Writing Electronically: The Effects of Computers on Traditional Writing
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Computers, and the electronic writing they have enabled, significantly alter traditional conceptions of writing. The effects of electronic writing on traditional text call for a re-examination of the prevailing print metaphor for online writing.
A brief historical overview can help us better understand the effects of computers on traditional writing. The three great communication revolutions — symbolic language, writing, and print — have led to the current revolution of computers and electronic technologies.
The development of symbolic language parallels the development of human society and culture. The ability to communicate orally, using symbols to convey both concrete and abstract information, distinguishes the human race. Yet, before the development of a means to record language, communication was limited by individual capacities for memory and cognition. Theorists such as Walter Ong (1977, 1982) and Eric Havelock (1986) have detailed the cognitive and expressive characteristics of spoken language. Oral discourse relies on sound, which is evanescent, having meaning only when it is going out of existence. This evanescence of sound is what gives rise to the cognitive and expressive characteristics that distinguish "orality" (evident in those cultures lacking written language). While such characteristics include the important capacity for abstract thought, other characteristics stemming from the nature of the speaker are more limiting. For example, oral language is limited by the memory of the individual, leading to an emphasis on formulas and mnemonic structures. For the same reason, oral language is additive rather than subordinative, aggregative rather than analytic, redundant, and conservative. It is close to the 'human life world,' (a phrase used by Ong to denote the physical world as experienced by humans, rather than abstract thought) in its content, and agonistic in tone.
Although symbolic language enabled a significant number of human achievements, it was not until humans developed a means to record language that human society could really expand and grow. Prior to the invention of a recording system, societies were limited by the number of people who could be assembled to hear the spoken word (Schmandt-Besserat, 1986). Writing enabled societies not only to expand, but also to communicate across the boundaries of space and time. Of equal importance are the cognitive and expressive consequences of chirography (handwriting) (Ong, 1967, 1982). Although writing builds on the symbolic and rule-based systems of oral language, it requires knowledge of an alphabetic (or pictographic) symbol system, and of chirography. With the developments of literate skills come cognitive and expressive (language-use) changes such as detachment. Writing encourages abstract and analytic thought: Since the writer and artifact are different, detachment is highlighted and self-consciousness is more pronounced. The durability of written language removes the necessity for mnemonic characteristics of oral language; people can refer back to written text and are not constrained to organize it in ways that encourage memory (such as setting content to songs or chants). The lack of presence of the other is compensated for by textual cues like punctuation, and by recognized conventions of grammar and usage that help the reader understand who is being spoken about, for instance. In addition, writing's immobilization of meaning on paper allows re-reading or "backward scanning" (Goody, 1977, cited in Ong, 1982, p. 100). The reader can review the ideas presented to better understand them in terms of the author's point.
Written expression differs from oral expression in that it is dependent entirely on the alphabetic word — and not on the visual and vocal elements that help people communicate in face-to-face speech. Writing requires a codifiable medium to convey meaning. Also, it uses a vocabulary, based on known conventions and rules of usage, to create new ideas. In written expression, discrete elements (the alphabet) are combined and recombined to help convey new ideas, often using new words created to meet the needs of conveying those new ideas. Finally, written language must have a fixed relationship with spoken language, so that people can communicate the same thought in two different media simultaneously — as in reading to one another. These elements give writing its characteristics of permanence and completeness. As opposed to the transience of spoken language, writing has a lasting, permanent quality about it. Written language is less redundant, more planned. Meaning and shades of meaning are conveyed by carefully chosen and placed words. Meaning may be modified by deleting, editing, and otherwise changing the written words, unlike oral language, where once words are said out loud, they cannot be unsaid, only explained. Sequentiality, like the subject-verb-object sequence in English, is important in writing; spoken language is often understood even when the structure of the sentence is fractured. In written language, the presence of the receiver is not required, and the constraints of time and space are removed. Given these factors, writing can be more analytical than oral communication.
