Oohh, Pretty Ribbon! (And Other Ways the Web Makes Us Woozy)

And these are just for ordering lunch

One morning this past week, I had a writing project open on my screen, while looking at a Twitter stream, and also listening (well, my ears took in noise) to a webinar, which was going to end on the hour, and be followed by another webinar. Oh, the humanity! Now the webinar material wasn’t just mindless prattle; it was sound information on building a bigger blogging audience, and the one that followed also offered insightful information on revising a novel. And I’d seen some great tweeted links to intriguing topical news and the amusing oddments of humanity in the tweeted flow.

But the whole of it, the tapestry of electronic screeching tires, colored balloons, half-cooked flotsam—I sensed that the inner nutrient levels were low. Trying to look more than two tweets ahead, I know this is unsustainable behavior, on a spiritual as well as logical level.

But just to add to the feeling of this cascade described above—the “is that a mouse running up my leg before I’m going to make an important speech while someone in the audience is having electroshock administered”—while I was webinaring and tweeting and reading and wobbling, I opened this email from Jonathan Fields. His post squints at this collected connectivity, and the accompanying potential of disconnect that can come from it.

The Sunday Picnic Basket of the Web

The Net indeed can seem like the largest Sunday picnic basket of all, with juicy treats shared among smiling friends and extended family, and perhaps I’m biting the keyboard that feeds me by saying “no mas, no mas,” but sheesh, I’m concerned that I’m turning into one of those mice that hits the lever to drop the cocaine, and the lever taps are happening more frequently.

There have been a few recently published studies that suggest (as Fields alludes to) that our heavy use of the Internet and its popcornings of this and now this, but this too! is reshaping our abilities to have deep, concentrated focus on a subject—indeed attenuating our abilities to focus at all.

Computer Narcosis, Internet Brain and Gosh, Where Did the Time Go?

As I commented on the Fields piece, I also fear potential neurological re-shapings, that perhaps will suppress the ability to absorb in any reflective way long-form information, in favor of the slot-machine, bells-lit flavor-packs of brain candy we can access all day long now. Undoubtedly some brains are more susceptible to this than others. Since I’ve peppered mine with enough bourbon so it has more divots than most public golf courses, I might have to be more wary than most. (And our War of Warcraft army recruits might be lost already, but we’ll need them to man the expanding air force of drones that will soon be used to both kill terrorists and to perhaps shoot the fingers off of people texting while driving.)

Me, after musing on the Fields post (at the very moment I was being buffeted by the cluster bombs of divided electronic attentions), I vowed to no longer do these data-crams. It might be the bourbon that’s trenched my memory, but it feels like I’m getting so little retained value anyway from all the podcasts, webinars, PDFs and tweets that concurrently flood my bloodshot eyeballs.

When I ask, does all this stuff, despite its twinkly appeal, make me any happier? Smarter? Better?


The Net and its wonders have been an immeasurable boon to my work, but that horrible sucking sound of my soul draining away has to be listened to as well. Of course I’m still going to be there typing away, but not while opening the curtains on all sides to every passing circus. One thing at a time. Breathe. Balance. (And maybe just a bit more coffee.)

You Meet the Nicest Immortal Writing Gods in the Strangest Places

Margaret Atwood talking about Fanado on YouTube

Because I don’t waste enough time already searching for videos of cats quoting Milton on YouTube, I decided to mess around a bit more with Twitter the past couple of weeks. Under the rationalized pretext that it might open up some more channels for my copywriting business (and because I thought someone might tweet about a cat riding a unicycle on YouTube), I started tweeting more than the thin, desultory wing-flappings I’d shot out over the past year. You know, about important stuff, like the fact that you can now get an espresso machine in your car.

I also started following more people, other than the ones named things like IPostCatsTypingOnYouTube. I guess I don’t get out much, but it surprised me that there are prominent writers on Twitter, and some of them tweet their fool writerly heads off. Somewhere in the ether, I saw a tweet from Margaret Atwood, so I started following her (@margaretatwood). I knew that Margaret Atwood was hip to tech because I’d read about her LongPen work years ago. But I was amazed to see how much she tweets, and how casual and fun she can be in her stream.

I am talking about Margaret Atwood, author of Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, Cat’s Eye—all works that I marveled at for the sureness and scope of the writing, the power of the imagination, the glint of the language. I think Atwood is one of the best fiction writers alive, a giant in the field, and to see her merrily tweeting—she sent many funny tweets from the recent Comic-Con—boggled my mind. I suppose I think the literary mandarins are levitating on silk pillows in a Patagonian opium den, not furiously pounding their iPhones. Who knew?

Seth, Let’s Do Lunch
I did have some inkling, when I emailed Seth Godin a while back, and he quickly replied, that many of the titans are actual human beings. I am a member of Seth’s Triiibes network, and indeed I had a Triiibes-related question, but that a guy like Seth, who undoubtedly gets emails by the bushels, takes the time to answer some nebbish’s question struck me. I’ve emailed other cybersphere celebrities, like Chris Brogan, and received back cordial replies as well. Atwood even retweeted a tweet of mine expressing interest in her Fanado project that interactively links artists, creators and fans. You might kick a buck in to that Indiegogo project of hers if you dig what she’s putting out there.

