Nancy Herther

By Nancy K. Herther, Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota (herther@umn.edu)

Editor’s Note: This post is the first in a series of articles on “Writing in a Digital Age.” Here, Nancy had in depth communications with five leaders in the field. What can communications researchers tell us about this evolving new world of writing? In Part 2 of this series, ATG will interview five of the top experts whose work is helping understand and define the new 21st century world of writing, focusing on the major issues and perspectives that they have based on the common questions/issues found here in part 1.

(Click here to read  Part 2 & Part 3)


“When I was in college in the early 1960s,” reflects Andrea Abernethy Lunsford, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor of English, Emerita at Stanford University, “I wrote all my assignments by hand; then I ‘typed them up’ on a tiny manual typewriter, praying I could avoid typos, which were almost impossible to correct. By the time I wrote my dissertation, in 1976-7, I had acquired a miraculous IBM ‘self-correcting’ machine and was as close to technological heaven as I could imagine – which only goes to show how limited my imagination was! Even in 1985, when I got my first computer, I had little inkling of how this technology  would change my life as a writer, reader, and speaker.”

Social media – from Facebook to texting to videos – have become more than just an interesting fad.  Today more than ever, “social media facilitate interaction and participation allowing users to produce content in a far more participatory manner [by using] “internet-based sites and platforms which facilitate the building and maintaining of networks or communities through the sharing of messages and other media” notes Caroline Tagg in her book Exploring Digital Communication (Routledge, 2014, p. 3). Today researchers make it clear that this isn’t a fad but a seismic shift in communications.  If you are holding your breath waiting for this to fade, it’s time to exhale. 

FROM IMPROVISATION TO FORMAL DISCOURSE STUDIES

“What it means to be literate in the 21st century is being reshaped to include not only traditional literacies, that is, reading and writing in print‐based environments, but also the knowledge, skills, and strategies needed for comprehending and communicating via new technologies.”Social Media in the Writing Classroom and Beyond,” explain Binbin Zheng, Soobin Yim and Mark Warschauer in TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching, (Wiley 2018).

Just as scat bridged jazz and today’s newer hip hop, today’s social media likewise uses wordless vocals, nonsense syllables, rhythms and sounds, often improvised by the user.  Scat moved music from the formal to the highly informal, using voice as the instrument itself. In much the same way, social media has allowed this type of development with written communication.

The field of communications has evolved Critical Discourse Studies as one of the theoretical foundations for this emerging field, founded on the principle of a “socially committed analysis of language.” (Discourse: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge University Press, by Jan Blommaert ,2005, p. 6). In their recent book chapter, Majid Khosravinik & Johann W. Unger describe this seismic shift in this way:  “Social media are by their nature interactive, inherently and substantially multimodal and user-centred, as opposed to the unidirectional nature of message flows in traditional media.  One consequence of this shift is the separating lines between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ texts; hence the traditional dichotomy of powerful/powerless voices is eroding as more content is produced and consumed socially,” (Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer, ed. Methods of Critical Discourse Studies (3rd edition). Sage, 2016, p211).

Dr. Ruth Page

Ruth Page, Senior Lecturer in Stylistics at the University of Birmingham, is a leader in this new field, focusing on “the language people use when they tell stories, particularly in social media contexts.”  Her research examines “the sheer amount of interaction which takes place within social media contexts” that now provides “a wealth of material that can be considered, and that material is often available in forms that are (relatively) easy to access. The fast-paced and rapidly evolving nature of these interactions means that there is often something new to be observed, whether that be about the seemingly ‘routine’ interactions that interweave social media with people’s day-to-day activities, or about the variously creative ways people adapt and innovate in their communication with each other.” Page is the author of Narratives Online: Shared Stories and Social Media Controversies (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming), coeditor of New Narratives: Stories and Storytelling in the Digital Age (University of Nebraska Press, 2011), and lead author of the now-standard student textbook, Researching the Language of Social Media (Routledge, 2014).

In his article Electronic literature and the future of writing, University of Puerto Rico’s Leonardo Flores asks, “What is the future of literature in a world in which every generation increasingly reads and writes on computer screens rather than on paper? How does our writing change when composed and published directly in digital spaces? How can we communicate effectively in media that are increasingly multimodal, virtual, computerized, and interconnected in global networks?”

