We?

The Royal We

I always get nervous when a mythic “we” enters into things. Reacting in part to Alex Golub’s latest screed on blogging, Steve Himmer asks:

What are we writing, and how are we writing it? What constitutes good writing on the web, and is it determined by the same criteria that determine good writing elsewhere?

The easiest answer is the Tonto trope: “Whatcha mean we, Kemosabe?” What I find fascinating about blogging is the unmediated environment. I think that most people find that difficult to cope with and force their own mediatory constructs on the process. It represents a double metonymy of sorts— we internalize our own concept of “good writing” based on the criteria we are most comfortable with as we percieve it in others— a necessary illusion, because without mediation there is no standard. The impact of education cuts deeply. Alex’s anti-academic claim for blog valuation takes its core values from academic writing.

Worlds Apart is an insightful empirical comparison between the nature of academic and workplace writing. The primary difference noted by the authors is that school writing practices are “dominated by the epistemic motive and the need to rank” (224). Texts are created primarily for the purpose of short-term evaluation and ranking within a specified time frame. Ultimately, though the perception of audience is shifted in Alex’s model, the goal remains the same. It’s academic. Sort of like speaking up in class with just the right comment at the right time, rather than providing a complex dissertation on a topic.

Sometimes I think that the discourse of blogs doesn’t really reach that high. It’s more like show-and-tell— like kindergarten. See the nice link I found? Admit it, show and tell is fun and most outgoing adults still enjoy it. Some blogs stake out that territory and stay there— it’s comfortable and non-threatening. To an extent, it’s academic too. Say hello to the class and show them something so they will like you. Link heavy blogs create persona through a process of selection, of valuation. It’s interesting that this is perhaps the longest surviving mode of blogging, which does not show much sign of fading— I remember when I started that this seemed mostly bush-league. It takes guts to put yourself out on the commons without any trinkets to sell.

Workplace writing on the other hand is focused on record-keeping and task oriented activity— it is seldom ranked. There is a pressure to conserve space, to provide strictly useful information. I find this commonplace with the growth of professionally oriented link logs targeted at subject specific areas. Valuation is strictly based on ease of access, conciseness, and many of the attributes that Alex suggests— but the insistence of valuation is the worst sort of academic hangover. It goes to the construction of a necessary evil— an author to provide the agency. I think the correct question to ask is not what but why. As there are as many answers to why as there are writers on the web, the question of valuation becomes pointless here. It can only be understood within genres of writing. I remain unconvinced that because we use the same tools, we’re all building the same house. Most of us learned our tools in school, and the repercussions of that continue to be felt.

The question of reading behavior that Steve moves toward is also addressed in Worlds Apart— it’s a foundation of their perception of difference. In school, we read to evaluate. At work, we read for necessary information to get the job done. On the web, these models collide playfully with a need for entertainment, which is another complex matter to consider. Some people prefer short poems. Some people prefer long ones.

2 thoughts on “We?”

  1. As someone who’s career often focused on fixing other people’s workplace writing, I have to say that most workplace writing winds up being unnecessarily boring and complex. Yes, the problem starts with how we are taught to write in school. I never could figure out the tendency in workplace writing to use the passive voice — although now I think it has something to do with not wanting to admit where the buck stops.

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