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?