Article: 2948 of alt.culture.internet
From: (David Sewell)
Newsgroups: alt.culture.internet,alt.culture.usenet,,rec.arts.poems,rec.arts.books
Subject: Bards of the Internet: general response
Date: 2 Jul 1994 08:04:25 GMT
Summary: response to Elmer-DeWitt's TIME piece

In the July 4 issue of TIME, there's an article entitled "Bards of the Internet" by Philip Elmer-Dewitt, subtitled "If E-mail represents the renaissance of prose, why is so much of it so awful?" Until now I've only seen it discussed on Usenet in rec.arts.[books|poems|prose], where ped posted a thank-you to people who had helped him write the piece, and where response immediately devolved into a debate over whether Joe Green was a true demigod on rec.arts.poems and whether Mike Godwin of EFF was an idiot for (as the flamers saw it) canonizing him. I'm kind of surprised the article hasn't attracted more notice, especially since anyone who posts to Usenet should have been thoroughly pissed off by the Contents page editor's deletion of ped's qualifier, encapsulating the piece thus: "Why the prose style of online writing is so awful."

I don't really want to summarize the essay because I'd rather that anyone who wants to follow up read the whole thing first (I know, I'm breaking sanctified Usenet flame-first tradition here). The essay is a lot more evenhanded than the title allows--or at any rate, after stumbling early on by suggesting that B1FF's prose style is "all too typical" of the Net (was it *ever* anything but Net self-parody?), ped goes on to cite outposts of online articulateness like rec.arts.poems and conferences on the WELL. And in what to my mind is the heart of the essay he quotes Jorn Barger's observation that the Net honors the law of survival of the stylistic fittest.

When ped first posted invitations on Usenet to contribute to the piece, he said that the idea for the article came from colleagues who would get online for the first time and then ask him, "Why is the writing on here so bad?"--a genesis reflected by his subtitle. I wrote to him in a longish e-mail response that what had struck me about writing on the Net was how *good* it is. That difference of perspective is what I want to talk about here.

Now, I can recognize crappy writing, what ped is getting at when he describes online writing as often "very bad indeed: sloppy, meandering, puerile, ungrammatical, poorly spelled, badly structured and at times virtually content free." That's actually a better characterization of freshman composition (which I used to teach) than of the Net. Fact is, people write better here than they do in class. In class, you're writing up, to an artificial audience, an authority figure who enforces rules that you had no part in drafting; on the Net, you're writing to a vast audience of peers who are collaborating with you in creating an entirely new set of rules. You can still "fail" because there's still a hierarchy, but as Jorn suggests it's an emergent one, generated by all the readers and writers who make up a newsgroup audience, conference, or whatever.

I think the Net is the place where writing is being reinvented more vibrantly and creatively than anyplace else right now. And I don't mean the subdomains of the online world populated by the traditionally articulate, like the WELL or the academic HUMANIST Listserv list: I mean good old filthy, flame-ridden, Kibo-pervaded, spammed, spoofed, and splintered Usenet. I've lived in a place where writing is genuinely "awful" and dying because of it, the academic English department, where theorist has copulated with theorist to the point of evolving an inbred discourse that is the literary equivalent of your most nightmarish vision of a drooling lunatic clan living in a one-room shack up a tangled Blue Ridge hollow, continually shouting at each other in a dialect they can't even understand the next hollow over.

When they build the first Museum of the Internet, they'll give place of honor to two sets of documents: Postel's RFCs on Internet protocols, and the jargon files leading up to Eric Raymond's New Hacker's Dictionary. Hacker culture has led to a fruitful marriage of language and technology, the likes of which English (at least) hasn't seen since Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were mixing botany and alchemy up with their Latin-based rhetorics. Toward the end of his TIME piece Elmer-Dewitt alludes to the "revolutionary" potential of mixing writing from widely different classes: "students, scientists, senior citizens, computer geeks, grass-roots (and often blue-collar) bulletin-board enthusiasts and most recently the working press." You don't get this mix on a subscription mailing list, a chaperoned commercial on-line service, or even a cutting-edge WWW server, but right here on Usenet. Which, if the media see it, is why some of us are so ardent about defending it against cynical carpetbaggers who'd like nothing more than to turn it into an appendage of the Home Shopping Superspamway.

[Note followups to alt.culture.internet and alt.culture.usenet]

David Sewell  *   | "Where the earth is dry, the
RADIOCARBON, Dep't of Geosciences, U of Arizona |  soul is wisest and best."
                                                |           --Heraclitus
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