Thinking in Public: Creating in the 21st Century – Part I

Exhibit A - Tool for the Generation and Distribution of Ideas

Exhibit B - An Example of a Set of Shared Ideas

Lets engage in a quick thought experiment. Think back to when you were in high school, working on a paper in your senior English class. Perhaps you are trying to write a paper about similar motifs which Shakespeare used in “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” and “Othello.” Maybe you are trying to put the finishing touches on an essay that asks you to analyze the underlying causes of American involvement in World War I. You might even be ready to rip your hair out as you try to compose a college application essay that discusses an event which changed your life. Hopefully you have a similar experience in your mind. Now, think about what the process of creating that document, whatever it might have been, entailed? Think about what is was like as you sat there, typing away on either a typewriter, word processor, or computer. For most of us, this scenario calls to mind hours of sitting perched in front of a desk, consuming massive amounts of caffeine in the form of your favorite coffee, with our fingers hitting the keys (sometimes rapidly and sometimes slowly). Now, I am going to ask you to do your best to think about who you were thinking of as your audience? This may seem bizarre, but I assure you that this is not some sort of composition class trick question. Have you thought about who your audience was for the work that you selected as part of this thought experiment? I am going to go out on a limb and venture an educated guess that the audience for most people would be one person – the teacher who gave you the assignment. Possibly a slightly larger group of three to five people in the case of the college application essay. Now, as we approach the end of our thought experiment, think about the machine that you were using to create your document – typewriter, word processor, or computer – and ask yourself, what is the relationship between the equipment that you used to create your document and your thinking about what kind of life your document would have after you had completed it?

I am hoping that this post is the first of several posts that will make it possible to explore the shift that has occurred (and is still occurring) between writers and their audience.

Hunter S. Thompson - The Quintessential Example of the Lone Writer

For many readers, the man in the picture posted above needs no introduction. Hunter S. Thompson remains a vivid example of prolific writing. Thompson, the author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Hells Angels,” and “The Great Shark Hunt” may seem like a strange example to bring into a discussion of authors with a limited author. After all, Thompson had, and still does have, a large audience who reads his work.

The clip above, from the 1981 film, “Where the Buffalo Roam,” does a good job of illustrating the perception which many people have of Thompson, that of a rambling, ranting, drunk, drug using writer, however, what I find striking about this scene is how well it presents Thompson in the familiar model of the writer, working in isolation. In this scene Thompson, just like the high school student of the past whom we focused on in our thought experiment, is working alone, secluded from the world as he sits at a desk, typewriter at the ready. Chances are this does not seem strange to most people, in fact it would seem that this is in keeping with our understanding of what happens when someone sits down to write – that is to say that writing is (and has traditionally been seen as) an activity that originates out of isolation. Thompson, much like any writer who came before or after him, works in isolation because the very idea of composing something is synonymous with being in solitary confinement. When the writer sits down at the typewriter the understanding of what the ultimate fate of the document will be would look something like this

Library Stacks

or this

Book Case

This would logically point to the creation of a document and the consumption of a document as something of a static process, with the writer sitting alone typing and the reader sitting (or standing) with the finished book in their hand as their eyes scan over the text on the page. Not only would this be logical, it would be accurate, since this is the only option that paper based reading and writing leaves open to either party. However, what if we imagined Hunter S. Thompson working with something other than his typewriter?

Composing in the 21st Century

What would it be like to imagine Thompson creating a video essay? What might a podcast of Thompson speaking be like? An initial response might be that Hunter S. Thompson would still be Hunter S. Thompson, no matter what machinery he used. However, I would call attention to Marshall McLuhan’s famous (some might say infamous) phrase, “the medium is the message.” If the medium of composition was the typewriter, word processor, or a software program like Microsoft Word, what would happen when these were replaced by YouTube videos and blogs?

YouTube Video

Blog Screen

To be continued…

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This post was originally composed in March 2011, when I was asked to generate a piece for a new writing publication. Several months later, it is not certain as to when (or if) this publication will see the light of day. Given this uncertainty, I wanted to get this post out into circulation. Below is a video with provides background information about this case.

