Writing In Cyberspace
by Pixie Ferris
The new electronic medium of the World Wide Web raises some provocative issues about writing; what characterizes good online writing, what differentiates print from writing in cyberspace, and how cyberspace broadens traditional conceptions of writing. Although the developing nature of cyberspace (footnote 1) as a medium makes it difficult to answer these questions, this essay will attempt to do so by considering how electronic writing is similar to and different from traditional conceptions of writing.
Being products of a literate and (post)typographic culture, most discussions of computer-mediated communication (CMC) are grounded in real life (IRL) terminology. So a consideration of what makes good writing online should begin with a consideration of what makes good writing off-line or IRL. As characteristics of good writing vary depending on many factors, in this essay I will use, for the sake of convenience, standards accepted by many english teachers. These standards are distinguished by five characteristics of writing: purpose, content, organization, style and audience factors. All five factors are closely integrated, but each must be considered separately by the writer.
To begin, the purpose of any writing is essentially its reason for existence. For example, the purpose of (most) fiction is to entertain, that of journalistic prose is to inform, advertising to persuade and so on. Content must be selected to effectively fulfill the writer's purpose with support chosen and presented appropriately. For example, plot and character development are essential to good fiction, while use of ethos and pathos over logos characterize advertising. Good writers must also structure their writing, organizing material logically in order to present content in the most comprehensible way and thus facilitate the reader's understanding. A writer's style is unique to him or herself, but will incorporate the accepted conventions of 'good' writing for the particular genre.
While these conventions vary depending on the purpose and intended audience, grammatical and linguistic traditions should be followed by a good writer. Finally, the intended audience affects purpose, content, organization and style. Good writers tailor their writing to their audience. The same piece written for Wired and Time magazines, for example, should be presented differently.
Applying these criteria to online writing, what makes good writing in cyberspace? Although the answer is complicated by the unique and still developing nature of cyberspace, an application of the standards established above makes a good starting point. (The issue of the nature of cyberspace will be considered later.)
PurposeThe standard of 'purpose' can be applied equally to online and in real life (IRL) writing. Just as IRL writers compose with clear and specific purposes in mind, so should they in cyberspace. But in cyberspace there is one essential difference: in cyberspace, everything written is written for publication. [The recently released APA guidelines state this quite clearly, indicating that anything on the Web is considered published.] This makes purpose a doubly important criterion. To write well on the Web, a writer should have a clear purpose that is demonstrably fulfilled. Here, for example, is where most homepages fail as good writing. Too often these pages are simply collections of links thrown together to reflect, for example, a few of my favorite things. Those pages which purport to be devoted to a single issue often include other topics that may be of interest to their creator but do not always clearly develop a common purpose as relevant to the reader.
ContentOn the Net "content is king." Or is it? An acceptance of this cliche would lead one to suppose that content is what primarily characterizes good writing in cyberspace. The problem here arises from the huge amounts of information available on the Net, and especially the Web. Given the variety in the realms of writing available in cyberspace, how does one judge the value of content? Here comparisons with writing in real life (IRL) prove of little use. In traditional print media, publications are targeted towards specific functions and audiences. Over the centuries, conventions have grown up around specific forms of print. Fiction, poetry and prose all have their recognized conventions and standards, as do other specialized forms of writing such as journalism, advertising, medicine, and academia, to name just a few. The Net encompasses all these specialized forms of typography, and allows for the creation of new forms unique to cyberspace (such as BBS, MOOs and MUD's). All of this information is combined on the Net to provide the largest volume of information that has ever been available to humans.
Each specialized genre IRL 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? As yet, there's no one answer to this question, but one criterion that I feel can be used to characterize good content (at least at this point in the development of cyberspace) is that of value. Value can be defined using Webster's (1989) standard definition as '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 substantial effort in terms of time, interest, and access to technology, any writing that leads the reader to seek it out can be called good writing. (And, as Negroponte (1995) points out, the best content reflects the fact that users will not only seek it out, but will act on it.)
Although value as a standard of judgment of good writing in cyberspace is one answer to a complex question, its application is controversial. Some critics feel that stronger standards for writing on cyberspace should be maintained, while others feel that value should be taught. A representative of this viewpoint is Dr. Tina Lesher, advisor to the electronic newspaper WPC Cybernews who feels that the strongest need for journalistic writers online is training in recognizing value on the Net.
The question of value aside, another content characteristic that differentiates online and (in real life) IRL writing is that of linearity. Traditional print is linear in nature, while hypertext is non-linear. Good writing in cyberspace must recognize and incorporate this non-linearity. As Dr. Stephanie Gibson, editor of the online journal media ecology points out, online writers' use of large chunks of text defeats the purpose of cyberspace. Thus good writing for cyberspace must integrate content and organizational factors.
Organization, Style and Audience
In addition to non-linearity, interactivity distinguish online writing greatly from IRL writing. Writing on the World Wide Web (see note 1) provides the definitive example here. The Web is a global hypertext system unique in its capacity to interface with other systems. The non-linear nature of cyberspace arises from its use of embedded links (see Ford (1995)), which allow for interactivity between the reader, author and medium. This not only makes for a unique convergence of mass and interpersonal media where the consumer can become the provider of information, but it allows for a truly unique re-negotiation of the writer-audience relationship. The hypertextual navigability of cyberspace allows for ongoing dialogue between the author, the medium, and the audience, thus blurring the traditional boundaries of 'organization' 'style' and 'audience' concerns. In online writing, issues of design and navigability cannot be separated from a consideration of audience related issues because it is the responsibility of the online writer to provide material that is easy for his or her audience to locate, navigate through, and follow. A good cyberwriter must not only consider content that is of value, but must organize material in a manner that incorporates unique interactive features of the web. Here, as Gibson (1997) points, out a writer in cyberspace must function as an editor, considering issues of file structure, graphic design and so on.