With the mechanization of writing, the characteristics of written language were refined and expanded. The invention of print led not only to the expansion of literacy, but to the gradual development of a number of factors with profound cognitive and expressive impacts. Print concretized the permanence of writing. Until the printing press, writing was fragile, with its permanence dependent on the preservation of an often single piece of parchment or reed (Eisenstein, 1983). Print introduced durability and multiple copies, and "embedded the word in (visual) space more definitively" (Ong 1982, p. 123). It also introduced hierarchies, which in turn introduced lists and indexes. The development of print was significant in that it reinforced the linearity and sequentiality of writing while focusing on the hierarchical thinking that was essential to the eventual flowering of modern science. The permanent nature of print also led to the preservation of language. The mass dissemination of printed texts meant both fixity and standardization of content (Eisentsein, 1983).
Print arrested linguistic drift, standardized language, and eventually led to the deliberate codification of written language. The proliferation of printed texts also led to the establishment of research and the development of the scientific method. The analytic element introduced by writing was reinforced by print, with a corresponding focus on logic. Increased availability and affordability of printed texts enabled the development of the modern educational system, where the student can conduct inquiry into a body of knowledge rather than rely solely on the knowledge of one teacher (Eisenstein, 1983).
Print also played a significant role in the development of the modern sense of personal privacy and private ownership. As books became portable and affordable, reading became a solitary rather than a social activity (Ong, 1982), and people wanted to own the books they were reading in private. The printing press laid the foundation for today's models of commercial writing, introducing the concepts of ownership and mass publication. The numerous and important effects of the printing press are thought by many to have led directly to the industrial and electronic age that produced the computer.
The Impact of Computers on Traditional Writing
The computer, developed in the mid-twentieth century, is undeniably a product of a literate and technological society. Prominent scholars like Bolter (1996), Heim (1987), and Ong (1982) consider computers to be late developments of the print age. Yet to consider computers merely an extension of the printed page is to ignore their unique nature (Ferris & Montgomery, 1996; Langston, 1986). Electronic writing is a singular product of the computer age, and the electronic writing enabled by computers has affected traditional writing significantly.
"The text becomes more immediate, more fragmented and fluid, and the medium offers greater capacity for individual participation and interactivity"
Because electronic writing takes many forms, its meaning should be clarified. As used here, electronic writing refers to the conglomerate of writing that can be done on and through the medium of a networked computer. This includes writing for asynchronous interpersonal communication (as in e-mail, mailing lists, newsgroups, and discussion groups), writing for synchronous interpersonal communication (as in chatrooms, MUDs or multi-user dimensions, and MOOs or multi-user dimensions, object-oriented), and writing on the World Wide Web (including hypertext). This paper focuses on electronic writing on the World Wide Web.
Literacy to Orality
Although this paper concentrates on hypertext, it's useful to look at the effects of other kinds of electronic writing and their legacies.
Computers re-introduce many oral characteristics into electronic writing. For example, computer-mediated communication reintroduces the qualities of temporal immediacy, phatic communion, the use of formulaic devices, presence of extra textual content, and development of community that had been characteristics of oral communication. These characteristics lead many researchers to consider computer-mediated communication what Ong (1982) calls 'secondary' orality, an idea supported by other researchers (see for example Lee, 1996; Ferris & Montgomery, 1996). However, computers are unique in that they introduce characteristics that go beyond the secondary orality evident in television, film, and other electronic media. For instance, although computers rely on an alphabetical or symbolic lexicon, they are more than a print-reliant or "literate" medium. Computers utilize print in a flexible manner, allowing immediacy in communication, while enabling a concentration on the present moment, and eliminating distance between users — all oral characteristics. (Hypertext introduces further oral characteristics stemming from its changing, evanescent, and "virtual" nature; it exhibits a lack of linearity, and a quality of instability.)
Because computer-mediated communication allows the reader to manipulate content, it becomes even less "literate" than the print from which it stems. The reader can interact with the text on an immediate, physical level; roles of writers and readers thus become unclear. The experience becomes fragmentary and malleable, or oral, rather than unified and stable, or literate (Sudol, 1993), and information retains a fluidity in computer-mediated communication that it lacks in traditional literacy (Langston, 1986).
