel in that before we dive into an author inhabited world?

    I guess my overall feeling on the subject is that I’m glad that intelligent discussions can be made about the implications of our Web communications technology. It is so vital these days to really examine the growth of the Web and its developments. Thanks for this post, and thank Evan too, his post was great.

    • Glad you liked the post. It is true that it is important to take into consideration the effects that Internet use is going to have on society and the world as a whole. But, as has been said, I think a lot of these considerations jump the gun and a willing to make conclusions before they have even been able to see the data that supports their assumptions. So many people have jumped all over services like Twitter and how it is such a World changer (which to a degree is true) but what the miss is just how fast the Internet is changing, and the fact that just 20 years ago, nobody had ever thought that there would be a form of communication like Twitter. In that case what will we be using in the next 20 years. At times the reactions strike me as unfortunately narrow minded. Yes the Internet is important and is causing changes in the way we think and interact, but it is not done yet, it might not be done in our lifetime, so it might just be worth taking it easy a bit, and seeing where we go.

  2. […] viewed by whomever happens to stumble upon it.  Last week I wrote about what the future holds for a world where almost everybody is producing publicly accessible writing (of some sort) and some time back, before that, I wrote about the responsibility vested in people […]

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