Thursday, May 13, 2004

Writing on the Internet: Neither, Nor
In spending all this time thinking about the differences between written and spoken English, I also went back to my original pondering of the quality of writing on the internet, and it occurred to me that its main problem is that it is not precisely written English, but certainly it is not spoken. It straddles the gap of interactivity, the bastard child of "proper" written language and the desire to communicate.

I have never found writing on the internet to be particularly hard, but then, I actually like writing. It used to be the only way I could actually say everything that I wanted to without being interrupted or talked over. I used to write to myself, just because I could. I was also trained in the fine art of letter writing by my grandmother, who unfailingly wrote me one letter every week while I was in college, in Chile, and in Japan. Letters are an interesting communicative form. You don't have to be formal, there is no need for odd conventions such as "one" for the third person or avoidance of "they" for the general singular, and you are very rarely having to make a convincing and supported argument of the 5-paragraph style or anything of the sort. It is instead an opportunity to write as you would speak, only more fully, because you still have to provide background knowledge for your narrative to a person who is not there, and therefore cannot ask you any questions. It was an opportunity for me to find my own voice, and I admit to being flabbergasted when other people don't think the same. People often flabbergast me.

The (sad) truth of the matter is that most people don't seem to want to sit down and be able to think a thought all the way to the end before someone else comes along and interrupts them. Other people find their thought processes aided by the communal act of interactive conversational communication. The advent of email meant that letters could contain less and less carefully, (not to mention lovingly, and wittily,) constructed background information, because the reader, in the end, can ask, "What do you mean by this?" and recieve a reply in far less time than it would take to send another letter. Then, of course, came IM services, which encourage people to type as fast as possible, so as to mimic actual spoken conversations as closely as possible, along with all kinds of cute/irritating facial expressions. This does not encourage spelling, punctuation, capitalization, or actual sentence formation.

Now the latest rage is blogging. I began blogging in Japan to save myself from having to write the same email 18 times in a row, or send out obnoxious mass-mailings. I wrote my blog entries like letters. I assumed that all of my audience was far away, and I reported on the things that I noticed that amused or interested me, which I also thought might be interesting to them. It was not truly interactional, though, because my audience was still remote; I had no commenting system, no posted contact information, and would only get email related to the blog from my relatives. I had no idea how many people were reading it, and I still don't. Because of my own intellectual and literary bent, this is the style of blog I like to read: that of the other fellow erstwhile letter writer, book reader, and sentence crafter. Others do not share my opinions, because their goals in blogging are different.

There are those out there who simply crave an audience for their thoughts. They want everything to be interactional. If they have many friends who read their blog, their entries can be quite elliptical and telegraphic to those not in that in-group, much like a strange overheard conversation. These people are not reporting, they're talking. They are converting the written form into a "spoken" form, and it offends those of us who are quite used to and comfortable with our dear written conventions.

It is almost as if language is being moved backwards through time to the point where the written form was just becoming widespread, and no conventions had been put in place yet. Back then, people had no choice but to write the way they spoke; they knew no other language. Now, people know the written forms, but deem them insufficient for easy communication. I think the important point may be to remind these people that these are all distinct forms of language, and each has its place and use. This is no argument for teachers to give in to seeing 1337 speak in academic writing assignments, but instead an argument that teachers should point out the strengths and weaknesses of each form, and explain why one form of writing is appropriate for one setting, and another is not.

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