digital rhetoric

Writing alone on the social web.

In The New York Times, Randall Stross opines on the pending incorporation of LinkedIn into MS-Word. Apparently the idea is to create an opportunity for people on LinkedIn to participate or assist you in whatever you’re doing in Word. As Stross writes

My version of Word, a relatively recent one, is not that different from the original, born in software’s Pleistocene epoch. It isn’t networked to my friends, family and professional contacts, and that’s the point. Writing on Word may be the only time I spend on my computer in which I can keep the endless distractions in the networked world out of sight.

I have to agree. It’s really difficult to imagine desiring an intrusion from the friendly experts at LinkedIn, or, god forbid, being asked to perform the role of expert yourself for one of your contacts there.

This got me thinking along a tangent though. Since the early days of web 2.0 and social media there has been this idea that writing would become a more social, collaborative experience. We have Wikipedia, of course, and the many more focused wikis one can find. And that’s a useful example of collaborative, networked writing. However I would imagine that on many wikis individual pages tend to be largely created by a single author, perhaps with some editors coming along to touch things up. The advantage of the wiki structure is that it is plainly subdivided, and thus one might approach them the way students generally approach group writing projects, by dividing the work into parts done individually. When we think of other forms of social media, the level of collaboration is very low: e.g. commenting on some’s FB status update. There’s collaboration in the sense that an asynchronous online conversation can be collaborative. FB is more like parallel play than it is a group endeavor.

Nevertheless we still seem to be left with this idea that writing should be more networked and collaborative. Not only that it could be, but that it should be. Where does this value come from? I’m not sure. I suppose from general valuations of the ideas of crowdsourcing, collective intelligence, and so on. If one approaches this perception from a genre studies perspective, one might say that whether or not multiple people should compose a text together largely depends on the activity system, genre, and objective of the composition. So for example, if there was going to be a shift in scholarly writing in the humanities to where the common approach was to have a half-dozen or more co-authors, then we’d have to start creating new genres, which would probably mean creating new research paradigms and methods as well. In other words, it’s not the kind of thing one just decides to do on a whim.

But there’s a more pressing point here I believe. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by the implicit anthropocentrism in this apparent push by Microsoft toward networked composing. That is, there is this notion that the media ecology is for us and should serve our interests. Of course, you or I might disagree with Microsoft’s notion of what is in our interest. We might critique the ideology of labor that informs their notion of how we should write. Nevertheless, it is still a human-centered notion.

However, the digital media ecology is no more interested in us than the dirt is in the worm. It doesn’t tell us we should collaborate or that we shouldn’t. In a Latourian turn of phrase, in our encounter with the media ecology, we write and are made to write. Like Stross I spend many hours with Word documents, “alone” (i.e. without other humans) and avoiding the temptations of social media and the web. But even if I turn to Facebook, Twitter, email or whatever, I am not suddenly less alone in human terms. I write this blog post for the web. I write a status update. An email message. I am still writing alone. And the digital media ecology in which I participate is largely indifferent to it all, just as the rest of the world I normally inhabit is indifferent: the toaster, the front lawn, the stop sign, the sidewalk, etc.

Of course we are all also interdependent and in that sense we never write alone; we only gain the capacity to write through our relations with others. But that is not an argument for this anthropocentric model of networked composing where “we” should write together. It is only an observation that, in fact, we never write alone. “Should” has nothing to do with it.

I am very skeptical of this LinkedIn/MS-Word model of networked collaborative composing. In fact, it sounds like a nightmare. After all, hell is other people LinkedIn contacts. But it’s not about that. Writing is already a largely nightmarish labor of wringing out and sorting out thoughts, of trying to organize and find something useful to say, of confronting some internalized demand of an imagined external audience.

Despite all that negativity, I am curious about the notion of writing with other humans in a more collaborative way, or at least, writing in a different network of relations than the one in which I participate now.

Probably not LinkedIn though.

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