Granted, what we do on the Internet isn't quite Star Trek, but what we do, whether we admit or not, is fun. Think about the hours we sit in front of the computer, reading email, communicating on-line with friends, colleagues, and even strangers, looking up interesting tidbits, seeing what picture we can call up. We can choose to be part of a particular academic community and read only serious listserv lists, or we can pick and choose among newsgroups that range in topic from Pulp Fiction (and a HUGE discussion of "who shot who first") to the Grateful Dead (and a series of semi-reliable concert reports/reviews from each show). We can go head to head with someone real-time on IRC or a MOO on just about any topic you can think of. On MOOs, we can build a connected virtual environment using only words: people can metaphorically "move about" and interact with you, others, or the environment itself. We can build a "home" on the Word Wide Web, complete with any kind of media our computers will allow--then link it up to anyone/anything we can find. I find all of these activities exciting, and I spend far too much time (at least according to most folks in my profession) playing with them. But when you think about it, the common denominator in all of these examples is language--and it's because I love language, because I find it fun, that I chose my profession: teaching writing (and teaching it with networked computers whenever possible).
Yet no one wants to talk about having fun in this profession (or most others in the academy)! In an article merely entitled "Fun?" Lex Runciman wondered in the pages of College English why we didn't concentrate more on the fun of writing, rather than seeing it as a "negative, difficult, problematic, error-ridden, and therefore ultimately joyless activity" (p. 160). Our profession seems to be suspicious of anything that isn't "difficult or problematic," and we're downright against anything that's playful or fun. There have been exceptions in print, to be sure ("Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research" comes to mind), but for the most part, we equate seriousness with success, and we've frozen this definition in the freezer trays of our memory.
But while print is frozen, the net is a hotbed of movement and changebility, a place where nothing stays the same, and the people who frequent it like that continual re-definition. Still, though, when people ask what I do, I make sure I include just enough jargon in my response to make what I do sound legitimate, even though, truth be told, I'd probably be doing this even if it weren't my profession. You see, I especially love language PLAY. I love the beautiful, the witty, the deep, the informative, the rational, and the sublime. I love to read it, to study it, and to try to understand why it affects us the way it does.
Recently, Liz McMillen published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about CREWRT-L, a creative writing list owned by Eric Crump, and they experienced a surge of interested folks who joined the list. Each one of these people, I'm sure, loved language, or they wouldn't be joining a list about creative writing. Yet because many of these newbies learned of the list through a traditional print medium (the Chronicle piece), they were a little put off by all the fun on the list. They weren't prepared for the play.
Eric made a plea for play by reminding the newcomers (and the entire list membership) that probably the most liberating aspect of the net is that it provides a place for us to "explore the intertwingling of seriousness and play, for the benefit of both." Between the punning, the parodies, the verse, the gossip are interspersed serious business. Richard Lanham has said that "interactivity compromises solemnity," and that's something that the folks still mired in print (as well as we who live on the net) ought to consider--and value. Eric's final observations were that the "playful, semi-irreverent banter" found on lists like CREWRT-L, on MOOs and IRC, on news groups, "just might save academia from its own ponderous weight. Without the net, the academy will sink into oblivion." Heavy thought, that.
Granted, language on the Internet has its problems. The lack of physicality alleviates for some the need to take responsibility for one's words, and, as a result, some people effect a sort of "wilding" in their communication on the net, ranging from verbal abuse and violence to innuendo and cyber rape. This anonymity also allows for role-playing that goes far beyond anything that could be done in a classroom, or even on stage. "Characters" play with gender and power roles in the carnival of the net. No one knows who to blame or who to cite, who "owns" text and what rights we have to it.
Other problems with net language concern the limitations of the medium itself. Because of its temporal nature, responses on email or in real-time conversation are often shallow, superficial, or unfocused. Too, in a real-time environment such as a MOO or IRC, it's often difficult to follow a conversation due to the frantic pace, or the existence of multiple simultaneous "threads."
But it's these threads that leave my head spinning and my heart racing, the gliding over the surface of a new topic at thrilling speeds and plunging in occasionally, connecting with others in a frenzied shouting match in a virtual room to the point of exhaustion, then getting up from my chair, looking around, and realizing that I'm the only one home. That's the future. But so is publishing on-line. And hypermedia. And exploring. And punning. And building. And learning. And having fun. ¤
A glimpse of the culprits (27K)
* From The Cat in the Hat. Apologies to Dr. Seuss.
Rebecca Rickly is a member of the English Composition Board at the University of Michigan, and her interests include gender studies and LAN- and Internet-based computer-mediated communication. She is currently co-designing an "interclass" in which peer tutors from three universities collaborate using e-mail and the DaedalusMOO.
Eric Crump is the assistant director of the Learning Center Writing Lab at the University of Missouri, helps coordinate the development of on-line writing and publishing environments here and there, and is damned serious about fun.
Copyright © 1995 by Rebecca Rickly and Eric Crump. All Rights Reserved.