“For centuries we have developed literary traditions, technologies and markets based on paper, to the extent that as societies we invest great resources to educate generations of citizens on how to read and write: what we know as literacy.,” Flores continues. “However, over the past 20 years we have seen digital media and networks transform the circulation of writing that does not rely on laying ink on paper. Digital media technologies have had a major impact on the publishing industry because they are changing the creation, publication and circulation of the written word….We are humans and use the word to express ourselves artistically. Period. Why limit literature to the possibilities offered by only two media, voice and writing on paper? It behooves us to extend our notions of literature and the tools we use to study it to digital media in order to understand and cultivate the written word in all its manifestations…..digital literacy is becoming one of the most important factors for social mobility in the near future. Reading and writing electronic literature helps develop digital literacy in children, youth, and adults, promoting interest in developing programming and computational logic skills.” Flores is actually busy researching what he calls the Third Generation Electronic Literaturequite a stretch for many of us still working largely in the First Generation electronic tools and methods!

Leonardo Flores

As Josie Barnard notes in a recent article on “Testing possibilities: on negotiating writing practices in a ‘postdigital’ age (tools and methods)” in New Writing: “The exponential growth of new media technologies presents opportunities and challenges for writers. Fast-paced change – featuring what can seem like perpetual updates of hardware and software – undermines the possibility of growing attached to particular tools and practices. Collaboration is key to social media and many of the new technologies, and not something that sits easily with the traditional image of the writer as someone working alone. This article considers how writers can negotiate the demands of a ‘postdigital age’…..An aim is to reach a new theoretical position on how individuals can approach the creative potential of writing in the twenty-first century and more effectively embrace existing and emerging opportunities provided by interactive digital technologies.”

Technology historian George Dyson believes that “we now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, meaning is expensive. Where is the meaning? Only human beings can tell you where it is.”  We live in a time of flux. Novelist William Gibson has said that “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”  Social media is reinventing communication and literacy in a global marketplace of ideas and perspectives. Today we are living in an environment of continuous cycles of presentation, iteration, endorsement, argument. Ideas and information are shared using the new grammatical symbols of social media, with the result being that language, literacy and meaning are being constantly invented and reinvented.

In Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better, Clive Thompson puts it this way: “I’m not predicting that the written word, our oldest mass literacy, will disappear. In fact, it’s likely to remain the go-to mode for expression. But as we develop ever more new modes for expressing our ideas and recording knowledge, the challenge will be to figure out when to use which form. When is text the best way to make a point? When is the moving image? Or photos, manipulations, data visualization? Each is useful for some types of thinking and awkward for others.” (p. 9)

DEVELOPING A THINKING EYE?

In his latest project, Edward Tufte wants to develop the ‘thinking eye’: “it’s about how to see, intensely, this bright-eyed observing curiosity. And then what follows after that is reasoning about what one sees, and asking: What’s going on here? And in that reasoning, intensely, it involves also a skepticism about one’s own understanding. The thinking eye must always ask: How do I know that? That’s probably the most powerful question of all time. How do you know that? And then, finally, the creative thinking eye, it escapes itself and produces and executes, teaches a class, writes an article, makes a visualization, creates an artwork. Tweets, however, probably don’t count.”

Tufte applies this to the fields of science (though the value of this new type of literacy – which he calls “visual analytics,” would have far broader application. “ The findings of (science) are forever, because the laws of nature apply to every particle in the universe forever. And so knowledge about that is, in a sense, forever knowledge…I wanted to do things that have that universality and forever-ness of science. And so I’ve been preoccupied with how the fundamental tasks of thinking can be replicated in our designs of information, so that our architectures support learning about causality – that’s a forever cognitive task – and support making comparisons, which is a fundamental forever task. Our displays help us assess the credibility of a display, and how do they know that? That’s a forever task. So the mind – information relationship and learning from evidence, optical evidence, is a forever problem.”

In her 2017 Masters thesis, Literacy Revolution: How the New Tools of Communication Change the Stories We Tell from Dominican University of California, Molly Gamble notes that “the transmission of culture depends upon every generation reconsidering what it means to be literate. The way we consider ourselves to be a literate species is changing, which puts us at a unique turning point in human history. Verbal literacy, or the ability to read and write, is slowly being replaced by visual literacy as a primary tool for human communication. As a culture, we tend to underestimate the creative ferment of our increasingly visual world. The linear, structured pathways of traditional literacy are shifting towards a creative and  participatory pursuit of unstructured information that emphasize dimensional thinking. The acceleration and disruption of literacy in the 21st century is fueling new patterns of cognition and changing the way we tell stories…Reading and writing has served us well for thousands of years and broadened the capacity for logical thought, but our dependency on writing is decreasing as we process and store knowledge in a communal capacity. As a result, the cultural authority of written language is changing along with the cultural memory that it preserves.”

IS THE MEDIUM STILL THE MESSAGE?

