The Questionable Worth of Words on the Internet

Last spring, I shared an op-ed by David Gelernter on Ricochet in a post entitled “The Art of Written Communication Is Not Dead, It’s Just Resting.” Troy directed me to Gelernter’s further elaboration on this same topic of Internet Drivel. He argues that “The internet forces a general devaluation of the written word: a global deflation in the average word’s value on many axes.”

As someone who has faith in a market’s ability to put a fair price on what people create and consume, I hate to acknowledge that he may be right. In my mind, writing always has value. It enriches lives, even if no money is involved. Yet something has gone awry in writing for a virtual audience. It feels cheaper than it should be. Why is this?

Many professional writers can tell you that the exchange of words on the Internet is often done at a rate of zero dollars. We are paid in the intangible currency of “exposure,” which I have personally found to bring as many negative consequences as positive. I love to write, so that’s why I accept this occasionally raw deal. While Gelernter wasn’t examining this issue in purely economic terms, he does use that language in his essay. He writes:

The internet’s insatiable demand for words creates global deflation in the value of words. The internet’s capacity to distribute words near-instantly means that, with no lag-time between writing and publication, publication and worldwide availability, pressure builds on the writer to produce more. Global deflation in the value of words creates pressure, in turn, to downplay or eliminate editing and self-editing.

I’m very persnickety about my work. I’ve been known to go back and change one single word in my posts at Forbes because a better one occurred to me weeks after the fact. I relish in the process of writing, in assembling fragments of language to convey my thoughts. I constantly search for better ways of doing this, which puts me at a distinct disadvantage as a writer on the Internet. I had to give up on Twitter as a means of communicating. Editing is imperative to me. I’ve had to adjust and adapt and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t painful to discover that I am an anachronism. No one edits. They press the publish button and they’re done. I’ve seen too many typos in headlines of online publications to believe that anyone is actually editing what they put out there. People demand content–always more content–even if it’s clumsy or completely inaccurate.

Gelernter also hits on an area of writing that affects everyone, not just those who have bylines.  The letter, once a literary medium unto itself, has been degraded by the nature of e-mail. We send them quickly, without much thought, and we receive so many that even less thought goes into reading them. To his complaint that no e-mail correspondence would be worth collecting, however, I have to object.

I’ve never quite been able to figure out where my love of e-mail originated, if it’s because I like to write in general, or if it was Dartmouth’s Blitzmail system. We used e-mail for everything and, at least among my group of friends, it became an artform. As I’m sure many at Ricochet know, Diane Ellis is a superb e-mail writer. It’s not a coincidence that we were classmates. One of the most meaningful relationships I have is with a pen pal I rarely see in person, another writer who went to Dartmouth years before me but who had the same experience with Blitz. 

I don’t know what this means for kids today, who belong to a culture of texts and chats instead of one of well-crafted messages. That’s what has given Gelernter cause for concern. We don’t quite know where we’re headed. 

I’m inclined to echo the closing words of his essay—“prognosis: grim.” I say this also because of something he didn’t mention explicitly.  The anonymity of the Internet is doing at least as much damage as the lack of editing. Writing is devalued when no one is responsible for his or her own words. People could once be challenged to a duel for the dishonorable things they said! I am glad that we enjoy greater freedom to express our thoughts, but there are too many words out there that are namelessly causing harm. When we are accountable for our actions and expressions, we are more likely to be careful about them. If writing is cheap nowadays, perhaps it is because people simply don’t care what they write.

What do you think? Do you put thought into your writing? For those who have children, do you notice a change in their attitude towards writing?

  1. Devereaux

    I would observe that one thing the internet has done is increase the overall “conversation” among people. It isn’t always useful or even fulfilling, but then it never was. You talk with a dolt you mostly hear a dolt, although occasionally a gem falls out.

    OTOH simply getting more people talking is a good thing. Words were always fractured, misused, twisted, etc. But their use was necessary and I would contend that more discussion is good.

    All that said, I would also observe that overall reading seems to be on the decline. I know that when I was a child, we read a lot. Today the youth doesn’t seem to be nearly into reading as much. AND at least in the fiction realm the available publications are often poorly written – a cause for me to drop an author early. Professional craftsmanship isn’t what it once was.

    For me personally, I try to spell correctly, to write grammatically correctly, and will edit what I say, though not to your levels. But then, I’m just one of the masses out there talking – and an old one at that.

  2. david foster

    There is anonymity, and then there is anonymity…comment threads on large websites are often filled with a lot of pointless vileness (some of the worst are finance/investing sites, for some reason)…but on sites that have a manageable number of regular commenters, people generally *are* concerned about their reputations, even if the handle they are posting under provides a layer between the Internet identity and their real identity.