Electronic writing is characterized by the use of oral conventions over traditional conventions, of argument over exposition, and of group thinking over individual thinking. The oral conventions are evident in the way people subvert or abandon traditional conventions of grammar and punctuation in electronic writing. Meaning is very often conveyed by cues recognized only by users of computer-mediated communication. Some examples are acronyms like BTW (by the way) and IMO (in my opinion), and specialized use of typography — for example, *word* to signify italics and the use of nonverbal icons or emoticons like a smiley face :-) — which differ from traditionally recognized textual cues. Bolter (1991) considers the use of such graphics to be the most original contribution of computers to writing.
Scholars have been fascinated by the uninhibited, sometimes even aggressive approaches in computer-mediated communication (Kiesler, 1987; Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire, 1984), which Maylath (1993) says is agonistic and oral in its roots. Group thinking is evident in the emphasis on "unification" of users into a "global village," a metaphor that is widely accepted in computer-mediated communication, although it still depends on isolated users (Metz, 1996).
Finally, computer users often treat electronic writing as an oral medium: communication is often fragmented, computer-mediated communication is used for phatic communion, and formulaic devices have arisen. Like primary orality, electronic communication is often "language of action" (Murray, 1985, 1988).
Electronic writing thus transforms traditional writing by introducing oral elements that differentiate it from secondary orality — that is, the "new" orality introduced in the age of media — as much as from traditional literacy. Computers incorporate a new orality by bringing new perspectives to the manipulation and understanding of writing. The text becomes more immediate, more fragmented and fluid, and the medium offers greater capacity for individual participation and interactivity.
Yet, while computers modify writing by reintroducing oral elements, they also remain technologically based and grounded in the abstract, analytical, literate modes of thought that govern traditional writing. Many scholars consider computers to be a text-based medium reliant on the conventions of literacy (Karovsky, 1992; Killingsworth, 1993; Van Mersbergen, 1994). This point of view is supported by the fact that today the electronic age has not created a decline in writing but rather appears to have brought about a "significant increase in the artifacts of literacy" as electronic devices produce more printed materials (Ong, 1982, p. 135).
Linearity to Connectivity
Linearity and sequentiality are integral elements in traditional writing. Ideas are expressed in a logical, linear fashion, and linear narrative forms govern most traditional writing (Gibson, 1996a). Electronic writing, however, subverts traditional conventions of linearity, both in interpersonal communication online and in the use of hypertext on the Web. Electronic writing used for interpersonal purposes (e.g., e-mail, mailing lists) by its very nature disregards linearity in its (often) asynchronous nature. But it is hypertext that truly transforms the element of linearity in traditional writing. Hypertext, the language of the Web, is a non-linear language that is dynamic and non-sequential, and connects information through nodes or links (Bardini, 1997). Hypertext frequently incorporates multimedia, principally graphics and sound. Some scholars laud the use of hypertext as a reflection of the way the human mind works (by association and connection). Nevertheless, hypertext dramatically changes traditional writing, not only removing the linear imperative, but by substantially impacting common literary and grammatical conventions. Due to its emphasis on connectivity rather than linearity, hypertext discourages the use of coherent narrative (Gibson, 1996a, Gibson, 1996b). Traditional writing delivers a coherent narrative in large chunks of text; large chunks of text defeat the purpose of hypertext. Hypertext allows writers to organize information loosely, rather than in a well-developed thesis. Many Web pages are, in fact, simply loose collections of links thrown together by their creators to reflect, for example, a "few of my favorite things." Those favorite things may be of interest to their creator, but do not always clearly express a common thesis relevant to the reader.
Fixity to Fluidity
An integral aspect of traditional writing and print is the fixity of the word on the page. Electronic writing, especially hypertext, lacks this fixity, existing as it does in cyberspace. Barnes (1996, citing Lanham, 1992 and Bolter, 1991) observes that electronic text is always fluid; it is never fixed. It remains ever dynamic and subject to change and modification. Writing posted to the Web in hypertext is never finished, as it can not only be updated and revised at will, but its nature can be changed as other writers link to it. Electronic text is thus not only a fluid network of writing, but it is also a fluid network of information and interpersonal relationships.
