I recently posted a 4 part series consisting of lecture notes for my Fordham University online course on Writing for Online Media, where I attempt to put online writing into a larger historical, and media ecological context through an overview of the history of writing. The 4 posts, in order are
- Orality and Online Writing
- Reading, Writing, and Rearranging
- Scribes and Scribbles
- From Print to Screen
A Few Notes on Digital Writing
When personal computers, originally referred to as microcomputers, first appeared circa 1975, word processing programs were, arguably, the first truly practical use for these machines. In effect, they were an advance over typewriting, where corrections would have to be made after the words were printed, not before. Some of the first word processors were modified typewriters, dedicated to that single function, through the addition of computer memory and displays, but word processing on personal computers soon rendered the typewriter obsolete, so that all that's left of them today is the keyboard layout (known as QWERTY, reportedly set up in the 19th century to keep typists from typing too fast and jamming up the machine, but it's also the case that all of the letters for typing the word "typewriter" are easy to find because they're in the top row).
In general, word processing restored the ease of editing and overall freedom associated with handwriting and manuscript, which was mostly lost with typography and only partly reclaimed by the typewriter. Word processing gave writers a great deal of freedom and flexibility, but also made us more self-conscious about writing. Aside from spending inordinate amounts of time picking out fonts and adjusting margins and the like, word processing was associated with a start and stop kind of writing that was not common before, starting to write a line, deleting it, starting again, deleting part of it, inserting a word, re-editing, etc., rather than just writing away and coming back to edit the text later (which I would recommend as a better and easier way to get writing done). Studies of electronic writing suggest that the act of prewriting, that is, thinking about what you're going to write, and composing in your head before putting it down on paper, is short-circuited by electronic writing, which no doubt adds to the dissatisfaction and feeling that we need to edit what we type via the computer.
Following the introduction of personal computers, relatively inexpensive printers were made available as an accessory, and while quality varied widely at first, by and large they represented a significant increase in speed over typing, and opened the door to a new concept of desktop printing that became popular in the 80s. Desktop printing meant that individuals could produce what previously had only been possible via professional print shops.
As word processing software has become increasingly more powerful and sophisticated, it has become increasingly more possible to produce professional looking results through something like Microsoft Word. The best results for desktop publishing, however, require special publishing programs like Adobe Pagemaker, now replaced by Adobe InDesign, or QuarkXPress, to name just two examples. Printing remains an important function of electronic writing, as does the digital simulation of printing, such as the Portable Document Format or PDF file.
Text adventures, games based purely on written descriptions and typed in commands, along the lines of print-based "choose your own adventure" books, first appeared in the 70s, and became a popular form of software in the 80s. The leading manufacturer, Infocom, referred to their games as interactive fiction. Hypertext programs have been in existence since the 60s, and came into their own during the 80s as well. We'll look at these two formats in more detail later in the semester. Both represent a break from the idea of written works as linear and sequential, towards a new idea of interconnected networks of text.
The linking together of two or more computers and the creation of computer networks meant that electronic files could be transmitted, downloaded and uploaded, from one computer to another. Online writing could therefore be said to have originated with the forerunner of the internet, the ARPANET, circa 1969. In 1971, the first email message was sent over the network, introducing a new form of electronic writing, and it soon became apparent that this and other forms of electronic text-based messaging introduced a more conversational, informal, virtually oral style of writing (and with it new sets of ambiguities and problems in some situations) in contrast to older forms of writing and letters and memorandums (memos being the format that email was actually based on).
The creation of a hypertextual interface to the internet through the introduction of the World-Wide Web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee circa 1990, marks the beginning of the second stage of online writing, especially after the introduction of the Mosaic web browser in 1993, with its graphical user interface. This gave us websites as locations where you could not only download files, but where written information could be displayed as documents in their own right, pages to be read (aided as well by the development of high resolution computer monitors). The internet became highly commercialized as companies rushed to create websites to promote and sell their wares, much to the dismay of computer pioneers, professionals and hobbyists alike, and content became a buzzword as the search was on for material to fill these websites, and attract audiences. The humorist science fiction writer Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame) quipped back then: “First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII — and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we've realized it's a brochure.”
The problem with those websites was that they required extensive knowledge of HTML coding, and therefore were difficult to modify. Typically, we would surf the web, come to an interesting site, take a look through it once, maybe come back another time, and that would be it, we'd be off to check out the next site. That's why it was called surfing the web. There was no reason to ever return because it was unlikely that anything new would be added to the site, but if something new was added, you'd look at it, and then be gone again. As this all came to a head, the e-commerce bubble of the mid 90s burst, and enthusiasm for the web died down.
Blogging is generally thought to originate during the late 90s, weblog having been coined in 1997, and the short from blog in 1999, but its origins can arguably be traced back to earlier forms of online writing. The revolution in blogging, however, begins at the end of the millennium, with Open Diary launched in 1998, LiveJournal and Blogger (not purchased by Google until 2003) in 1999.
A key development that made this possible, circa 1997-1998, is the introduction of XML as an alternative to HTML, which allowed for a more flexible kind of programming language for the web. This made possible the creation of software where web content could be updated easily, without recourse to programming languages, using the same tools we use for word processing. Whereas before the web, email and chat was very interactive, democratic, and participatory, the shift in emphasis to static websites threatened to turn the internet into another mass medium, but the new developments associated with XML and blogging restored a good measure of interactivity, and the democratic and participatory sensibility that previously had been dominant. Anyone who wants to can create a blog and publish their writing, making it available to the public on a global scale. And even if you aren't interested in writing your own blog, you can still participate by leaving comments on others' blogs.
The ways it's been put, by various scholars and writers, is that there is a fundamental conflict between information and communication. This corresponds to the distinction between mass media and interpersonal communication, and even earlier to that between public speaking and dialogue, and therefore the ancient quarrel between the sophists and the philosophers.
Blogging is considered the first form of what was dubbed Web 2.0 (first in 1999, but not really popularized until 2002), a term that covers all of the dynamic qualities of the web from the personalization used by Amazon and Google to personal publishing via blogs, podcasts, and YouTube and related video hosting sites, to social networking and social media. Indeed, according to some, blogs are a form of social media, due to the ability to leave and respond to comments, and the fact that bloggers are known to respond to each other via their own blog posts, and link to each other. Blogs can be linked to one another in the form of a list, the blogroll, appearing on any given blog, or as a group or circle or network of associated blogs typically with some kind of linking mechanism (which could be as simple as the "Next Blog>>" on the upper left of Blogger blogs (which connects all of the blogs on that site), or in reference to the blogging community as a whole, as the blogosphere.
Blogging itself has been integrated into some social media sites, MySpace having been a prominent example (although their blogging software has been downgraded in recent years), and their distinctive identity has blurred through the addition of increasingly more sophisticated forms of status updates, and microblogging services, the best known being Twitter.
Blogs remain the most substantial form of social media and Web 2.0, the most central in the sense that other items that we produce (videos, podcasts, images) can be incorporated into our blogs, and one of the best ways to establish yourself professionally and establish yourself as an active participant within a professional network.