Blog » #midtermproject

Posted on 13 Apr 2013 01:55


Esme Cribb
12 April 2013


In my research I draw parallels and find similarities between such published writing on multiple platforms and about multiple subjects, in order to hopefully draw some general conclusions about the members of this discourse community, as well as what series of events – what change in the zeitgeist, if you will – particularly created the niche in which they live and work. I conducted research into these communities 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. As a general trend in writing and reporting, this sort of humorist journalism is perhaps something that should be evaluated more, rather than dismissed as “not serious” or flippant or unreliable. Regardless of one's personal views with regard to the style and content, as a group of people who will at one point or another need to make our views known, publish information, or consume and interpret other published information, I think we all really have a rather personal stake in examining mass media and mass communications and how they change in order to make for maximum effectivity and clarity.


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. 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!, where the exclamation point is apparently mandatory. (Excitement about these sites seems non-negotiable.) 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.

Materials and Methods

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.

Something else Swales and Gee certainly don'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. 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 cannot be expressed through mere words, or a sort of physical presence normally limited to conversations held in person, but which can be depicted by spoofing using 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 my interview, 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.” Clearly 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).


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. 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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