I was at my friend Dave Humphrey’s house on Saturday night, sitting on his screened porch, drinking coffee, and listening to a nearby tractor drown out the sound of the wildlife: a lovely evening. In the course of the conversation, Dave mentioned the way that I use email to send letters rather than messages and use this blog to write essays rather than posts. “Luke,” he said, “you need to learn to write for the web,” though he knows that this cause is lost. Because our conversation was not focused on this topic directly, and because our wives put up with too much pseudo-intellectual discussion from the two of us already, I did not respond much to Dave’s remark, but I was struck by the indefinition, at least for me, of what it means “to write for the web.” What characteristics distinguish this mode of writing from other modes? What is gained and lost by this kind of writing?
I have no intention of trying to address these questions fully in this format. A book would probably be required, and I have neither the degree of interest required to finish it nor any degree of hope that someone would publish it. However, several ideas have occurred to me since our conversation, and perhaps they may serve as the basis for a more serious thinking of the topic.
1. Writing for the web seems to imply first of all speed. It is written quickly, published immediately, received by its readers almost instantly. Its value is in its currency. The email’s advantage over the letter is that it can be sent immediately from where I sit at my desk and be received instantly by its intended audience. The advantage of the blog over the newspaper column is that I can update it, edit it, and syndicate it in real time. The characteristic of speed is so central to writing for the web that it is almost definitive of the mode.
2. Because writing for the web finds its value in its currency, it also tends to be characterized by brevity. Emails are generally shorter than letters. Messaging is shorter yet. Twitter even shorter. All of this, of course, is to facilitate speed. Writing for the web must be brief in order that it be current.
3. Because writing for the web is driven by both speed and brevity, it is also characterized by functionality. It is hardly writing in this respect. It is communication. It tends toward the shortform, the acronym, the image, the list, and the phrase. It values functionality over literary interest. This is not always bad, of course. There are times when speed and clarity of communication are to be valued over literary style, but functionality in writing for the web has almost entirely displaced the literary.
4. Because writing for the web is concerned with speed, and therefore brevity, and therefore functionality, it is also concerned mostly with the present, rarely with the future or the past, with preservation and archivization. While the web is certainly used to archive many things, and while certain functions of the web are focused exclusively on archiving knowledge, writing that is for the web is not often preserved, is not often intended to be preserved. It is possible but not likely that a famous figure’s collected emails will ever be published in the way that collected letters were published in the past. Not only would the contents of these emails probably be of much lesser literary interest because they have lost their currency, but there is every chance that they would not even exist, having been deleted as soon as they were written and received. Messaging and twittering would never even be of interest to posterity at all, dealing entirely with the trivial and the transitory. In this respect, blogs are perhaps different, because one of their central functions is to archive, but there still remains the question of how much of this sort of writing will be worth reading once it has lost its currency.
In any case, it is for these reasons and othes that I choose to write the web differently. I choose to write letters as well as messages, to archive the letters I send, and to archive the letters that people actually write me in return. I choose to write essays rather than posts, to be as concerned with the words that I use as I am with the ideas that I communicate. I choose to write slowly in a medium that demands speed. I choose to write lengthily in a medium that demands brevity. I do so, not only because it pleases me to do so, but because I want to raise for others the question of how writing for the web has perhaps prevented us from being writers at all.