John August speech/article

Mr. August has written a wonderful article on his blog that was first a speech he gave at his alma mater, Drake University. I found his language easy to read, quite affable to be sure. This being originally written as a speech, it flows as such. He wrote a very palatable take on where we are in the digital age and where we’re going. It read like a conversation. He concisely sums up his view as this: writing matters. All writing, not just academic. How? Why? Because, August states, we’re being graded on everything we write. Whether we like it or not, we’re being judged. I like that he didn’t shy away from how unsettling it may be to hear this. He gets it. He agrees it’s okay to be a bit rattled and paranoid, but it’s what we need to be fully prepared for the digital world we are living in. This world, he continues, is not going away.

While writing is an obvious part of university education, it’s also fundamental to all humans. Yes, he reaches that far in making his point. How? He feels that writing is how we show we understand something. In this digital age, writing has changed in four ways.

First, authority. In the days of card catalogs and periodicals, research took time and effort. The result was an almost implied, innate authority of the author. Today, the digital world makes research easy and fast. Not all sources are accurate, so authority should not be assumed. As the saying goes, and perhaps more true than ever before, we should first consider the source. Certainly there are always bonafide experts, but “writing in a digital age allows for extremely specialized authorities…you become one by writing about it…because unlike expertise, authority is somewhat transferable. It’s a commodity.” August thinks, and I concur with him, that authority is one of the most valuable commodities. Only others can give you so-called street-cred.

Second, immediacy. People used to view news as something that happened daily. To younger generations, that seems naive because news today is constant. It’s not called a ‘newstream’ without reason. In the digital age, news is transient. I like that he made a point of differentiating ‘immediacy’ from ‘timeliness’ in that immediacy is emotional. Our sense of intimacy is a line that’s been drawn in very broad strokes, and August is correct. Digital culture like ours is a false, informal (non-)intimacy. Writing over the past decade has gotten super casual, in both grammar and tone. This tonal shift observation resonated with me as I see my younger siblings and classmates bury their faces in their phones 24/7. It seems that their generation’s default mode of communication is through texting, quite passive and quite tonally different than a phone call or even an email. It baffles me because I still enjoy writing letters and postcards and mailing them. I wonder how many young people today have never stepped into a post office or know what a stamp costs.

Thirdly, permanence. He explains the difference between the two main trades: The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. The former is actually written in proper English, the latter more eclipsed, like shorthand. The difference is how you want to be marketed. In our digital age, nothing is set in stone, rather it’s ever-changing. Many versions exist, especially when you consider added comments, links, etc. There is a limbo in which words are published and unpublished at the same time, “existing in a state of quantum uncertainty.” Transience. Today you can’t do like the old days, yelling, “Stop the presses!” because our culture values immediacy. The result is a changed dynamic between reader and writer, and it’s not just a concern for journalists. It’s dangerous because it’s inevitable.

Fourth, and lastly, response. Writing used to be one-way, one side writes, the other reads. Boom, end of story. Now, reader and writer are linked together. Together, forever! Sure there are good aspects to this such as collaboration, but the downside, and specifically August’s caveat, is that being able to respond to everything is also a bit dangerous. Once responses are posted to a response, who owns that discussion? I say it’s a rabbit hole in which we don’t necessarily need to travel. As the saying goes, let’s don’t go there.

Finally, August then spends a LOT of time (in my opinion, too much time) sharing an example of how a post (response) about his review of a not-yet-filmed movie went viral. Suffice it to say the example proved that not only can postings be flatout wrong (erroneous, pure and simple!) but the timeliness of such incorrect and/or misleading comments is also unsettling and scary. He applies his four items to the story. First, being an authority is fine is best when you have a narrow subject matter. Sometimes being prone to hyperbole is an asset, sometimes not. Secondly, yes the example was factually wrong, however it was immediate. Third, make a goal to be an authority and write consistently. To that end, follow things you find interesting and forget the rest. Let your social profiles reflect who you really are. Sure, you can reply to anything, but be equally content with not participating. I felt freedom in that! In short, my main takeaway is August’s suggestion to “approach everything you write with the same degree of thoughtfulness…[including] your responses.” Regardless of one’s career, in today’s digital world, writing is only going to get more important because it’s not only a noun, it’s an action verb, so do it well and carefully.

August, John. “The Challenge of Writing in a Digital Age.” 2007. Web. 25 August 2015.


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