Thursday, December 13, 2007

Evolving to Neteracy: Comportment on the Web

One development in the evolution towards neteracy is a broader appreciation of what it means to write without editing. That is, most bloggers and readers of blogs have become quite forgiving of the type of mechanical and grammatical errors most of us miss when going over our own writings. They are reading for content and not to pick apart the prose; they recognize that the mistakes are commonplace and (dare I say it?) insignificant. In the past, in a literary culture dominated by the immutable page, this attitude was somewhat rarer. Today, most neterate people recognize that, while the printed page is a finished product, the blog is always a work in progress, reducing the importance of much “error.”

Of course, the Web has reduced the space between the author and the publication to something close to zero. Over the past centuries, we had developed an editorial apparatus that most writers had to utilize. F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t spell? So what? There was a structure of editing, copy-editing, and proofreading that made sure his “errors” did not become part of the printed version of his work. Today, even in organizations that retain their editorial structures, the willingness to alter what a writer has produced has dwindled.

There are, however, lessons of the literate culture that we are having to relearn on the Web, having jettisoned a little too much of the old in our embrace of the new. David Newquist, writing for Keloland TV’s Northern Valley Beacon, in looking back over the changes in journalism over the past two centuries (I found his piece because he mentions The Rise of the Blogosphere), points out that:

Our nation reached a point when the literate population understood that anger, malice, falsehoods, scurrility, and defamation are destructive and dangerous. They are counter-productive to democracy. It has reached the point again in this electronic age when those qualities form an unabashed part of what passes for discourse and often predominate. A significant sector of the public likes to see people humiliate each other, debase themselves, and otherwise participate in the degradation of humankind. We have developed a media to serve that audience.

This is an important topic for discussion, something that Tim O’Reilly has been trying to address with his Blogger’s Code of Conduct.

Over the past year, I have seen (or imagine I have seen) an increase in civility on the Web, which I attribute to two factors. First, more and more people are finding they want to present themselves online in their “real world” persona, stepping out from behind their pseudonyms. Second, people are recognizing the dangers in the type of climate Newquist describes, and are discouraging the behavior that once did seem to be becoming the standard for the Internet.

We’ll see. Perhaps I’m imagining things when I sense a change. On the other hand, maybe we are maturing into a fully neterate world just as we did into a literate one, centuries ago.

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