#midtermproject 2.0

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Posted on 24 May 2013 22:35

#midtermproject 2.0

Esme Cribb
24 May 2013


Abstract

Internet journalism is very different from traditional print journalism; for all that they are genres within the same overarching discourse community, they vary greatly in terms of style and subject matter. While it is an interesting exercise to examine societal influences on writing, whether in a critical manner (to disprove or discuss points made in the piece) or from a sociological point of view (in order to understand why a piece is written with a certain tone, for example) it is equally interesting to examine what writing says about the culture in which it is written, and the zeitgeist of which it is a product. Internet journalism tends to veer into humorism, and focuses on what is called narrowcasting in more broadcast-based media industries; it draws more readers by segmenting its audience and focusing on a very specific community. As such it tends to be a rather niche discourse community, into which I conducted research by immersing myself in the writing they produce, as well as whatever internal communications they make public in blog form and conducting an interview with an accepted member of the community. I also interviewed a veteran journalist who was more professionally familiar with traditional journalism for a counterpoint perspective. As a general trend in writing and reporting, this sort of journalism is something that should be evaluated more, rather than dismissed as “not serious” or flippant or unreliable. This report aims to demonstrate this, and to highlight the advantages of such informal writing, as well as illuminating what this genre in specific, as well as the growth of this discourse community, means with regard to present cultural trends and media in the future.

Introduction

New technology, supposedly, works its way into the public's good graces in thirty-year cycles; for the first ten years, it must prove itself; for the next ten years, it is generally accepted and comes into wide usage; for the last ten years, nobody can figure out how they lived without it, and then someone comes up with something new – or reinvents something old – and the whole cycle starts again. The Internet as we know it today has been around since the 1990s, give or take; true to form, I at least cannot imagine a world without instant access to Google searches, streaming video and music, RSS feeds, and the ever-present social networks. Within the larger structure of the Internet, social networks have gone through such a cycle of their own, and continue to do so on a much smaller scale; Twitter, for example, goes in and out of vogue in various communities on almost a daily basis, while Instagram is constantly the subject of contention – but regardless of such microcosms of revolt and revulsion, one thing the Internet has certainly done is make us all content producers, from Instagram pictures with (dubiously) artistic filters to status updates and blog posts and covers uploaded to YouTube. Such self-expression often wanders back and forth across the line between personal and professional, yet another boundary the Internet has deliberately blurred. Something created for personal pleasure – a cover performed for a friend, analysis of a show written for one's own enjoyment, art posted in order to keep track of one's progress – can easily become part of one's resume, inadvertently or not. Instead of collecting a rather static portfolio of one's work, content producers in the Internet age can make their work public for discussion while retaining rights to it, and a blog or an electronic manuscript is certainly easier to access than a ream of paper stuffed into a manila envelope. Content is also much easier to produce – with the advent of the flipcam and YouTube, the home video has gone viral. Everyone's life is, to a certain degree, performance art and public knowledge. We may all cherry-pick moments of our lives to share, to represent us, and indeed we do so with a casualness that is upon reflection quite terrifying.

One particular incarnation of this widespread ability to broadcast one's internal monologue (from 150 characters on up) is the sort of humorist short-form journalism that appears on sites like Buzzfeed and WhatCulture! The most interesting aspect of this genre and this community is not particularly the text of the material they produce, though that can be fairly indicative on its own, but the wider implications of the spread of this community, as well as its genres of communication and its stylistic quirks – tone, medium, subject matter, and so forth – for social theory and sociology as a whole. Mary Bucholtz begins to address this in her piece ““Why be normal?”: Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls”, where she points out that the dominant trend in discourse studies is to use sociology to elucidate the workings of discourse communities, instead of vice versa; discourse communities are rarely used to flesh out social theory, not solely from a linguistic standpoint but in other aspects as well. It is fairly understandable that none of the classical literature (Gee, Swales) on the subject anticipated the Internet, or the assorted genres that came with it, but besides not having any particular groundwork laid for research in discourse communities that are primarily located online, as well as genres that are tied to the Internet, there is no research on how characteristics of such communities can be used to further extrapolate about a society that is itself increasingly online.

Among bloggers, there is a specific – if rather nebulous – form of writing which I would refer to as short-form journalism with humorist overtones, which is technically unique; my work involves analyzing this form in general – its tone, its grammatical quirks, its subject matter, and such technicalities – and looking at the community through the lens of those observations, and from there being able to generalize about how the Internet has changed society as a whole.

