Back to Basics: Social Media Fails, Oversharing, Security, and Identity Ownership in Digital Culture

This will be my final required post for this blog. But before I take my hiatus, we’re going to, as the title states, go back to the basics of what this venue has been all about: rhetoric, digital culture, and the meaning of our language/actions in our real and online lives.

So below are some bonus topics that relate to the end of the course, a topic of recent posting history, and one all time favorite topic (oversharing and social media fails) that I’ve been writing about throughout this blog, all the way back to the very beginning.

So let’s start with the present:

1. My Course Project: Hootsuite and Effective Twitter Engagement

Throughout the Social Media for PR course, I’ve been working on a project in which I’ve had to become certified via HootSuite University. Hootsuite offers three kinds of professional certifications, and of these, I’m participated in the Higher Education course. It uses mostly videos and other online training materials

You can view a sample of the training material here. The videos, however, encompass the vast majority of the “lecture” equivalent of the course. As far as project execution, that’s all learned by doing on one’s own HootSuite Dashboard. For those unfamiliar, here’s a quick peek at mine:

HootSuite Dashboard (cropped to protect the innocent.

2. Online Security: Twitter, 3rd Party Apps, and the Internet-at-large Edition

This blog has already covered security in social media generally and on Facebook (and to a lesser degree Tumblr) specifically farely extensively, as well as the damning consequences of oversharing.

Completing the HootSuite project has caused my to violate my own rule of thumb regarding third-party apps that share info between platforms, which is–in brief–don’t use them. From the very moment I added my Facebook feed (a requirement of the project), I got this lovely little message asking for permission to manage my personal and professional pages (for me, that includes my admin status on two record labels and my two bands**), and much, much more:

Adding Hootsuite Social Network Feeds
One of four such “Allow?” popups required to activate any social network feed.

Several more like it appeared in subsequent screens, and all of them sent my personal online security alarms blaring. I elected to “skip” those that offered the option, but ultimately had to allow some info to be shared for the feed on HootSuite to have any functionality whatsoever.

And this, friends, is the tradeoff we make by choosing to use the internet at all. For every service we use, including (arguably especially) Google, we offer bits of our data and bits of our private lives, all of which can be linked back to us by anyone with a bit of time to do the legwork and a minimal amount of technical know-how. Want to use Siri on your iPhone? Well, don’t be surprised that everything you asked her is banked in a data vault owned by Apple and, yes, traceable to you. Regarding Google, they have a vault that stores all of your search queries for 18 months. In class, we watched one great documentary called Inside the Mind of Google with loads more on this subject and its surprising consequences, viewable here.

3. Social Media Fails: in the News
All of this heavy security talk is giving me a hankering for something light. So let’s go over some of the better social media fails in recent news that I haven’t already discussed here.

Here are just a few highlights (in a style not at ALL reminiscent of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”):

Virtually all of these misfortunes could have been avoided with better security or better safeguarding of one’s information and identity (real or online).

Bringing It All Back Home

So yes, the three above topics–the two old (security, SM fails), and one new (#1, Hootsuite)–are indeed all related, not just to each other, nor just to my interests, but to the origin and focus of this blog. And moreover, they relate to all of us who choose to participate in digital culture. We’ve already opted in to the security risk of using social media. Even those who haven’t, have opted into the risk of being a part of digital culture by using a SmartPhone with a data plan. You opted in by accessing this blog, whether you found it as a user of WordPress, Google, Bing, another search engine, or even another blog.

So is having an online presence worth the risk? Only you can decide. As for me, I believe we increasingly need these tools to participate in a digital culture that is increasingly integrated with real-world culture, from the local level all the way up to the global. But just be wise in what you put out there, and be aware that once you’ve presented data, you have (in most cases) entrusted it to someone else: a cookie-based ad service, social media network, a corporation, or sometimes, a cloud.

So my hiatus begins. So long for now, and be careful out there, fellow digital culture warriors!
_ _ _

**For those interested in my music and other good music, please take a look at Red Mynx Records, my current label for me and other interesting and unique artists. You can hear a free preview of one of my songs with my duo Iolite here. Written and recorded by the two of us in a 20 minute four-track session. If you like indiepop, The Smiths, or Depeche Mode, you’ll like this.

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The Boston Bombing in terms of social media, rhetorical ethos, and security

Offline right now, so will have to post completed version when I’m back to my machine, but we’ll be examining the Boston bombing through the lens of some familiar topics:

*Crowdsourcing and citizen reporting as a means of demanding security, maintaining law and order, and cultivating an informed citizenry. Are citizen reporters finally being taken seriously by the mainstream “old” media?

*How social media has infiltrated professional law enforcement, and how this infiltration may lead to greater cooperation and trust between citizens and police. Both short and long term effects considered.

*The nature of terrorism, and a meditation on whether strong communities that refuse to be intimidated can indeed be terrorized.

In the meantime, please check out last week’s post on security, as these themes will come up again, though this time in terms of the real-world attacks we saw last week.

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The Rhetoric of Cyberwarfare: A case of Spy vs. Spy?

Bruce Schneier’s recent fantastic article about the rhetoric and reality of cyber war (and the surprising gap between the two) is worth a read. Though I’ve yet to mention it here because it’s a bit outside this blog’s focus, intelligence and security are huge interests of mine (and possible career options; I learned four languages thinking I’d grow up to be a federal agent). Schneier is one of the greatest voices of reason in the security field–a true expert who calls it like he sees it with a no-nonsense, common sense approach that’s keenly aware of the great cost of civil liberties. The internet, according to Schneier, is the most massive surveillance system the world has ever seen; each of us feed into the Big Data database every time we Google something, buy a product, ‘check in’ somewhere, or willfully give away personal details via social media.

