This post utilizes information and ideas from Anne Surma’s book Public and Professional Writing: Ethics, Imagination, and Rhetoric.
As much as I’d like to try to deny it, using the internet to access written information is a huge (read: insanely massive) part of my day, and I think that any tuned-in, moderately well-versed person would likely say the same. The truth is that I don’t normally even get out of bed unless I’ve cleaned out my email inbox, opened a social media app, or checked my grades in Duquesne’s online gradebook. With the emergence of a younger and more competitive generation entering the world of technology, content creation for the internet is changing rapidly almost daily. It wasn’t until I began to write for consumption by the public that I really began to consider what goes into the content that is published primarily for the internet. There’s a lot of speculation and some more in-depth studies on how humans read differently on the internet. A very popular article on Slate.com explores the way that readers interact with content on a webpage differently than they would a tangible piece of print. The general consensus seems to be that visitors to a given webpage elect to skim written content, rather than truly read it and process the information. As a writer, this is somewhat disheartening to hear.
When considering writing for the internet, it is especially important to understand the motivation and desire of readers. Writing for an email newsletter will obviously be technically different than writing for a blog, such as this one. Many small studies have been done, such as the one outlined in this article from the Nielson Norman Group, that try to quantify just how little or how much reading is being done on the average web page in relation to the length of the text. There is a correlation between the length of the text and the amount of the time spent on a web page, which can be hypothesized as the person “reading” the article. In theory, this means that the shorter the article, the larger the number of people who will read it in its entirety.
Anne Surma discusses this idea of writing for audience as an ethical struggle between the needs and wants of the reader in negotiation with the motivations of the writer. Online, now more than ever, I think that this is a delicate balance. Surma posits writing, particularly writing for the internet, as a public demonstration of democratic ability. In 2017, this is incredibly important. Public spaces, even virtual spaces, that display the thoughts and opinions of individuals can be extremely powerful. As a writer, it’s important to take that power seriously and consider the effects of this form of publication. While it’s necessary to take the reader’s short attention span into account when writing, authors also have a moral duty to present the whole story on whichever genre or concept that is being discussed.
While it is easier to reach an audience with the prevalence of the internet, it comes with an unrecognized power. When we receive advertising emails, they are aimed at selling us something — an item, a service, or even an idea. The writers crafting these emails must consider what the message is that they are sending with their content. When we post on online mediums, we must consider how we are participating in a larger conversation by contributing our own opinions. It is almost impossible to avoid writing for the internet in this day and age, but it is essential to understand the way that our content is consumed and the potential outcomes and consequences of these publications.