Rhetorical Analysis

Part of my research admittedly involved reading a lot of articles and dissecting them – regardless of site or subject, a lot of these articles have readily apparent similarities – but the more interesting parts of my research were an interview I conducted with a reviewer for WhatCulture! and the reading I did on Copyblogger, which pitches itself as teaching people how to create successful online content. I conducted said interview, appropriately enough, online; I did said reading online, as well, which if anything confirms the idea of a thirty-year cycle – the Internet was literally indispensable to me in my research.

Results and Discussion

One of the major points of such writing is its tone – it is far more rare to find formal (professional, if you will) writing online that is successful and not linked to a news source such as the New York Times. The Internet, having ingratiated its way into our hearts, appears determined to stay there, which means we get such gems as “If I were a zombie, I'd save him for last, because he'd be the tastiest. Nom nom nom” (La Rosa). There is a definite concession to relatability over form, and in this case over the English language in general. In the case of the latter, of course, this is part of the specialized lexis of Internet communities in general, not restricted to this particular discourse community, but still worthy of note as something in common usage and parlance but not recognized as formal language regardless. This sort of colloquialism serves to make articles less formal, certainly, but is also a sort of subtextual password – it delineates an article as something by a fan, in this case, rather than an emotionally detached critic. Our culture regards emotion as something unreliable, and therefore to be avoided; we say that our judgments are “clouded by emotion”, while we never say that our emotions are blunted by logic. Pure logic is seen as something to which one aspires, while unabashed expression of emotion is often seen as embarrassing at best, and usually invalidating with regard to any argument being made by the person experiencing the emotions, regardless of how relevant they are. This is perhaps one of our greatest failings, as a society. We throw away visceral reactions in favor of the scientific method; we try not to let our enthusiasm show, because it is not seemly. Humorist writing is one of the few genres in which overt displays of emotion are not only acceptable, but lauded, and as short-form Internet journalism often incorporates aspects of humorist writing, as well as being less formal overall, this is one of the major ways in which it improves on more traditional reporting and writing. It values enthusiasm, just as it values sympathy and disappointment and the entire range of gut reaction and relatability that is often reduced to nearly nil in the pursuit of objectivity. In keeping with this, I picked my articles partially by personal interest – I, after all, am a member of the generation for which these articles were written, and a product of the time period that equally produced them – and partially by pageviews. While I cannot consider myself a balanced cross-section of society, the number of times a page is viewed (directly from a site's homepage, or from hotlinking on other sites or via social networks) is a fairly good indicator of its popularity. Buzzfeed in particular is one of those sites uncomfortably straddling the divide between traditional writing and more current interests; an impromptu survey conducted via email and social networks indicated that a jury of my peers considered it trying too hard to appeal to them, while older readers considered it amusing but fairly frivolous in both subject matter and style. As a site trying to navigate the generational divide, and compromise on viewer's needs and desires in order to reach the largest possible readership, it was an exemplary source of articles that fit my criteria. I was looking for a hybrid of the old and the new.

For professional commentary on the stylistic differences between traditional and Internet journalism, I turned to Joseph Berger, who has been with the New York Times for nearly three decades, serving as chief religion correspondent, education columnist and acting and deputy editor, as well as covering developments in the Middle East, and has published several books. I asked him to comment on how he writes for articles that he knows will be published online as opposed to in traditional print formats, and he corroborated my theory about the more informal appeal of such writing: “I've written a number of articles that have appeared solely on the Times website and I usually knew beforehand that that would be the case. A newspaper is limited by the space of a page. an [sic] Internet article is limitless, tho [sic] we do take into consideration how much a reader might want to read about a given subject and the most charming way to convey a certain story. We had a story the other day – I didn't write it but it was offered to me – about the effort of the Brooklyn diocese to appeal to hipsters by noting that "Jesus was the first hipster" and the Lubvaitch Hasidim to do the same based on the fact that hipsters and Hasidim both might have beards. It ran only on the web, I believe, but even there it was short. If that story had run to 2000 words it would have been too much for such a light subject. At 400 words it was just right.” There is clearly a lot more room for irreverence, as well as long-windedness, in a more informal piece, and especially one that does not have to be slotted into the fairly restricted format of a print newspaper.

