There are two main types of writing on the internet: Talking and Barking.
Talking is when someone communicates something to another human. It might be an essay about an idea, such as this one. It could be a statement in a chatroom like, “I just went for ice cream”. What’s important about Talking is that it says something about the real world that, for whatever reason, the writer thinks the audience needs to know. They are statements from the great witness stand of life, straight and plain.
Barking is more about the person who is doing the writing. My dog, for example, often goes crazy when the mailman arrives on the porch to deliver the mail. There’s a small furry eruption at the plodding steps and shadow on the door light every day. What’s all that noise mean? Very little. It say, “I am here, I am a strong and mean dog!” It’s about him, the dog, and not very much about the mailman. The dog is establishing his territory and status, and nothing more. If I let my dog out to meet someone he’s been barking at, he usually becomes silent and demur, wagging his whole back end as friendly as he can. Status to a strange shadow “other” is one thing, but in person it is very different.
We all bark at the mailman from time to time. Language is, after all, a social thing. Everyone conveys social status through the language we use in a “My Fair Lady” way. Our choices of words tell everyone just how much education we have and how kewl we are. It really can’t be helped. Sometimes it’s even more deliberate when we really do want the mailman to think we’re brave and tough, even if we’re just a little terrier.
Good writing, however, avoids barking whenever possible. Recently, I saw a news article from Reuters where the relationship between McCain and Bush was described as “frenenemies” – friends and enemies. Does this word illuminate, or does it describe the writer as someone plugged into the latest lingo? The short answer is that it’s clearly not about an idea because it took a sentence to describe what it means. Why not just use a sentence by itself? Why not get into the heads of the two subjects with an awkward moment that is allegorical? That would get the idea much deeper into our heads than an bizarre buzz word.
Talking is about treating your audience as equals, a group who will have no problem “getting it” if you lay it out properly. Talking is about addressing them as individuals who you are chatting up, one on one. Would you deliberately use kewlspeak to someone who doesn’t understand you if you have to look them in the eyes? Of course not, that would be rude. Why would you use it when you write?
The job of a writer is to make something understood. You can do that in the heart or the brain, and ideally you’ll hit both pretty hard. If something is dense or jargon filled, it’s much harder to understand. That makes it bad writing. It sounds rather elitist to separate internet writing based on quality, but by understanding that some of it is nothing more than Barking it’s pretty easy to distinguish the good from the bad.
Citizen journalism is a very hot topic these days. The basic definition, by Jar Rosen of NYU, is that citizen journalism is when the people use the tools of the press to inform one another. I can buy that. But what if the people take those tools and do nothing but Bark at each other?
Quality does count. It’s one thing to insist that the tools are made available to everyone. The next step, however, is to ask them to look at that camera or blank MS Word document and remember that they are talking to another human being. If you live in a house with a grossly insecure dog who barks at everything, it gets annoying fast. That’s not news, it’s noise.