So, this obviously isn’t an invitation to go badger your writing idols on Twitter or by email. It’s more of a reminder that we live in interesting times. I’m going to check and see if Mark Twain has a Twitter account so I can get some cigar recommendations.

Margaret, Seth, know of any good cat videos?

Shakespeare, Typing Monkeys and Evanescent Eloquence

From S Anand on Flickr

A few days ago on Tribes, Seth Godin’s social network of entrepreneurs, marketers, thinkers and distinguished weirdos, a friend of mine, email-marketing maven, John Furst, posted about a post he’d read. (Danger: many “posts about posts” ahead!) John was referring to a post by Leo Bottary, who mentioned a Wired article citing a five-year study of student writing conducted at Stanford University by Dr. Andrea Lunsford.

Here’s what Mr. Bottary wrote:

“I hear people lament the demise of the English language all the time. They speak to how texting, tweeting, and other such practices are contributing to poor grammar, marginal spelling, and an inability to express oneself ‘properly’ in the written form. Lunsford disagrees. She claims, ‘I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.’ And as Thompson points out, ’For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.’

Among other things, Lunsford’s study shows they are highly attuned to their audiences and write with a sense of purpose and persuasion that is actually at a higher level when compared with previous generations. The fact that today’s young people write so frequently across so many different platforms may not make them better writers in the classic sense, but the evidence suggests they may be stronger communicators than their parents. Rather than criticizing and judging our young people, this is an area where we should learn from them.”

Forgive me for quoting people quoting people that are quoting people, but I found it an intriguing topic: with more means of communication than ever, and ever more people exercising those means, how does that affect the quality of communication? Do Twitterers that tweet every 22 minutes hone their writing (and even thinking) ability over time, or are they just twits? Is there even a basis—or need—to consider “quality” of communications when much of what is being discussed here is transient information? Though, as shown repeatedly, nothing is truly transient on the Web.

Anyway, my take (among many other Triber’s responses):

Snotty “Professional” Writer Weighs In
John, fun, interesting post. It did make me wonder if in days to come, there will some tweets that will be revered like Shakespearean sonnets and worthy of reviews, i.e., “140 characters of apocalyptic chill, melded with childlike sing-song innocence. Ranks with Eliot’s Wasteland for audacity, scope and cultural indictment.” New York Times Review of Tweets.

I’m an old crustacean, not a texter, but I do think there’s language skill-building in the rising incidence of communication outreach, whether blogging, tweeting or arranging the letters in the alphabet soup of your lunch partner. And it’s reasonable to be questioning the value of high-flown scholastic language requirements in academic settings, when the value of an assignment is based on old patterns of regurgitating leaden information in the same stilted phrasings. There is something attractive in the vivid, short bursts of thought you see everywhere online—and there’s something electric in seeing people interested in connecting through new forms.

But man, there’s a lot of crap writing out there, and I don’t mean just of the “U R Sweet” or hair-on-fire political polemic. I read a lot of stuff produced by people trying to persuade, but they don’t have any tools of persuasion. Sure, you might be able to build a lean-to of sorts with just a hammer, but not a house. And a house with working plumbing and a view? If someone is trying to shape an argument or point of view, they need more rhetorical tools than “You suck!”

The Sentence Chiropractor
Sometimes you want a sentence to bend, sometimes you want it to snap. Some word-journeys can’t be made unless you can roll the words down language hills, stall them at a cliffside, pick a metaphorical flower in the meadow and set some verbal pitons to clamber back up those hills. I’m with Randell in that I think your thought processes improve the more you work with the abstractions of language—its elasticity works well with your brain’s plasticity. Having the tools means you can build a more complex structure—maybe even a cathedral, rather than a mere house with working plumbing.

Of course, if you want to just order a sandwich, that doesn’t have to be done in iambic pentameter. But it’s a shame to settle for limited expression when there’s so much sex in deeper language, so many bright strawberries, so many dank, dangerous corners and beguiling fragrances.

Then again, in some situations, a good old Anglo-Saxon “Fuck that!” is sometimes the most eloquent response.

If a Question Falls in the Forest...
Of course, maybe there isn’t even a question to answer here. To go musical metaphor on you, from every Elvis Presley hip-waggling that presaged the decline of civilization to the Stones to the Sex Pistols to Nirvana to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga, there have been people outraged and startled by the new. There is movement and jostling and crudity amid new styles of expression, but there is still much quality writing about, whether 300-word blog post or David Foster Wallace’s 1088-page Infinite Jest.

I must confess, though, I do believe in the thrill, drama and risk of skillful punctuation (be still, my beating apostrophe!) and pungent writing, now and forever, one and inseparable.

[Note to prospective clients: I will never include any “Fuck thats” in content I provide, unless by request. A well-placed “Dear Me!” can sometimes convey the essence.]