Something that tends to creep into media that bridges the divide between “traditional” print journalism and online journalism – and something that Swales and Gee certainly didn't account for – is multimedia works, where other formats are literally part of the lexis – for example, animated .gif files, a phrase which itself must be acknowledged as part of the lexis (often shortened to .gifs), but which themselves are a way of conveying emotion or information. As the old adage goes, a picture can indeed be worth a thousand words, and an animated picture presumably only expands on this potential. In the previously mentioned article, they are a convenient shorthand for particular scenes in The Walking Dead, as well as for the author's emotional state – a gif of someone crying, for example, may stand in for sadness that would take up a great deal more space on the page were it to be expressed in words, or a sort of physical presence normally limited to conversations held in person, but which can be depicted by spoofing someone else's physicality and emotions as a more convenient way of depicting exactly how the writer feels. The importance of this sort of personal connection is stressed by Copyblogger writer Gregory Ciotti, who mentions: “There’s an often-cited study in the copywriting world about a piece of Yale research that reveals “You” to be the #1 power word out of a supposed 12. Despite the fact that the study likely never happened, I have some actual research that reveals the power of invoking the self.”

Again, given its vast size, one of the Internet's seemingly contradictory strengths is its ability to deliver content to very particular niche audiences, whether this is through the sort of themed blog that may be found on Wordpress or Tumblr or through RSS feeds that are then user-customizable according to tags and subject and so forth. Formal writing, intentionally or not, presents a barrier to this sort of personal connection people like to feel when they read news, whether it is reporting on the death of Margaret Thatcher or behind-the-scenes with a famous cat actor (Goldman). While it's arguable that such standardized tone and style is meant to make academic writing more accessible and more readable, it is undeniable that it is also a form of elitism, albeit one that focuses on literacy levels and technical grasp of a language as criteria for moving upward in the academic stratum.

For further personal insights from an insider, albeit one newer to the business and working solely in the new generation of journalism, I approached Patrick Hao, who reviews films for WhatCulture!, with the intention of discussing the more technical aspects of his writing. From my own experience, I've found writers often avoid looking back at their own work – I know it's something I certainly prefer not to do, sometimes because of the emotional content of a piece, but mainly because it also gives me the sort of second-hand recycled embarrassment one experiences watching one's own performances, for example, or hearing one's voice on tape. By forcing someone who writes regularly to analyze their own work, I was hoping to capture some metacriticism. With regard to tone, he said: “It tends to shift from article to article. I base it on intuition. The most important thing is to start writing. Sometimes it is conversational in which I am jokey and other times it can be a formal piece. I don't necessarily plan it out beforehand.” This seems to highlight the organic quality of such writing, which occasionally goes so far as to devolve into stream-of-consciousness-type reviews, where the writing consists of a seemingly unedited internal monologue set down in text, and so forth. Here, as in many aspects of Internet short-form journalism, accessibility (and therefore pageviews) seems to take place of priority above any sort of qualitative consistency. This sort of natural writing seems to be more relatable to the audience, and requires less long-term planning from the author, making this a win-win scenario for everybody except the scholar trying to make sense of the common properties of such 'journalism', if it may even be called that.

Another common point in this type of writing seems to be the existence of a rather laissez-faire editorial structure, particularly for those who are not compensated for their writing. Hao and I went on to discuss the editorial structure within which he writes. One of the first things I noticed in that respect was a general lack of copy-editing structure – reading through articles on WhatCulture! (and on Buzzfeed, though to a lesser degree), I noticed sentences such as “The way they juxtapose each other furthers enhances then sprawling themes of the film” (Hao), which would have been caught by the most rudimentary review. On WhatCulture!'s application page, as incentive for writers to produce exclusive articles for them, they suggest that “if you submit a high-quality unique article, we will be able to process your application significantly faster. It is very much recommended that you choose this option.” Berger agrees that there is a greater tendency to push articles through with less review: “There is certainly a bit more freedom to write something on the web and because the deadline is often “as soon as you can post it” more hurried with less do-overs.” Clearly in the case of WhatCulture! this processing skips any sort of editorial department, in that case – which, astonishingly, doesn't make much difference. For all its technical and structural difficulties (and typos), this is still readable writing, and more importantly, it is interesting. This directness of communication between author and reader, and the corresponding lack of interference by any sort of administrative department, seems to translate into greater leeway for authors to write about what they want. Hao, discussing the assignment process, says: “I pick my assignments by any inspiration that immediately comes to mind,” which seems to be a fair summary of most writing in this genre. It's difficult to see how else “A Complete Breakdown Of Sex On “Game Of Thrones” ” (Kelly) happened, though I am willing to grant that someone may have thought about this for a good amount of time given the ensuing meticulous subcategorization in that particular article. Hao notes that while he typically selects his assignments from a list, “if I ever get struck with an inspiration for another type of article you may pitch the idea to the editor who will give their opinions on it or how to improve it” (though that last seems doubtful given the hands-off approach many of these websites seem to take).

