Writing in the social era

James Shelley asks:

"how does the broadcast-this-now proposition of the internet shape the act of writing itself?"

In other words, what is the difference between posting and writing? He posits that the first is done when seeking an audience, the latter for an existing audience, one that has "already made some intentional decision to interact with you and your ideas." Two distinct propositions with differing intentionalities.

In the comments, Abhishek Mukherjee suggests that longevity plays a part, that the recent phenomenon of posting is more disposable, that utterances made in this mould are not intended to hold the attention long term - throwaway acts (as I have complained about on more than one occasion.)

Writing, therefore, is more considered as it is intended the audience will consume it over a longer period, possibly repeatedly.

Others comment that the audience doesn't come into play until after something is published, author intent is all. But can one really be separated from the other? Can we really isolate our thoughts and ideas in this way?

Public vs private

James' question is a public versus public framing but I think there is something deeper to consider: whether we post or write, or do neither, is the result of various forces and it is the interplay between them that determines our actions.

  1. As evolved beings we tie our thoughts and ideas to our vey identities, we need to know our own minds, to know who we are as individuals.
  2. We are inherently social animals and like, even need, to share. Humanity has always told stories of one form or another, whether as a means of communication or entertainment.
  3. We need to feel important or to seek validation, we need to know that we matter.

What makes us move from thought to act, from pen and paper or private digital journals to the web? What makes us want to hit publish?

Is it a surety in our thoughts and our words, an arrogance that leads us to share them with the world? Or is it the opposite, an uncertainty that requires confirmation?

Knowing our own mind is an internal, personal act but, being so closely linked to our perception of who we are, does it become a projection of ourselves. Is there a desire to be seen, to be known, to be acknowledged? A cry of "this is me" and the only way we know how to do that, the only way that is readily accessible, is to publish that cry to the web and hope someone hears.

For those who claim to write solely for themselves to hit publish, moving from the private to public sphere, has to be something so fundamental to who they are, something incredibly individual - otherwise why post publicly at all? What would be the point?

It could be quite animalistic, instinctual and deep-seated or possibly the result of a higher function - maybe to be seen as intelligent, as worthy.

Perhaps there could be a need for accountability. Moving oneself to the public sphere in order to be seen, or at least have the potential to be seen, can drive purpose and creativity while having others to call you out if you don’t match expectations.

If we consider the Observer Effect (the theory that observing something in some way changes it) does the potential presence of an audience change what we do, how we do it and how we behave? Surely it has to.

Are we the willing creators of our own panopticons?

Has the web, and social media in particular, changed us? Has the like of reality TV caused a cultural shift where we all look to be public figures and inhabit a domain previously denied us?

Relationships

Longevity plays a part, as Abhishek rightly suggests, but I think James' premise that the nature of the audience, and the depth of connection to it, determines how much of ourselves we are willing to invest.

Once you get past the opening salvoes, past the "getting to know you" stage, it becomes a conversation, a relationship, a meeting of minds. Is this part of what drives us to first hit publish?

The relationship between writer and reader has historically been a strange, asynchronous affair. Writing and publishing were restricted to "the few" who wrote books or articles or columns which everyone would read but had no way to respond.

There was no real relationship, it was more reader loyalty than anything. In the social age, however, a relationship can form as the audience often has the ability to engage with the writer.

But it goes beyond that - for the first time everyone can publish, everyone can be the writer. The lines are now blurred and we are both writer and audience simultaneously, and I think this has a significant impact on how we think, on how we write, even if we don't realise it. Most are so used to being the audience, knowing what they like and expect from the writer, that it can't not colour the things they create.

As the roles shift, as we become more writer than audience - perhaps with an audience of our own - so the investment in our work and in the relationship increases. The more we stand to gain the more we are willing to give of ourselves and the more our writing will change.

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