How The Internet Changed The Written Word As We Know It

I recently read Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business. I had intended to read it for several years, but for some reason never got around to it. After I finally did, however, I started wondering what Neil Postman would have thought of the age of the internet and how it affects public discourse.

A little history lesson

Amusing Ourselves To Death was published in 1985 and reissued in 2005 by Andrew Postman (Neil's son). A lot has changed since 1985, and even since Andrew Postman wrote an updated forward in the second edition. Sure, we still have television, radio, and telephones. But when Andrew wrote his forward in 2005, the internet was just on the brink of becoming the social beast it is today.

While the first personal blog was created sometime in the mid-90s, and AOL opened its instant messaging platform in the late 90s, I would argue that the internet's "socialness" didn't come of age till the mid-2000s with the creation of several major social media platforms.

Facebook was created in February of 2004 but wasn't open to all users until 2006. Reddit followed in 2005, and Twitter was born in 2006. After that, the floodgates opened and it seemed like everyone and their mother was creating a social networking site, or at least opening accounts on them (remember the day your mom joined Facebook?).

I read Postman's thoughts on how TV changed how we think - and I agree with him. The advent of television had profound implications for news, entertainment, communication, how we spend our leisure time, and how we vote among a myriad of other things.

However, I'm not sure that I agree with his argument that this change is mostly for the worse and that television can't provoke serious thought because it is by nature entertaining.

The printing press profoundly changed how we communicated, thought, argued, and entertained ourselves. At the time, some lamented the availability of books to the masses and, worse, how easy it was for anyone and everyone to publish whatever garbage they wanted.

I do agree with Postman, however, that instead of blindly galavanting into a new media age, we should consider the fallout and try to come up with strategies to limit negative outcomes and amplify positive ones.

Anyway, that's another discussion for another day. What I really want to talk about is how the internet changed writing - for better or for worse. Good old Neil Postman just got me thinking about it because he was writing from an era of great change.

We too are in an era of great change, and while I can't claim to be as scholarly as Postman (he was a professor at New York University for more than 40 years, after all), I do want to start a conversation about writing in the age of the internet: how is it the same, how is it different, what are the good and bad implications?

How it's the same

For starters, words are words, whether they're written on a piece of papyrus or typed on Google Docs. Words wound; words heal; words provoke thought, emotion, action. They are powerful little things.

For another, cause and effect still works the way it always has. Eating lots of ice cream will probably cause an increase in body fat. Failing to study for a test will cause a poor grade. Writing certain words cause certain responses. Remember that next time you comment on a Facebook post.

Words can't be taken back. They seem like ephemeral little sprites, but instead they're arrows with forever consequences - good or bad. Whether you speak them, scribble them with a #2 pencil, or type them on your blog, they're here to stay.

How it's different

I think the key difference from the written word 100 or even 20 years ago is that the internet takes the written word and amplifies it times the number of followers you have on Twitter, the number of people that read your blog, or even times number of people on the internet in general.

While most of us didn't have much of a voice before - sure we could talk to our friends, call them, write a letter, maybe write in to the newspaper or another publication, or get a few seconds of fame on a game show or radio show - now everyone has a voice as loud as celebrities, as powerful as government leaders, as effective as news anchors. Instead of only sharing ideas with people we shared physical proximity with or had some sort of social or work connection with, now our words reach around the world.

All those people who lamented how easy it was to have a say after Gutenberg invented his printing press? I wonder what they would say now of the common man's word reaching millions around the globe.

The implications

Some good ones - first, I think it's pretty cool that everyone can be heard. The patchwork quilt of opinions that blanket the internet is a work of art.

Second, information is also much more readily available than it used to be. For writers, this is huge - libraries are still fantastic resources, but often we can find the information we need online via Google and scholarly databases.

The implications of easily accessible information aren't entirely good, though. While one person might only want to find an article on how to knit a scarf, another can easily find an article on how to make a bomb.

How do you allow one and restrict the other? Where does freedom of speech come into play? And is there a need for internet police who could watch for people who could use all this information for harm? But wouldn't that infringe on human rights? And couldn't it be too easily abused?

Another implication? While everyone gets their say now, not everyone knows how to use this new-found power correctly. I'm thinking here of the young teenager who bullies a classmate online. Or adults who share news articles regardless of their accuracy. Or anyone who tweets without thinking of the consequences of their words (want to build a wall, anyone?). Or companies and organizations that sell products or ideas by fear-mongering.

How do you train kids, adults, and organizations alike to use the written word carefully and maturally online? Does it start with training in the home? At school? College? In the workplace?

The internet also makes it much easier to only read and consume information that we agree with - regardless of its veracity. While the internet empowers everyone to write and speak and connect with new people, instead of bringing us together it tends to polarize us into likeminded groups. This can be a good thing at times, but at other times we need to hear both sides of the story. How do we breach the divide?

Heather Landy at Quartz says it well: "America’s fake news threat isn’t new—in 1864, a misinformation campaign nearly derailed the re-election hopes of then-president Abraham Lincoln. And there is nothing particularly modern about partisan rancor, or about having regrettably narrow exposure to news sources or viewpoints. But social media has magnified all of these problems, by providing a means of distribution that makes fake news look deceptively legitimate, and by reinforcing the echo chamber of networks made up of like-minded people."

The great equalizer.

Death, illness, education, time - all of these have been said to be the great equalizer. But so is the internet. It takes the words of a college student sitting in a dorm room, a back office manager, people just like you and me and amplifies them for the world to hear. Words were powerful before the internet, but now they're 1000 times more powerful. What are we going to do with that power? And how are we going to learn to wield that power well?