Relatedly, with electronic writing, the permanence of the written artifact no longer exists, taking away from electronic writing an integral feature of print. Written and printed texts provide readers with a concrete artifact that encourages backward and forward scanning. Electronic writing, whether it be an e-mail or a Web document, exists only in electronic space, providing the reader with vanishing words on a screen rather than a written artifact with concrete presence. It is this lack of permanence that leads many computer users to record data on disks (Murray, 1985) or on paper.
Finally, Lanham (1992, cited in Barnes, 1996) points out a different aspect of the fluidity of electronic writing: the use of binary code. As the medium for electronic writing, binary computer language with its 0s and 1s (in contrast to the alphabetic code used for traditional writing) is a significant factor in altering the fixity of the written word on the printed page. Alphabetic writing is rigid in that it relies on a finite alphabet, combined in words that are expressed on the written page in a specific linear order and sequence. Binary code can be used to represent any character set, and therefore is not tied to a specific language or culture, and in addition those two characters also can be used to represent graphical images, unlike a 26-letter alphabet, which represents words and calls for discursive writing. The complexity of visual and graphic forms in hypertext calls for non-discursive reading and writing. Therefore electronic writing opposes the standardization of language encouraged by the traditional text (p. 14). With the gradual reversal of the standardizing effects of print, language becomes more fluid once again.
Passivity to Interactivity
In addition to nonlinearity and fixity, interactivity also distinguishes electronic writing from traditional writing. Hypertext again provides the definitive example. The Web is a global hypertext system unique in its capacity to interface with other systems. The use of embedded links allows interactivity between the reader, author, and medium. This not only creates a unique convergence of mass media and interpersonal media where the consumer can become the provider of information, but it allows a unique re-negotiation of the writer-audience relationship. A reader perusing a traditional text is bound by the linear, two-dimensional nature of the printed word on the page to follow where the author leads. The electronic nature of hypertext requires a much more active role for the reader, urging the reader to make decisions about destination and content. This process involves an ongoing dialogue between the author, the medium, and the reader, thus not only enforcing interactivity but blurring the traditional boundaries between reader and writer. Reading traditional texts is a passive and solitary activity; reading electronic texts is an active and engaging process, as the reader makes choices about where to go, and then navigates using links and online forms to get there. Additionally, as Bolter (1991) observes, a reader who follows links is interpreting the author and the medium. Because the reader has a choice of which links to follow (and even whether to follow the links), the reader becomes the author's partner in determining the meaning of the text.
“The prevailing print metaphor may need re-examination, because electronic writing can be very different from traditional text”
The interactive nature of electronic writing also creates new constraints for writers, who must become concerned with issues of design and navigability in addition to those of narrative and purpose (Gibson, 1996a). They cannot be separated, as it is the responsibility of the online writer to provide material that is easy for the audience to locate and navigate. The organization of the material must be visually appealing and must take advantage of the unique interactive features of the Web. In traditional writing the publisher or editor makes material available and visually appealing; in cyber-writing, as Gibson (1997) points out, the cyber-writer often also must be editor and designer, considering issues of file structure, graphic design, and navigability. Writing becomes even more complex because the writer has little control over the paths readers will take through the hyperlinks.
A final active feature of electronic writing is the writer's need to learn new and changing technologies. Although most computer word-processing software has the capability of conversion to hypertext, electronic writing requires a knowledge of computers and software. Skilled electronic writers need to incorporate the latest information-organization and design technologies. At present, this involves knowledge of sophisticated programming languages (such as Java, C++ and ColdFusion), and graphic and audio design.
