The More Things Change, the More Things
Though digital media have wrought fundamental changes throughout the communication and media industries, some things have remained constant. We learned how to structure information in older media, so it shouldn’t surprise us that newer media forms borrow heavily from those that came before. The fact that writing appears on a computer screen or smartphone rather than a bound book does not diminish, then, the values of clarity, concision, accuracy, and completeness. Good writing is valued in digital forms just as it has been in other, older media.
It may seem like there is more poor writing because there is so much information being posted, published, and shared, when anyone with a data plan can tweet out to hundreds, even thousands of followers. But Sturgeon’s law holds: 90 percent of everything is still crap, including writing, whether it’s published in a book, posted to a Facebook wall, or tweeted.
What has been produced for all media across time largely has been mediocre or worse. Rudyard Kipling saw this in 1890, writing in The Light That Failed, “Four-fifths of everybody’s work must be bad.” Because of the Internet and the ubiquity of mobile connectivity, there is exponentially so much more information, so of course there is more mediocrity, more gunk, spam, junk, and crap. Quality still counts, and it is still most rare.
Also unchanged by newer media forms are many of the important roles of the writer:
Communicator of a message
How much “trending” content fails to communicate anything of value? How much “click-bait” is there only to titillate before evaporating into the Internet ether forever? The skilled digital writer conveys a message in provocative, clever, amusing, interesting, or profound ways regardless of the medium. This writer succeeds by making wise rhetorical choices and employing medium-specific tools and techniques.
Organizer of information
With so much information, never have the roles of organizer, guide, and curator been more important. Decisions must be made about what is most important and, in leaving information out, what is not important enough. Good digital writers help readers to prioritize and create order out of what often seems like overwhelming tides of information rolling up on our shores, all of it competing for our attention.
The message has to be right for the medium, and the medium has to be right for the message. Digital writers tailor messages to leverage a medium’s strengths and mitigate its weaknesses, realizing that there are particular kinds of freight each medium is especially suited to carry. Try debating politics using only church bells, smoke signals, or even tweets. It can’t meaningfully be done. Imagine a 25,000-word blog post on, say, the contributions to art and culture by any one of the many Kardashians?