    I have thoughts about the cultural influence of the Internet here: Duz Web Mak Us Dumr?

  3. D.C. McAllister
    C

    I like the balance you’ve brought to this post. I appreciate that you haven’t painted all Internet writers with a broad brush—that they’re all bad editors and careless writers. You asked, “Do you put thought into your writing?” Yes, a great deal. More than many paid writers as far as I can tell from what I read on the Internet.

    I didn’t write on the Internet for many years because I had too much pride. I wanted to get paid for my writing—that would give it value. Unfortunately, the years passed, and jobs in journalism are hard to come by when you’ve been out of the workforce. That’s true for a lot of careers. So I had a decision to make. Do I dive into the unpaid, messed-up, mixed-up waters of the Internet and do what I love with the hope that the money might come, or do I keep my thoughts to myself? I decided to do the former. I wish I could say I got paid for what I do. I can’t, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. At least in some sense.

  4. michael kelley

    As we move further away from a synthesis, a cultural agreement upon values and appropriate goals, words along with other symbols lose impact and force.

    The Internet is just a faster train.

  5. Valiuth

    I think what you are seeing is the popularization of writing. For much of history writing to an audience was really the preview of an elite few, and ubiquitous writing as a means of communication was also limited to those who could afford the cost of the postage, paper, and ink. 

    Now people write in lieu of speaking. Most people are not artful speakers why should they be artful writers. No one is taken aback by the clumsiness of everyday speech. Now we get to see the clumsiness of every day writing. Few ever bother to edit their spoken remarks few will bother to edit their written ones. If this makes the written word less valuable what can I say, other than talk is cheap, and in our world talking has become synonymous with writing. 

  6. Astonishing

    Yes, writing is going to Hades in handcarts–with everything else.  But aren’t you still too young to have arrived at that conclusion? And to have discovered you are an anachronism? That discovery shouldn’t be painful. To the contrary, announcing it is sly bragging. Well, I’m an anachronism, too, but not a young one like you.

    I do usually (this present comment excepted) spend a great deal of time contemplating and reworking what I write–because a small amount of carefully honed mediocrity is always better than a lot of ill-considered crap. Some of my writing that otherwise might be pretty good I overwork into mediocrity. I make that sacrifice because a small amount of mediocrity is still better than a lot of crap and a tiny bit of fine writing.

    There’s no need to warn you not to submit to the temptation to write carelessly–you probably couldn’t sell your soul that way even if you wanted to. However, the ease and infinity of the internet and computerized word-processing do create a useful possibility for a less contrained more free-flowing way of writing–because you can always fix it later.

  7. david foster

    Valiuth..”ubiquitous writing as a means of communication was also limited to those who could afford the cost of the postage, paper, and ink. ”

    I don’t think these commodities were all that expensive, at least since the mid-1800s. The Uniform Penny Post was introduced in Britain in 1840. In the U.S., postage for a letter cost around 2 or 3 cents from 1885 to 1932.

    Long-distance phone calls, on the other hand, were extremely expensive even when they because possible at all. And travel to talk to someone in person was also relatively slow and expensive.

    So I’d argue that actually it was the *cheapness* of postal communication that encouraged the development of writing skills, and the availability of cheap voice communication tended to undercut them.

  8. Aaron Miller

    Not only are writings now consumed more immediately and more rapidly, and not only are more writers available to meet that growing demand, but with that greatly broadened pool of talent has come an explosion of excellence upon the market. The Bell Curve of talent is the same as it ever was — some excellent writers, some terrible, most somewhere between the two extremes. But as the access of poor and mediocre writers to audiences has increased, so has the access of excellent writers.

    Discovering gifted musicians on YouTube is ridiculously easy. The internet includes just as many gifted writers, but they are not so well consolidated for quick and easy perusal.

  9. david foster

    Gelernter asks “Why have no (or not many!) “collected emails” been published, on paper or online?”

    If you broaden it out from emails per se to include blog posts, then a current example of collected blog posts can be found at The Lexicans, a site devoted primarily to appreciating the writing of Neptunus Lex (Capt Carroll LeFon, USN), a brilliant writer who was killed last year in a combat aviation training accident.

    I linked several of Lex’s posts here…this is obviously writing on which Lex spent considerable time and thought, and IMO it is much better than most of the writing for which people get paid.

  10. Donald Todd

    Deveraux:  #1″I would observe that one thing the internet has done is increase the overall “conversation” among people.”

