A writing class typically helps students gain facility in the techniques that produce coherent and compelling writing. Most of the time, the writing literacy skills that students learn in a composition classroom are geared toward the world of print. Most students compose traditional essays that are printed out on a page and read in a linear fashion, that is, from beginning to end. However, writing is slowly, steadily changing, and learning the conventions of print-based writing alone is no longer enough in an increasingly wired world. Indeed, it is commonplace these days to hear people talk of an "electronic literacy," a set of writing and reading skills that most younger students are learning implicitly as they spend more and more of their time in cyberspace. This change is primarily occurring in electronic media where the conventions of the print-based medium are modified or even abolished outright. This reader, and especially this chapter, encourages students to formally study the nature of this new "electronic literacy" by providing an overview of the ways the online world is changing and will continue to change our idea of what it means to read and write.
The selections in this chapter explore the often tenuous boundaries between print and cyberspace-based writing. While some of the authors see substantial differences among the kinds of writing that occur in the two media, others find the differences to be less distinct. Philip Elmer-Dewitt's "Bards of the Internet" recognizes that online writing may lack some of the rigor of formalized, print-based writing. However, he suggests that the more "democratic" nature of online writing provides the kind of cultural conditions that produced revered writers of the past, such as Shakespeare. "Flamers" by Gary Chapman takes a less enthusiastic view of the quality of online writing. He focuses his attention on "flames," that is, incendiary writing, which he feels encourage a decline in the overall quality of writing and a split among "classes" of writers. Nicholas Negroponte's "Commingled Bits" considers online multimedia components, such as sounds and images, to be a kind of "writing" that may help revise our traditional definitions of writing. In preferring the realm of the book to the realm of hypertext, Sven Birkerts's "Hypertext: Of Mouse and Man" reveals the discomfort and cognitive dissonance that many people may experience when the reader suddenly also becomes the "writer" of a piece of text. Jay David Bolter's "The Computer as a New Writing Space" demonstrates how our cognitive paradigms have not only guided the way we design computerized writing spaces, but also how those spaces stand to change those cognitive paradigms. The final reading of the chapter, Steven L. Clift's "Using Electronic Communication for Political Discussions," provides a glimpse into the way particular Internet communities are beginning to define for themselves the new kinds of stylistic conventions that should be used in online writing.
These readings will not provide a strict definition of what an "electronic literacy" might be, but they will provoke some interesting questions: Will online writing merely supplant print-based writing, or will the two forms of writing continue to exist simultaneously, perhaps continually influencing each other's shape? Is writing limited to text or should we expand our notion of writing to include images and sounds? How will we define and establish conventions for writing in such pluralistic media, or do we need to question the purpose of establishing writing conventions in the first place? How do changing reading and writing practices affect the way we communicate and the way we understand our cultures? While the readings in this chapter will not definitively answer any of these questions, they will hopefully underscore that you will shape what writing can and will become.
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