Thursday, June 7, 2007

What are we here for?

As described in the first post, this Chocolate Interrobang was born out of a discussion at Glenn Greenwald's blog on Salon. So - a group blog (being done by people who have only met online), arising from a comment page (inhabited by people who have only met online, some of whom are there only to disagree), hosted at a blog (itself hosted at a magazine that exists only in digital form, expressly non-print) . . .. That we are here is one example of the evolving iterations of connection and communication that exist only online.

I had a professor in college who was fond of saying, among other things, that you can't have two things without having three things -- this wasn't what he was getting at but the situation we are in with all of these online forums is that there is written English, there is spoken English, and now there is online typing.

Online typing. Is it talking? Is it letter- writing? Assuming you are at a comment board to have a real conversation: how much will you rely on tone and context, and how much work will you do to get your point across? How much work will you expect the other participants to do in attempting to understand you?

As to the origins of this blog, I was glad to see comments from people who care about clear communication achieved through careful and disciplined writing.

Comment boards are fun and interesting - informal, lively and immediate, much like speech. On the good side, we ditch the preoccupation with physical presentation and the need to leave the house or actually talk to people. On the bad side, we lose all the non-verbal clues and other meta-data that is inherent in speech. The passionate comments about language and usage in the middle of a non-language-oriented blog suggested to me that there are plenty of people who want to retain (at least when helpful) the rules and conventions of written English even in this digital context.

So, a few tentative conclusions about the goals here:
  1. This is not about bossing people around and feeling like awesome smarty-pantses.
  2. This is not about asking each other whether we have any Grey Poupon.
  3. This is about enjoying our language in written form, online or offline, and deepening our own understanding of it.
  4. This is about continuing discussions and gathering information that will help people of good will communicate more effectively.
How does that sound?


PhD9 said...

There are of course aspects of online communication which place it between spoken coversation and what we regard as "normal" writing. One, is of course, the immediacy of response that online conversation allows, the other is the ability to use markup. I feel lost when posting on forums that don't allow me to italicize quotes.

certifiedprepwn3d said...

I agree the markup helps a good deal - I always try to write in a way that requires little in the way of accessories, but there are definitely times when nothing but italics or bold will do. It is part of the hybrid here - the expectation of written language tweaks.

William Timberman said...

Markup does help if you're trying to write it the way you talk it -- the metadata partly supplied, so to speak...that is Fergit it, okay?

It's odd, I hate talking on the telephone, I finally figured out that it's 'cause when I wave my hands, Italian style, no one can see them. I feel somehow straitjacketed. Videoconferencing is even worse, 'cause you can see that I should have hands, but I don't.

I feel no such constraints when writing, I think because when writing, or reading, the assumption is that the reader will be supplying the waving hands. It works that way, too, if the writer knows what he's about.

Introvert Girl said...

William, I'm a phone-hater, too, and it took me years to figure out that it's because I can't see people's faces and react to those millions of expressions they don't even know they're making. Why is it that written messages are so much easier?

Karen M said...

Count one more. I used to use the phone some... but now, with email... almost never, except for quick exchanges of information with people who are trying to get me when I'm offline. Sometimes vice-versa.

I can edit myself online, better than on the phone.

William, don't you think that punctuation is a bit like "hands" or maybe gestures? Maybe that's how punctuation began...

William Timberman said...

Karen, yes puntuation helps, but it's awfully ambiguous, and virtually useless when writing fiction, especially dialogue. Have you ever spent much time with concrete poetry? It was much bigger -- and more creative -- in Europe, I know, but for a while there was some around in the U.S., albeit largely on college campuses.

I played with it a bit years ago, but ultimately gave it up as a bad job -- too hard to print, and when overly fussy, or badly done, obscured more than it revealed.

As opposed to speaking -- unless you grew up in an Irish bar, or in the Athenian agora -- writing gives you so much more latitude for what I call, for lack of a better term, engineering.

Look at any first class fiction writer, of any era, and you'll find astonishing flights of fancy and equally astoniushing feats of verisimilitude on virtually every page. When you look more closely and see how it's done, what seems true about all of it is that it's rather like classical music, whereas a good vernacular speaker relies much more on playing against traditional rhythms and expected clichés, as in the blues.

It takes years as well as lots of practice to bring it off, and talent, of course. The miracle is that it's possible at all.

Karen M said...

An interesting comparison, WT... I'm thinking that I prefer the flights of fancy and feats of verisimilitude in my fiction, but the vernacular in my music. Nothing is better than the Blues. In my book. Must be my age.

But my preferences in fiction extend back in time.

William Timberman said...

KM, here's one of my favorites, from Bessie Smith's Empty Bed Blues:

When my bed get empty,
makes me feel awful mean and blue

My springs are gettin' rusty
sleepin' single like I do.

Nothing subtle about that, right? Just a simple field holler, yet it manages to draw the whole world of human joy and pain into a single glittering diamond.

The best archeologists, geneologists and biochemists now agree that Africa was the mother of us all. Good on 'em, but I've never doubted it for once myself.

Introvert Girl said...

Funny, that. A review of Margaret Atwood's book "The Blind Assassin" said that the reviewer was reminded strongly of a piece of music for the first several chapters, and then remembered the particular symphony it brought to mind. Toward the end, she got to a chapter where that particular symphony was referenced in the header. She was, she said, "blown away" by the fact that a writer could be writing, in essence, the novel of a symphony, and be aware of it the whole time.