Traditional Quality to Value
A singular feature of electronic writing is that it allows anyone with access to a networked computer to "publish" on the Internet. Today's sophisticated and user-friendly software makes it easy for entry-level writers to publish their writing on the Web. Through global search engines and linking, cyber-writers have the potential to reach a large reading public, and writing to a sizable audience thus becomes an option not open to most writers in non-electronic print. The reach of the Internet makes quality an important issue: ideally, such a powerful medium should present only the best. Yet electronic writing is an extensive and democratic medium, freely available to many writers and readers, and encompassing an immense variety of writing genres and purposes. In traditional print media, publications are targeted towards specific functions and audiences. Over the centuries, fiction, poetry, prose, journalism, advertising, and scholarship all have developed their recognized conventions and standards. The Net encompasses all these specialized forms of writing, including their recognizable typography, and allows writers to create new forms unique to cyberspace (such as mailing lists, the Web, MOOs and MUDs). All of these are combined on the Net to provide the largest volume of writing that has ever been available.
Each specialized genre of traditional writing has its own standards for quality of content. But by what common standards or criteria can we judge content in cyberspace, especially given the incredible volume of information that must be sifted through? Although there is no one answer to this question, one new and unique criterion that can be used to characterize good electronic writing is that of value. Value, according to Webster's Dictionary (1989), is 'a measure of how strongly something is desired ... expressed in terms of the effort one is willing to spend in acquiring it.' Given that all navigation in cyberspace requires time, interest, and access to technology, any writing that leads the reader to seek it out can be called good writing (Negroponte, 1995). The criterion of value may be the one new factor of quality that is unique to electronic writing. While the marketplace always has been a measurement of value, in this case there is no "market" in the economic sense; the currency is time and personal recommendations: people spend time looking for data on the Web, and then they send e-mail messages to other people telling them about it. That process can define quality. (It also defines a lot of bad jokes that fly about the Web, but that is another issue.) Until other criteria are developed, we will continue to judge electronic writing by the traditionally accepted conventions of writing. But in doing so we should accept that these standards of quality are constantly being altered and transformed on the Internet.
Given that computers are still a developing technology, drawing any definitive conclusions about the effect of electronic writing on traditional standards of quality may be premature. It is important to note, however, that while cyberspace is still a medium defining itself, it is one where writers are in the unique position of shaping the development of standards and norms of writing — a time that is long past in traditional writing. We should not forget that cyberspace is made possible by technological and interpersonal interactions in real space, and therefore, as communication theorists, we should actively work to understand concepts inherent in traditional writing, and as actively work to shape the development of electronic writing.
Because of their roots in writing and print, computers are currently seen as electronic extensions of prevailing models of literacy, and electronic writing is generally compared to print. It is easy to understand why scholars have come to this conclusion: although electronic writing requires that authors learn new technologies, incorporate new interactive techniques, and gain expertise in design-related issues of presentation, the conventions and traditions of print are still the touchstone. While electronic writing may require that authors learn new technologies, acknowledge the need for incorporation of new interactive techniques, and gain expertise in design-related issues of presentation, at its heart the print metaphor sees electronic writing as following the conventions and traditions of print. However, the prevailing print metaphor may need re-examination, because electronic writing can be very different from traditional text in its orality. Perhaps scholars should base their views of electronic writing on an oral metaphor because the computer is an interpersonal medium. E-mail, mailing lists, discussion groups, and chat rooms use text, but they model themselves on conversation.
Even though the print model prevails, computers are still in development and the possibility of a concept change exists. Whichever model comes to be accepted will influence the practice and understanding of electronic writing. Going from a print to an oral metaphor will emphasize the importance of interactivity rather than the forms of traditional writing. While it is as hard for scholars to objectively study the development of electronic writing as it is for fish to study water, we need to do so, to understand the sea-changes for traditional writing.
Sharmila Pixy Ferris is an Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Department of Communication at William Paterson University. Her research focuses on various aspects of computer-mediated communication, from gender to orality and literacy. While she has published in traditional paper journals, she believes that electronic journals offer an exciting new medium. Her other articles are in on-line journals such as The Journal of Electronic Communication (Telework: A consideration of it's impact on individuals and organizations [formerly http://www.cios.org/getfile%5CMALLIA_V10N3400]), the Journal of Interpersonal Computing and Technology (Women on-line: Cultural and relational aspects of women's communication in on-line discussion groups) and Magazine of Computer Mediated Communication (What is CMC? An Overview of Scholarly Definitions , and Understanding Virtual Technologies). You may reach her by e-mail at email@example.com.
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