About a month ago a high school English teacher in Doylestown, Pennsylvania made headlines. They were not the usual headlines, detailing how she helped struggling students bring their grade point averages up, design a community based volunteer initiative, or land a much needed college scholarship. The attention that the 30 year old teacher was garnering was sufficiently negative to cause Central Bucks East, the high school that she taught at, to suspend her with pay before ultimately firing her a few weeks later. The controversy centered on a blog entry that Munroe had written over a year before, detailing her frustration with generically prepared (“canned”) report card comments that teachers were directed to use. Munroe theorized about the reactions that parents would have if she were able to provide an accurate account of their child’s behavior, aptitude, and overall work ethic. If you conduct a Google search for the name “Natalie Munroe,” or the term “blogging teacher in Pennsylvania,” you will discover the flurry of Internet news coverage and the response that it has generated across the country. We do not need to dwell on the specific details of the blog comments in question, as these are really not what I intend to focus on here. Instead, I would like to discuss the larger issues at play that seem to be lost in the shuffle of the various news and digital media that have addressed this situation thus far.

One question that could be settled with relative ease is: Should Natalie Munroe be fired for her comments? We could consult the regulations and bylaws that Munroe was subject to as an employee of the Bucks County school district to find out if there was a specific rule prohibiting employees from participating in online activities, such as blogging. We could also ascertain whether or not these rules were clearly identified and fully explained to the employees of the school district. These are clearly legal points which would seem like the logical starting point for anyone who is interested in the question of whether Natalie Munroe should be fired. However, that is not the question that I am interested in. My interest in this situation lies in exploring what the boundary lines are when it comes to composing in cyberspace.

Munroe’s blog site, “Where we are going and why are we in this hand basket,” was originally written anonymously under the moniker of “Natalie M.” There was no location information about where the writer of the blog lived or worked, and there were no pictures on the blog. Munroe has stated that prior to the media coverage of the scandal surrounding her blog that she only had nine people following her site, including herself and her husband. What appears to have occurred is that somehow a student or parent from C.B. East discovered that Munroe was writing a blog (how this information was discovered is still unknown), and this information was quickly circulated among parents who filed complaints with the school that Munroe taught at. Munroe was suspended, with pay, before learning that the Bucks County school board had ruled that she would be terminated from that position immediately. Since then, Munroe has continued to write new entries, now openly identifying herself as the author of the blog amid the fading media interest in the story as the initial controversy has died down. As an instructor in the Writing Program at Rutgers University, and as a staff member of the Plangere Writing Center, I find myself disappointed about the content of the blog post that ignited the controversy (referring to some unidentified students as “grade grubbing,” “lazy,” “rude” and “ratlike”); however, that is not what is most unsettling to me. Although the immediate controversy of this situation has tapered off with Munroe’s firing, there are larger questions that still loom, both in cyberspace and in the embodied world of our everyday existence. The core question that I am interested in is what do we really know about writing and the exchange of ideas and information in the digital age mark by an ever increasing numbers of blogs, Twitter pages, and Facebook updates? This question is prompted by the dual nature of the currently shared view that the Internet is equally divided between being incredibly personal and secretive, while at the same time being a seemingly limitless pool of shared information and personal interactions. This question requires serious consideration, but has yet to receive it.

