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The future of writing in a readerless world: two takes


Change in language is, however, inevitable, just as it is in all other aspects of reality.

Technology is just evolution by non-biological means.

Before I wrote "Writing Well for Social Media" (a chapter for the Cleveland Social Media Club's ebook) I began been tracking the jokes about, polemics against, and advice for writing online.

Let's leave aside the cranks who claim that "Generation Text" is "ruining English" by (wittingly or unwittingly) using texting shorthand in their term papers. (The term paper written entirely in "txt spk" and posted to the internet turned out to be a hoax.) The research shows that in fact better writers than those in the past ("using far more complex sentence structures, a wider vocabulary and a more accurate use of capital letters, punctuation and spelling").

Yes, Virginia, the world still does need writers, although the nature of the writing they produce continues to change to meet the needs of the people formerly known as "readers" and now known as "scanners," "followers" (twitter), "recipients" (email), "connections" (LinkedIn) or "friends (Facebook)."

Whether the redefined future of the online writer excites or horrifies you depends entirely on your faith in the potential of links, interrelated data sets, mashups and other nonlinguistic tools to provide the depth that bullet points and 140-characters sound bites obviously cannot.

Two recent blogs posts depict the future of writing in a world of scanners. In "Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era, Robert Lanham mocks new developments, while in "Axioms for 21st Century Media," Dan Conover embraces them. But their visions of the written word's future are remarkably similar. In the future, the word will be referential, decentralized, truncated, and yoked to other media, other ways of conveying information.

From McSweeney's Internet Tendency (all emphases are mine):

ENG 371WR:
Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era
Instructor: Robert Lanham

Students will acquire the tools needed to make their tweets glimmer with a complete lack of forethought, their Facebook updates ring with self-importance, and their blog entries shimmer with literary pithiness. All without the restraints of writing in complete sentences. w00t! w00t! Throughout the course, a further paring down of the Hemingway/Stein school of minimalism will be emphasized, limiting the superfluous use of nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, gerunds, and other literary pitfalls.
Among the prerequisites:
ENG: 232WR—Advanced Tweeting: The Elements of Droll
LIT: 223—Early-21st-Century Literature: 140 Characters or Less
ENG: 231WR—Facebook Wall Alliteration and Assonance
LIT: 202—The Literary Merits of Lolcats
LIT: 209—Internet-Age Surrealistic Narcissism and Self-Absorption
Required Reading: "Literary works, including the online table of contents of the Huffington Post's Complete Guide to Blogging, will serve as models to be skimmed for thorough analysis. Also, Perez Hilton's Twitter feed." A typical unit:
Week 6: 140 Characters or Less

Students will acquire the tools needed to make their tweets come alive with shallow wit. They'll learn how to construct Facebook status updates that glitter with irony, absurdity, and dramatic glibness.

Attendance: Unnecessary, but students should be signed onto IM and/or have their phones turned on.
Dan Conover's insights in "Xark! Axioms for 21st Century Media" is very Web 2.0, boiled down to pithy axioms presented in a numbered list:

  1. The present is functionally obsolete.
  2. For planning purposes, the short-term future IS the present.
  3. Planning for the short-term is not a strategy. It's like navigating solely by what you can see.
  4. There is no map, and the future is not predictable. Consequently, shoot for standard formats (XML, RDF, etc.) and build products and systems to be adaptable and inter-operable.
  5. Don't build your future on a rock. Build your future on a surfboard. We're not on dry land anymore.
  6. Proprietary systems are rocks. Open Source systems are surfboards.
  7. Own your data.
  8. Think databases, not documents.
  9. Unstructured data has a value that approaches zero as it ages.
  10. Structured data is too formal to describe the messy world around us.
  11. Semi-structured data looks like the Goldilocks Zone for news media.
  12. The One With The Best Tools Wins.
  13. Web 1.0 is to the Web as rotary phones are to telecommunication: Rotary phones still work, but they're irrelevant to what comes next.
  14. The challenge is: Build tools that give humans superhuman abilities.
  15. Technology is just evolution by non-biological means.

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David H. April 23, 2009 at 5:15 PM  

As I hyperventilate, I'll just say that I've always striven for dramatic glibness.

Great post, Lila!

Mo April 25, 2009 at 11:23 PM  

Fabulous post, Lila!

It scares me that the present is functionally obsolete. Last I checked, it's all we have.

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