Thus good writers in cyberspace must not only apply (in real life) IRL standards such as a clear purpose and facility with standards of conventional writing, but must also incorporate technologically related factors of organization and design. Good writing in cyberspace therefore not only incorporates but extends standards of traditional writing. Yet the issue of what differentiates writing in cyberspace from traditional writing is more complex than may be evident in this simple comparison of online writing to printed text. A well-rounded examination of the issues involved in good online writing must also consider other issues arising from the nature of cyberspace.
Writing, Cyberspace and the Orality-Literacy Dichotomy
At the heart of the comparison of online versus (in real life) IRL writing is the debate around the nature of the medium. The Internet is undeniably a product of a literate, technological society. Yet in its functions and developing culture, the Web is considered by many to be an oral medium. (Note: the words 'oral' and 'literate' here are not used in their generally accepted sense but in their specialized meanings to express the cognitive and cultural characteristics of pre-literate or oral societies as opposed to literate societies. For more on orality and literacy, see Ferris & Montgomery, 1996) In this sense, characteristics of orality develop from the evanescence of sound and include, among others, use of formulae and mnemonic devices, closeness to the human life-world, and a strong sense of community. Similarly, characteristics of literacy develop from the permanence of print and include, among others, ownership of print, and the development of analytical and abstract thought. (ong, 1982).
CMC and all writing in cyberspace includes many literate characteristics because cyberspace is a product of technology, is print-based and depends on a grounding in abstract, analytical and literate modes of thought. But writing in cyberspace also includes many oral characteristics because the new electronic technologies introduce the qualities of temporal immediacy, phatic communion, the use of formulaic devices, presence of extra textual content, and development of community. Thus characteristics of both orality and literacy are evident online leading many researchers to consider CMC what Ong (1982) calls 'secondary' orality. In common with many other researchers (see for example Lee, 1996), I agree with Ong in that cyberspce does represent a new electronic orality, for all that it is print based (see Ferris & Montgomery, 1996, for a developemnt of this).
The orality/literacy dichotomy is an important issue when considering writing in cyberspace because if it (this new medium) is indeed more 'oral' than 'literate' in nature, or even represents a new type of orality, then the issue of 'writing' in cyberspace becomes pre-empted by the need to learn the constraints of this oral mode of communication. The presence of this issue can already be seen as writers online learn the existing 'oral' conventions in order to successfully disseminate their writing. For example, this includes not just learning the specialized jargon of cyberspace, but learning other conventions such as specialized use of typography (for example, * * to signify italics, __ underling, etc.), and the use of nonverbal icons (such as emoticons like a smiley face :-) or symbols like ** to denote emotion).
The Web as a Medium
Another issue of importance when considering writing in cyberspace is its conceptualization. The prevailing model is a print model, where cyberspace is seen as a technologically enhanced extension of print media. This model sees cyberspace as a space where the mediation of technology introduces technologically-related demands on authors such as the incorporation of new interactive techniques and expertise in design related issues of presentation, and new demands on readers such as re-negotiation of audience engagement. Yet at its heart the print model sees writing on cyberspace as following the conventions and traditions of writing that have prevailed since Gutenberg democratized literacy.
A contrasting model sees cyberspace as a broadcast medium, one in which mass media are seen as the model for provision and consumption of information on cyberspace. The comparison here is a common carrier model with CMC being compared with television and radio. The increasing commercialization of the Web lends credence to this model, but while the acceptance of this model has indeed been fueled by the growing use of cyberspace for commercial purposes and news dissemination, the model was ultimately validated with the passing of the Communications Decency Act as part of the Telecommunications Act in 1996.
While the constitutionality of this act is still under debate, the very fact that the CDA was passed has profound implications for Web authors because censorship of the Internet validates the perception of cyberspace as a mass medium where media providers have control over consumer consumption behavior. Further, a pro-CDA decision on the part of the Supreme Court would reinforce the broadcast model and put the onus of responsibility for ensuring quality on the providers of information--including all writers in cyberspace.
The conclusions we can draw from these opposing conceptualizations of cyberspace are clear: whichever model comes to be accepted will influence the standards of writing online. The prevailing model of cyberspace as a print medium allows for the reader as consumer to discriminate between the realms of information available in cyberspace. It also puts the onus on the authors and editors to provide writing that has value and is presented in a clear and easily navigable manner. Should the broadcast model prevail, the interactive nature of writing in cyberspace will be devalued, with a resulting loss in the quality of the reader-author dialogue. Being a supporter of human freedoms, I hope that the upcoming Supreme Court decision on the CDA affirms the prevalent (print) model, and allows writers to continue to homestead freely on the electronic frontiers.
So far we have considered how cyberspace incorporates and extends the standards of traditional writing, and we have discussed the manner in which the oral/literate nature of the medium modifies traditional concepts of writing. What conclusions can we now draw about writing in cyberspace? Given that it is still a developing medium, drawing any definitive conclusions at all is impossible. 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. This is a time when we should actively incorporate the best standards of traditional writing and as actively work to eliminate outdated epistolic conventions. Just as cyberspace is made possible by technological and interpersonal interactions in real space, so also does writing in cyberspace extend traditional standards. It is up to us to do it well.
Sharmila Pixy Ferris (M.A., English and Psychology, Ph. D., Speech Communication) is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson College. Her research interests revolve around issues in computer-mediated communication, and she has published in this area in both online (such as Interpersonal Computing and Technology) and off-line journals.
Copyright © 1997 by Sharmila Pixy Ferris. All Rights Reserved.