The impact of writing and new technologies has been an issue for at least two millenia. As Reginald Hackforth noted in his 1952 translation of Plato’s Phaedrus, the great philosopher believed written words were the bane of knowledge: “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”  Socrates worried that writing technologies would replace one’s “memory,” which would inhibit the ability to conduct reasoned debate. In Socrates’s view, new writing systems would leave us with only a “partial understanding” of whatever truth one sought to understand.” (p. 10.)

In his classic book, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan warned of this communication conundrum over 50 years ago: “The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”

As Howard Reingold pointed out in a 2012 article, social media networks offer a new place for people to come together and create, share, and communicate with each other, blurring the boundaries between individualized and collective contributions.  The days of singular modes for transmitting information are gone and the rise of the internet and its multiple distribution and circulation systems have given users infinite ways to consume and produce semiotic materials.  James Gee and Elizabeth Hayes point out in their 2011 book, Language and Learning in the Digital Age  that “oral language is our original gift. Written language came along much later. Digital media later still. For centuries people identified the breath with which we speak with the spirit or the soul and the language they spoke with their unique humanity. Written language froze that breath, allowing it to travel far and wide, allowing the growth of cities, empires and institutions. Digital media have unfrozen it again, creating a voice that travel far and rapidly among everyday people and, for good and ill, challenge the power of experts, empires and institutions. What will happen? Only the future will tell.” (p. 5)

Today, teachers and students often have very different ideas on what “good writing” is – and even for scholars, wide differences exist between disciplines and schools. Even today, each new technological innovation is met with confusion if not fear.  For today’s teachers, fear is coupled with the many internal and external pressures teachers and administrators face (Rob Simon, et al., “Practitioner research and literacy studies: Toward more dialogic methodologies,” English Teaching: Practice and Critique 11(2): 5-24, 2012. Unable to judge best methods, many fall back to traditional academic writing methods that rely on print-based literacies. In their review of the last ten years of online learning in higher education, Allen and Seaman (Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2013). Changing course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States. Retrieved from http://edf.stanford.edu/readings/changing-course-ten-years-tracking-online-education-united-states) found that although faculty use of online tools is increasing, a still sizable majority (60%) of faculty still hesitate to introduce new digital tools into their curricula because they are still unconvinced that using these new tools would enhance student learning.

CHANGE WAITS FOR NO ONE

A recent study of incoming MIT MBA students found that “although every student reported email writing as a core part of their job responsibility, less than half (48 percent) did any meaningful longer-form writing. Of those who did, 59 percent only did so on a monthly basis or less frequently.” However, this change isn’t just a millennial fad anymore.

In a survey released March 1st, the Pew Research Center found that the majority of Americans now use both YouTube and Facebook: “These findings vary by age. Roughly half of social media users ages 18 to 24 (51%) say it would be hard to give up social media, but just one-third of users ages 50 and older feel similarly. The data also fit broadly with other findings the Center has collected about Americans’ attitudes toward social media. Despite using them for a wide range of reasons, just 3% of social media users indicate that they have a lot of trust in the information they find on these sites. And relatively few have confidence in these platforms to keep their personal information safe from bad actors.” For younger Americans, the numbers are even more impressive: “Younger Americans (especially those ages 18 to 24) stand out for embracing a variety of platforms and using them frequently. Some 78% of 18- to 24-year-olds use Snapchat, and a sizeable majority of these users (71%) visit the platform multiple times per day. Similarly, 71% of Americans in this age group now use Instagram and close to half (45%) are Twitter users.”

“The rapid technological transformation of day‐to‐day life has necessitated a rethinking of literacy pedagogy. What it means to be literate in the 21st century is being reshaped to include not only traditional literacies, that is, reading and writing in print‐based environments, but also the knowledge, skills, and strategies needed for comprehending and communicating via new technologies,” notes Binbin Zheng and her colleagues in their recent book chapter on Social Media on the Writing Classroom and Beyond (Social Media in the Writing Classroom and Beyond Teaching Writing, 2017, Wiley).

In her article on Writing and the Development of the Self-Heuristic Inquiry: A Unique Way of Exploring the Power of the Written Word (Journal of Poetry Therapy, 2014, p. 55) Kristine Haertl reminds us that “the power of the written word transcends time and space. Historically, cultures have developed written forms and symbols as a means of communication, personal expression, and thought. Writing is powerful; it influences our perceptions, constructs, and worldview.” Today, however, everyone is included, using virtually unlimited technological options and addressing unlimited potential audiences. We are in the midst of a whirlwind of change. However, one constant remains: Whichever format it occurs, writing remains powerful – perhaps more so than ever before.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon!

Nancy K. Herther is Sociology/Anthropology Librarian at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. Her email is [email protected]