by Garrett Coble
The rise of the Internet has dramatically changed the world of writing.
The web has given any would-be writer the ability to pen a work and place it before thousands of sets of eyes. It used to be that official, edited entities such as TIME or the local newspaper once had to endorse a piece of writing for it to gain widespread readership. The appearance of a piece in such an official medium provided an endorsement of sorts—the grammatical quality and the structure of the argument (if not the content of the argument) were held to a specific quality standard. Even letters to the editor, the relatively amateur section of any publication, were screened and only the most worthy allocated a portion of the finite print space.
However, the proliferation of blogging websites and webpages such as Blogger or WordPress have—to a degree—leveled the playing field in terms of drawing readership. Now a person need not have a staff position at a healthy publication to weigh in on the hot-button issue of the week, but rather just an Internet connection and a word processing program. The barriers to entry have more or less fallen, and a quick perusal of any social media site illustrates the flood of writing this has caused.
So, the change is obvious, but is it for the best or the worst? I’d argue this judgment depends as much on the reader as the writer. If any Joe or Jane can write an argument in favor of X and place it on Y website/blog/forum for thousands to see, the burden falls to the consumer to differentiate between quality writing and poor writing. This type of screening once took place at early in the process with editors and fact-checkers vetting both the substance and technical aspects of the proposed writing. However, the circumventing of this process by a healthy portion of today’s writing (especially the type found on social media) requires readers to critically evaluate the argument and structure put before them.
Yet we still have not arrived at an answer. Undoubtedly, this shift in process has spawned significant benefits. By leveling the playing field regarding the distribution of works, the Internet allows for voices outside the prevailing culture to present their arguments and issues to innumerable readers. This outlet proves especially beneficial in the fight for equality for groups formerly relegated to the fringe of society. This isn’t to contend that previous generations of writers ignored such social issues, but rather matters of practicality prevented these groups from receiving consistent attention. While TIME or The Atlantic might commission a piece on feminism in the South, these mediums couldn’t commit to weekly support the way a similarly focused blog/webpage could. On a side note, I’ve always been confused by articles attempting to include feminist values using the format “X number of things every/no woman should do,” as, by my estimation, the movement promotes choice and disfavors such ordering, but I digress.
However, placing the burden of vetting and critical analysis at the feet of the reader proves troublesome. Lack of professional training aside, much of the readership seems to lack the drive to think critically and research a piece before absorbing it. While not applicable to all articles (see: the majority of Buzzfeed), the dynamic of today’s writing demands such a drive—one I do not believe is in line with the motivations of many consumers. When driven to research the facts, many will go only as far as Snopes. I’ve witnessed this amongst our own population, one which markets itself as focused on critical thinking. To provide an anecdote to the matter, a Millsaps Facebook friend of mine recently shared a satirical article which recounted a Texas death row inmate’s last meal request: a child. The article detailed how the child had been secured from the third world and had several diseases, so no harm, no foul. When sharing the article, said Facebook shifted the burden of evaluation to her friends by adding the implicitly questioning statement, “This can’t be real…”
It wasn’t. This anecdote speaks to the change in culture; unless the consumers of the new writing mediums take ownership of verification and validation, the overall perception of the writing craft will diminish. The good will be lumped in with the bad, and all works requiring more than seven minutes of attention will go unnoticed.
But that’s just too hard to communicate in fourteen titled pictures.