    My own impression is that your argument could be site dependent.  There are sites where “conversation” has nothing to do with the epithets flying back and forth.  One wonders if these prodigies have parents.

    David Foster: #2 “comment threads on large websites are often filled with a lot of pointless vileness”

    You went to the investing sites?  The sports sites are cesspools and they cannot spell, either.  The internet seems to be a place where a lot of people arrive in a bad mood and vent their wrath on whomever is handy.  (This is possibly a consideration that I am probably guilty of, albeit without using invective.)

    Also a question:  I wonder how much of the “new” spelling is caused by 140 character limits, and how much by learning in public schools?

  11. Aaron Miller

    Emails are certainly different from the letters of centuries past. But the internet has not entirely cheapened written correspondence.

    People do not write as they speak; not even when they write casually. The absence of non-verbal communication and the increased care which inevitably accompanies the greater time between thought and expression results in significant differences.

    Much has been lost and much has been gained, as ever with the advancement of technology.

  12. genferei

    I think you greatly underestimate the amount of dross published in the ‘good old days’. Try reading newspapers from 100 or 200 years ago, or popular novels or plays of any era.

  13. Donald Todd

    Astonishing:  #6  ”I do usually (this present comment excepted) spend a great deal of time contemplating and reworking what I write–because a small amount of carefully honed mediocrity is always better than a lot of ill-considered crap.”

    You wordsmith!!

  14. tabula rasa

    When I post I try to write as well as I can.  My experience at Ricochet (I’ve been here the whole time) is that most members take pride in their writing.

    I do think there’s a difference between an essay-length post and one that link’s to something funny.  No one wants to read a long post that’s vague, filled with grammatical errors, or has all the elements of a thoughtless rant.   

    The Internet has made a lot more bad writing available because there are no real entry barriers.

    But the good stuff is still what people will read.

  15. D.C. McAllister
    C
    Aaron Miller: Emails are certainly different from the letters of centuries past. But the internet has not entirely cheapened written correspondence.

    People do not write as they speak; not even when they write casually. The absence of non-verbal communication and the increased care which inevitably accompanies the greater time between thought and expression results in significant differences.

    Much has been lost and much has been gained, as ever with the advancement of technology. · 9 minutes ago

    Well written, Aaron. :)

  16. D.C. McAllister
    C
    tabula rasa:

    But the good stuff is still what people will read. · 4 minutes ago

    The cream will rise.

  17. Donald Todd

    tabula rasa:  #14  ”But the good stuff is still what people will read.”

    I wondered why no one was reading my stuff.  Thanks for the tip.  dt

  18. Valiuth
    david foster: Valiuth..”ubiquitous writing as a means of communication was also limited to those who could afford the cost of the postage, paper, and ink. ”

    I don’t think these commodities were all that expensive, at least since the mid-1800s. The Uniform Penny Post was introduced in Britain in 1840. In the U.S., postage for a letter cost around 2 or 3 cents from 1885 to 1932.

    Long-distance phone calls, on the other hand, were extremely expensive even when they because possible at all. And travel to talk to someone in person was also relatively slow and expensive.

    So I’d argue that actually it was the *cheapness* of postal communication that encouraged the development of writing skills, and the availability of cheap voice communication tended to undercut them. · 1 hour ago

    I think the marginal cost of letter back then even if cheaper than phone conversations was still more expensive than e-mail is today. Basically in modern times the cost of writing  is virtually free.

  19. Elizabeth Van Horn

    TLDR     

    You need some LOLcats.  Pictures are Power! 

    The Internet is ushering in a new era, and more people than ever, are writing.  The problem with that is, more people than ever, are writing!  

  20. Elizabeth Van Horn

    Seriously, though, I don’t think writing has declined.   It’s just with more people’s writing being seen, we now get to see the dismal with the deft.  In past generations, the best writers were publicly known.   But, the average person wasn’t a writer, and if they did write, it wasn’t stellar material.  When we read old civil war letters and marvel at the prose, we’re seeing the best of that era, the educated and literate.  

    Now, everyone with a laptop and Internet gets to compete with the best writers.  So we have a cacophony of words, and unless one knows how, and where to filter, it sounds bad.   It’s the great democratization process, and unfortunately, it’s not the best process for producing quality content. At least not quality content that we can readily find.

Want to comment on stories like these? Become a member today!

You'll have access to:

  • All Ricochet articles, posts and podcasts.
  • The conversation amongst our members.
  • The opportunity share your Ricochet experiences.

Join Today!

Already a Member? Sign In