Much has been said about how the internet has changed the way we read. But what about its affect on writing? The influence of technology on writing is a fascinating one, because it influences not just what we write about, but more profoundly, the way that we write.
How Technology Influences The Way We Write
This isn’t the first time that technology has fundamentally changed the way that we write. Consider the following:
- The printing press: enabled writing to be mass produced for the first time, allowing the circulation of texts in large numbers around the world. The effects on the English language were: sharing of words and figures of speech between regions, and a standardisation of the English language between them. Many of the norms of language that we now know were created in this era. (Source)
- The typewriter: like all of these technologies, it made writing easier and faster to write. Hence it may have decreased the care with which some writing was undertaken and also increased populism in writing. Writing was increasingly being used for business, marketing, politics, etc. The typewriter also standardised many punctuational conventions including underline and tabulation. It also standardised many which were born out of limitations in the technology, like the use of two dashes (–) for an em-dash (—).
- The word processor: was the great leap that made writing even easier and more carefree. You can delete, rewrite, undo and redo ad infinitum. And, it democratised the professional typography features that previously only specialists could afford—bold, italics, numerous fonts, special characters and colours. This had numerous effects: greater use of the formatting effects e.g. bold, but greater misuse and overuse of them e.g. image borders, sometimes less care taken in writing, possibly promotes more stream-of-consciousness writing techniques, possibly provides more distractions by being full-featured and situated on a computer. And many more . . .
And now the internet. Could this be as momentous a change as the word processor?
How The Internet Changes The Way We Read (And How This May Change The Way We Write)
Its effect on reading has been likened to that of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) (Daily Dot)—a not too alarmist statement if you compare our frenzy of tabs and clicking with the old-fashioned way of quietly turning pages and taking pauses to ponder.
The significance of this is that the way we read affects the way we think and the way we write. If you read T. S. Eliot, you are more likely to write like T. S. Eliot. A great way to improve your writing is to rewrite your favourite passages from your favourite authors, focussing on every detail and flourish as you write. Yours truly has done this. It’s called copywork. But, in the word’s of one of my high school English teachers:
If you read crap, you’ll write crap.
Is internet content of a low literary standard?
- It is brief.
- It is grammatically and typographically loose and experimental.
- It is multimedia and interactive.
- It is conversational and highly social.
- It is often anonymously authored.
The most direct example of how online reading may change the way we write is the new literary genre of Alt-Lit.
The Internet In A Book
Alt-Lit is the internet in a book.
It is characterised by: internet-style typography (no caps, reverse caps, etc), web writing forms e.g. chat logs, web slang and abbreviations e.g. lol, modern settings, significant amounts of the plot happening online, internet culture, maximalism (to the attention-deficit extreme) and also themes borrowed from postmodernism, existentialism and nihilism.
One of the quintessential Alt-Lit texts is Taipai by Tao Lin. If you clicked the link you will notice: very mixed reviews. My own opinion is this: Taipai is a book epitomising the literature of the internet. It is a book influenced by the internet written by a guy that reads from the internet quite a lot. It is sincere in this sense and this is the reason that it is often annoying, awkward, juvenile, misguided, obsessive, heavy handedly ‘edgy’, self-indulgent and narcissistic. It’s personality shines through in the same way as that of a reddit comment. It’s not high art, a literary masterpiece or anything close. But it does possess wit albeit along with some irritating impressions and motivations. The lingering question for all those who read it is:
Does Tao Lin ironically reflect the internet or is his writing actually like that?
This isn’t meant to be some kind of rant against the author so I will admit that I need to read his other works in order to form an opinion on this. It’s like when browsing 4chan and wondering how many people posting pro-Trump memes actually support him or are just being ironic.
How The Internet (Directly) Changes The Way We Write
But the internet has a much more direct affect on the way we write. It has become a central part of the writing process.
This is me writing now:
It is a setup that many of you will be familiar with. Editor on the right, web browser on the left with numerous tabs open including one key source that ‘heavily inspires/informs’ the thing you are writing.
The Tenets Of The Web-Connected Writer
We are experiencing a new wave of literature with writers that had access to the internet. You find yourself reflecting on this as you read authors like Tao Lin, Megan Boyle, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo et al. They didn’t have to read as many textbooks to acquire the knowledge they display, some of it would have been sourced during writing. And despite being famous authors, you can imagine that they did humanly use an online dictionary/thesaurus tool at times during writing also. How is this changing modern literature?
- Access to wider knowledge. The internet provides broad knowledge to those who conduct a cursory search. This can inform a writer on even an issue that they do not know during writing without having to trawl a library for a book. But in the case of deep knowledge, the internet isn’t as advantageous over a library (because you end up reading a book anyway, just off a screen). Easier research is a large help in essay-writing, which at the very least, makes essay-writing faster.
- Easier replication. The internet makes ‘copy-paste writing’ easy. You can copy-paste directly, you can rewrite closely, one of the several webpages doubtlessly out there about a similar topic to the one you are writing. You can even use ‘respinning’ web apps to rewrite it for you. And internet culture encourages all this in its strong ties to remix culture. The effects on writing may be a reduction in originality, an increase in resourcefulness, and an increase in plagiarism. But all of these are just speculations.
- Democratised publishing. Publishing serious literature is still largely about book deals and printing. Even e-book deals. But a new democratic form of self-publishing has been enabled by the internet. Forums, social media sites and personal webpages allow writers to publish literature for free, and have it made accessible to all users of the site. This contributes to the way that literature is becoming more conversational and social in many ways.
The ultimate example of all of these three tenets of web writing is fan fiction. Fan fiction aka ‘fluff’ has flourished on the net, because the web gives people immediate access to their favourite shows/other media, it makes it easy to replicate this content and above all, it is easy to share fan fiction on sites of other fans.
The Future Of Web Writing
It will be interesting to see the way that both fiction and critical writing continues to evolve in the future in response to the technology of the internet. My opinion is that web content will continue to diverge from academic literature and that it will soon begin to influence academic literature in the same way that it is also influencing the way that we speak.
The Alt-Lit genre looks doomed to fail, for it flies in the face of the brevity of web writing, and also it seems to reflect many of the most irritating aspects of web culture.
But fan fiction is still very strong and set to continue. People timelessly love to replicate what they love so this element of web writing is here to stay.