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November 03, 2002

The Golden Age When academics

The Golden Age

When academics and the media deign to examine the Internet, what they see is spam, emoticons and the h4X0r 14ngu4g3, all of which are the literary equivalent of garlic to a vampire. Despite the fact that the primary method of communication on the Internet has always been the written word, it is lumped in with reality shows and Grand Theft Auto 3 as language cancer, mostly thanks to how people use its primary short forms of communication; e-mail and the IM.

The ubiquity of e-mail and instant messages are due to the power they have for a concise, staccato transmittal of ideas. Both are an ideal type of short form communication and people compress language using them in the same manner as when the telegraph was king. However, transmission of something more than a comment or single thought to a wide audience is more easily don via a website than by either of the above. And it is via websites and blogs that a large and growing number of people perform most of their interaction with the written word on a daily basis, not only by reading those words, but by writing them as well.

And just because they write mostly cat stories rather than an updated Dialogues is no reason to dismiss the form. Not only is the impact of the Net on language just beginning, any writing is better than none. Any creation is better than yet another flaccid, passive ingestion of Fear Factor.

Twenty years from now we might be able to say with some certainty that the initial impact of the World Wide Web is coming to a close, but right now it's still growing. I can only look back six or seven years to when I first came online, but my experience has been that content is growing at a geometric progression, because as time goes by it gets easier and easier for anyone to add to that content. As content creation gets easier, more people create content. The act of creating something, even something as small as a post linking to the thoughts of another, forces a person to bang on words until they say what what a person wishes them to. Everyone can be a creator. Everyone can be a wordsmith. That will end up being the biggest boon to the language since Francis Bacon picked a nom de plume.

If anything can be called a rule of thumb on the Net, it is that the most popular sites are ones that are most often updated, at least during the workweek. Regular updates don't happen without content, and the creation of Internet content is the realm of the wordsmith. Yes, there's Flash, and streaming video and all the other bells and whistles, but hooking up words and phrases and clauses is still the cheapest, fastest way to bring in the eyeballs. No, not all of the Internet is the unchallenged province of the wordsmith, but he casts a larger shadow over the world's populace now than at any time in the last 80 or 90 years. If one measures the potential impact of any particular piece of writing, then a comparison with history is simply impossible. At no time in the past could literally anyone have published their writings with the quite reasonable expectation that it could be read by people in every continent on the planet within a matter of minutes.

But while it's easier to create something once, creating it on any kind of regular basis can be pretty damn daunting at times. The ones who do it the best tend to have a excellent command of the language as well as an ever-refreshing spring of creativity, and they reach a lot of people, far more than almost any of the so-called "print" mediums other than newspapers and magazines. Jonathan Frazen was on the NYT best seller list and sold 90,000 books over 5 weeks. The most popular blogs equal that number in less than a week. Blogdom as a whole probably triples that number every day, at a minimum.

For the sake of argument, let's classify blogs as part of the "print medium." You could print out a blog if you wanted to, after all. Now name any other part of that medium where the readership numbers are growing rather than declining. Hell, name any other part of that medium where the authorship numbers are growing rather than declining. You can't. And that leaves bloggers as the new keepers of the written word.

For all the claims that have seen about the impact and significance of blogging, that is one thought about the practice that I have yet to run across. Not that it probably isn't already out there somewhere, but the Internet is large, and my time is finite. Simply put, we're in a golden age for the written word, and no one realizes it, because the conventional wisdom is still caught up with decrying television and video games as the death of language. The fact is that more people are writing down more words than at any point in time since the personal letter was the primary form of communication. If we haven't already surpassed the age of letter writing in terms of sheer output, then we soon will.

Language mavens look at the ever-shrinking audience for books, magazines and newspapers, cross it with the burgeoning numbers surfing the web and foretell the coming functional illiteracy of the populace. If they refer to blogging, it's usually in the context of another in the "great unwashed need an editor" series of stories.

I have one word for them. Frottage. "The technique of creating a design by rubbing (as with a pencil) over an object placed underneath the paper." How many of you knew that word before Lileks used it last week? Or before now, for that matter? And to those of you whom the word was familiar, when was the last time you saw it used in the mass media? Or anywhere? It's not the only two-dollar word he used in that post, either.

Here's a short list; zygote, aural, fogey, schmaltzy, dross, doxy, sublimity, mitigation, bumptious, vamp, idiom, reiteration, magilla. The list is shorter than it would be otherwise because I'm an English major, and there's 75-cent words in there that I don't think twice about, but you could pull an 8th grade vocabulary test out of the Daily Bleat every single day it's posted.

Just for comparison's sake, here's a vocabulary list from the top story at the USA today site, Bush, Clinton converge on Florida; implored, itinerary, discerning. Yes, it's USA today versus Lileks, I know, but the comparison is not that horribly unfair. The point is that the mass media long ago stopped trying to challenge readers in favor of earning money. When "Educate and Inform" is even considered it is within the context of the facts of a story, and is not applied to the actual form of the article. People and EW aren't going to call Ms. Aguilera a doxy, because people might not understand the word, It has nothing to do with the negative connotations of "doxy". They're not going to call her a chanteuse, either. You don't get to be popular in their world by throwing roadblocks in front of the readers. They are corporate publications, and as such have all the substance of cud. Novelists have substance, on occasion, but their reach is limited to those who buy books or check them out of a library--really just to the subset of those numbers that actually read the book.

The only regularly published people with a comparable audience (albeit collective, for the moment) to the mass media as well as voices idiosyncratic enough to use words like frottage, and well, idiosyncratic for that matter, are bloggers, and our close kin in places like Slashdot. We're the carriers of the written word for a time, until technology makes Internet Broadcasting as easy as Internet Publishing is now, at which point we can expect the language pundits to once again foretell the coming death of the written word.

At least until the Interplanetary Net comes online, and bandwidth constraints once again make the written word the cheapest form of communication.

Posted by Bigwig at November 3, 2002 02:39 PM | TrackBack
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