Conclusions

While I'm hardly certified in sociology, I can hazard a few general guesses from these commonalities. For one, people are growing increasingly disenchanted with academia as an ivory tower; A. O. Scott's reviews, for example, are far more inaccessible (not to mention as dry as the goddamn Sahara) than Patrick Hao's commentary, however technically incorrect it may be. Berger did note that the Times maintains high quality standards, as well as fairly formal writing, across all its media outlets, saying that “Internet writing outside The Times tends to be far more colloquial, breezy, directly engaged with a reader. The Times Internet pieces lean toward that but we still observe our style and rules of accuracy, fairness and good taste.” Blog posts are both easier to access and easier to process than academic papers, however essential the latter may be for citation and documentation, and this sort of informal writing – the new opiate of the masses, if you will – is clearly successful, judging from the publications that have resulted. Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies, a self-styled “biography of cancer”, takes what is traditionally one of the most esoteric subjects, even in the field of medicine, and humanizes it – interweaves oncology, with all the jargon that implies, with its own history and the personalities and stories that bring such a subject alive and make it both immediate and memorable. While admittedly this is a bit more long-form than your average blog post or film review or political discussion, it shows a general trend towards the personal and the relatable. It takes a certain sort of training and a certain analytical eye to be able to read a paper about, for example, tumor-suppressor genes, but the same story with a certain amount of human interest is not only readable but interesting to the layman. It is this personalization that makes internet journalism so successful, despite its subjects, which are often considered trite, or at least frivolous. There is an article about anything, and usually there are multiple versions of it written for various audiences. The sheer volume of material produced means, counterintuitively, that much more specific demographics can be targeted more effectively.

A good analogy, perhaps, would be that of the advent of paperbacks in traditional publishing. Paperbacks, as a format, are much cheaper to produce and distribute widely, making it more possible for – first off – a wider range of literature to be published, and second of all making said literature more easily accessible and economically available. Presumably they faced the same sort of financial and literary elitism (and still do, in terms of mass-market paperbacks and Harlequin novels and so forth, though reactions to the latter are often rooted in sexism) that blogging and short-form online writing of any sort currently face. Regardless, paperbacks are here to stay, and far more convenient than hardcovers for multiple reasons, and blogging and Internet journalism will, I suspect, follow them into the thirty-year cycle of acceptance. What this means for the present is that Instagram, articles about cats wearing bunny ears, and analyses of the sex lives of various fictional characters are here to stay, and in twenty years might even be citable in academic writing as something other than a way of lightening an otherwise fairly dry subject. (Not that this applies here, of course.) We may as well get used to them.

Works Cited

Bucholtz, Mary. "'Why be Normal?' Language and Identity Practices in a Community of Nerd Girls."

Ciotti, Gregory. “The 5 Most Persuasive Words in the English Language.” Copyblogger. Retrieved from http://www.copyblogger.com/persuasive-copywriting-words/

Gee, James Paul. "Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics—Introduction"

Goldman, Henry. (29 March 2013). “This Cat Actor Just Doesn't Care About Acting That Much.” Buzzfeed. Retrieved from http://www.buzzfeed.com/henrygoldman/the-life-of-a-working-cat-actor

Hao, Patrick. (1 April 2013). “The Place Beyond The Pines Review – An American Epic By An Up And Coming Voice.” WhatCulture! Retrieved from http://whatculture.com/film/the-place-beyond-the-pines-review-an-american-epic-by-an-up-and-coming-voice.php

Kelly, Jane. (31 March 2013). “A Complete Breakdown Of Sex On "Game Of Thrones".” Buzzfeed. Retrieved from http://www.buzzfeed.com/janelk/a-complete-breakdown-of-sex-on-game-of-thrones

La Rosa, Erin. (29 March 2013). “28 Reasons Why Daryl Dixon Is The Sexiest Man On “Walking Dead”.” Buzzfeed. Retrieved from http://www.buzzfeed.com/erinlarosa/28-reasons-why-daryl-dixon-is-the-sexiest-man-on-walking-dea

Swales, John. "The Concept of Discourse Community"

“Write for WhatCulture.” Whatculture! Retrieved from http://whatculture.com/write

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