Grading a big stack of essays today, I was struck by the same recurrent pattern I noticed last semester. Why do people have such a huge problem with the concept of writing an introduction? Of course, introductions are the most difficult part of an essay to write, largely because they are best composed last. I had hoped by starting with a cover letter (which is in essence, a long introduction) as the first assignment I might be able to spend less time on introduction strategies in the middle of the semester. I was wrong. While it works well for getting across the idea that thinking rhetorically means addressing the needs of your audience, it didn’t do squat to improve the second assignment, a bibliographic essay. The introduction to an essay of this type is simply “what I surveyed is this . . .” and still people failed to include any clue of what they were really on about until halfway through the essay.
It occurs to me that we live in an increasingly introduction free world. Everything is already in progress. We watch TV shows from the middle without blinking an eye, we follow political controversies without any pressing desire to know the historical background of the conflict, and we casually surf into the middle of sites on the net due to queries which effectively bypass any sort of front-matter, or declaration of what the site is all about. Is the introduction an endangered species? In a macro sense, perhaps yes, but on the micro level, certainly not.
Introductions become more a matter of visual style, rather than verbal survey. I know I’m reading a blog due to certain visual cues. I know I’m reading a news or commercial site due to the constant assertion of branding on every page. I know I’m reading an old, first generation site due to the garish backgrounds, embedded sound files, or crazy typography. Because in “real life” we immediately assign certain expectations based on these cues, it seems natural that a writer need not spell out his inclinations— “You know what it’s about, you assigned it!” We are so used to the application of context to introduce meaning in our day-to-day interactions that we think very little about being more “reader friendly.” This is libratory in a certain sense— free from constantly reintroducing our ideas, we can cut to the chase quickly.
The danger of this, is of course misunderstanding. Context is subtle and easily misread. This provides a skew to everything we read, a muddle of associations that may or may not be accurate. This can be an advantage, when it comes to something like a blog. I think most people want to project their experience on what they read, and the nebulous nature of ethos in the electronic world makes things seem far more connected than they really are. It’s a comfortable little lie, a bit of self-imposed universalizing that makes the society seem downright friendly.
A proper introduction takes time. The periodic nature of blogging makes repeat visits for fresh cues rewarding. We fall in and out of love with the people we meet as we are more properly introduced. Perhaps skipping the introduction isn’t so bad in the blogging world, because it spreads out the process of getting to know people over a longer time-scale. The casual visitor never really understands much about the person they are reading. They move on, untroubled by the pains of dissolving an illusory friendship to a person they were never really introduced to. Commercial sites rise or fall dependent on a concept of ethos built across multiple visits; personal sites, well, it’s a much more zipless flirtation most of the time, rather than a long-lasting friendship.
Blogrolls are an interesting twist on the problem. Mine has been fairly stable for a long while now, and I get the illusion that I know some of these people quite well. I like the feeling. I like anticipating what I might find on their sites next. I like getting to know people. Due to the intense nature of my place in life right now, I don’t say thank-you often enough to those people that I read every day. Though we haven’t been properly introduced, I’ve been following the stories long enough to feel like I know what’s going on. I count on all these people to take me outside myself, in these times that I must focus on my own personal projects.