The one point that seems most troubling in the case of Natalie Munroe’s blog and the controversy that surrounded it is that it has unveiled an eradication of the boundaries that many of us believe separates our existence into two distinct realms; the public and the private. Perhaps what is most disconcerting about this situation is the fact that the wizard behind the curtain has been definitively exposed once and for all, never being able to take his place behind the curtain again. What I am referring to here is the disappearance of privacy, and not in any kind of negative or authoritarian sense, but in a much deeper, psychological sense that anyone who has participated in blog postings, discussion forums or Facebook postings can easily relate to, while struggling to verbalize those feelings in a concise and effective manner. It seems clear, at least from the information available at the time that this controversy originally broke, that Natalie Munroe was genuinely shocked by the streams of protests coming in from enraged parents, as well as people from other states, whose only connection to the story was from something they had seen on a television news program or on the Internet. This shock seemed to be compounded by the fact that Munroe was vigorously supporting her posts on the grounds that they were nothing more than the written expression of her feelings about various subjects, something that is no different than an editorial that has been written in a newspaper’s op-ed section. This was further cemented by the fact that Munroe refused to provide any type of apology for her blog comments. She maintained that she had a right to express her opinions, just as those who disagreed with her had a right to express their opinions. But how can we account for Munroe’s professed shock at the backlash that she received in response to her posts? How can we accept that she genuinely thought of her blog as something that would never reach beyond the eyes and monitors of those nine followers that she had prior to this controversy? The answer to that question lies in an intellectual and philosophical reconsideration of what being an author in cyberspace really means. If there is one thing that is certain out of this whole situation, it is the need for everyone who participates in the creation and exchange of information via the Internet to be open to the possibility of unlearning deeply ingrained concepts like privacy and composition in the 21st century.

What I believe the ultimate lesson of Natalie Munroe’s situation must be is a recognition and acceptance that our traditional understanding of concepts such as public and private are shifting. Traditional understandings of what is public and what is private are shifting radically and our familiar understanding of those terms and what the distinctions between those two realms are are changing continuously. The creation and maintenance of something like a blog or a Facebook account would seem to be an obvious example of something that was intended to be widely seen and commented on, however this does not seem to be the case when looking at Natalie Munroe’s response and continued insistence that she had no reason to apologize for her blog. When looking at Munroe’s comments, it appears as if she envisioned her blog as something that might best be described as a digital diary, which was safe from the countless pairs of eyes that peruse the Internet on a daily basis. This sense of security and comfort to be had in the secrecy of online communication is something that many people share with Natalie Munroe. The flaw in this line of thinking is mistaking a blog site or a web page as being the same as a sheet of paper or a notebook. Composing for an audience in cyberspace is completely different from composing for an audience in a traditional print format. Many people like to think that a posting to the various forms of social media that exist on the Internet is essentially an updated technological equivalent to writing in a notebook; however, due to our extensive exposure and participation in cyberspace we cannot afford to be so naive or nostalgic. This mode of thinking is more attuned to romantic notions about writers from the nineteenth century, however these notions are illusory at best, and a blog posting can never be compared to a page that I have written in a journal. Any ideas I have formulated in a journal are trapped within the confines of that journal, between the front and back covers of the journal, but those ideas are restrained even further, by my willingness to share the ideas that are contained within that journal to other people. To be perfectly honest, we do not really know what the boundary markers of the Internet are at this point. Going even further, there is no one in view who could function as an effective gatekeeper, as I could in choosing who can view what I have written in my journal.

The key issue at stake here is that any composition that is created with the express intention of being posted on the Internet is an extremely new and relatively unfamiliar discursive space that cannot fit into the familiar parameters of discourse that exists within traditional forms of print based writing. Considering that a high number of American families have only had a computer in their house for the past ten to fifteen years, it is crucial to realize that the rules which so many of us are familiar with from traditional print forms of composition do not hold true in the digital age that we are all a part of now. Perhaps the ultimate lesson to be learned from all of this is that our familiar concepts of space, place, and identity do not (and perhaps they cannot) hold the same meaning any longer. Writing a blog or creating a Twitter posting can certainly create the feeling of intimate discussion with a close knit group of friends, however, the reality seems to be that we have yet to comprehend the full extent of what being connected in the digital age really means. The example of Natalie Munroe, and the continued discussion about her that still takes place on the Internet indicates that we all will have to reevaluate our learning curve.

Post Script – September 2011 – Natalie Munroe has been reinstated as a teacher at Central Bucks East High School. Below is a video detailing the principals response to Munroe’s reinstatement.

The debate goes on….

Posted in The End of Privacy - Part I | 1 Comment