I’ve written about privacy online before, but largely in terms of individuals or small organizations. Yet the dangers of ineffective privacy controls and security breaches also effect entire nations. Even as a casual public radio listener, I’ve gleaned quite a bit about the Chinese attacks on U.S. media and technology targets, most notably the New York Times. Even Google was targeted. While this is clearly a major story, it’s new only to the public. Security analysts have been aware of the problems with Chinese hackers for years, and the Chinese government hasn’t exactly been shy about its desire to dominate cyberspace. But is it really appropriate to use the rhetoric of warfare, with all its real-world costs, when we are not getting the full story, nor the full impression of our own involvement? Or is the rhetoric surrounding this controversy, and others about online privacy/security, misinformed to the point of being misleading?

Schneier, a prominent expert in physical and online security, speculates this may be the early years of a public arms race between the U.S. and China. As with arms races of the past, and invocations of warfare in general, much of the conversation takes a tone of solemnity and terror. This quality makes the rhetoric surrounding cyber-security and cyber-warfare one big argument imbued with a pathos of fear that is toxic, inflammatory, and potentially dangerous.
Espionage, while undeniably scandalous and terrifically fun to read about, is certainly not a new game. While the techniques and access points may be more sophisticated, the legwork of espionage hasn’t changed much since the Cold War. If anything, the advent of the internet has  Even allied countries spy on one another regularly, and news of intelligence flubs comes to light from time to time (I’m looking at you, Mossad).
Remember Spy vs. Spy? It was a comic strip built around the premise of two virtually identical spies, each always scheming to foil the other while trying to anticipate the other’s traps. Invariably, the bulk of their effort to outsmart each other is useless and victory is uncertain, fleeting, and generally meaningless.

Spy Vs. Spy cartoon.

It’s a beautiful metaphor for politics (work, academic, and actual politics alike) and interpersonal conflict, but in this instance, we’re talking about an actual game of Spy vs. Spy with two superpower nations that, despite both having a fair share of experts in security, technology, and just about every related field, have yet to realize that historically this game doesn’t have a winner. The United States and China likely are in a malware/hacking/security arms race that will likely prove to be fruitless, and the heated ‘war’ rhetoric both fails to accurately describe the situation and certainly escalates tensions. The discussion alone about the back-and-forth attacks might very well result in real world problems for the global economy and international relations.

So what can an individual user learn from these security failures? Simply that information is only as protected as its weakest link. Significant entities like the New York Times and Google can be breached by hackers because of a single individual’s failure to create secure passwords and encrypt/protect sensitive data. As individuals, we can learn from their mistakes by not giving out any more information than necessary, being aware of the extent of internet surveillance, and beefing up our own security. For those interested in this story and security generally, I couldn’t recommend Sneier’s various essays on the subject more highly.

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Social Reading in Real and Digital Space

Most of us who define ourselves as heavy readers are solitary creatures that have generally known reading to be a solitary activity. As a child and teenager, I embodied the cliché of the moody loner and bookworm that is familiar to most of us through film, television, or our own real lives. Yet there is something utterly powerful about the bond that develops between people over shared affection for great art. And when these bonds develop between readers, they take on unique qualities.

I. Real Space: The Social Purpose
of Solitary Reading
Woody Allen once cautioned against going to bed with anyone who doesn’t have good books on their shelves. And indeed, books can serve as litmus tests for another person’s taste, values, and likeability. Most of us are used to assessing other people’s tastes in music, films, etc., though there’s something perhaps even more powerful and accurate about the art of discerning a person’s individuality from the books they love. For instance, when a stranger professes a love for one of your favorite novels, it creates an immediate sense of familiarity. You may not know much about this person, but you know they have traveled and loved at least one literary landscape that’s meant something to you. And that point of mutual appreciation and admiration is just a starting place for authentic, meaningful conversation. For me, finding out a stranger is a Vonnegut fan automatically makes said stranger seem promising. And while arguing about whether Sirens of Titan is better than Slaughterhouse-Five (spoiler alert: it is, but both are great) is a perfectly worthwhile and wonderful conversation, just being able to have that conversation is an assurance that I’ve actually met someone interesting.

Knowing someone else’s books-in-common with yours implies a certain intimacy. A mutually-adored author or work can give two people who otherwise know very little about one another a look inside the other person’s head. For instance, I once knew I’d love someone based solely on his admitted obsession for the late, great David Foster Wallace‘s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In a world where readers are an increasingly rare species, these glimpses and connections are particularly precious. That aforementioned someone is still my best friend, after all.

II. Digital Space
While the interactions I’ve described so far have taken place squarely in the real world, there are places where they’re recreated online. I’ve barely gotten my feet wet in the online world of social reading, but here are some basic impressions of what I’ve found:

* GoodReads: A social network by readers, for readers. The site encourages discovering new books, looking at what others are reading, and reviewing what you’ve read. This post was originally inspired by Kevin Eagan’s comments on GoodReads this week on his blog. If you’re curious, he has much more experience on the site than I do.

* The Blogosophere: While readers have also appropriated other forms of social media, the blogosphere has encouraged a subset of lit nerds and writers to blog about their reading. Kevin Eagan, mentioned above, is an academic who does just that. But some of the bigger brand names in the print literature/publishing business have moved online as well. The Paris Review has a great blog with several writers, and the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency is another example of high-quality literary names gone digital.

* Comment Sections: Rather than a specific site, this is just an aspect of social reading that’s developed in our day-to-day consumption of written material online. Whether in terms of news articles, blogs, or online versions of real-world periodicals, commenting is driven by the same factors that motivate other social reading. While the literary world is a smaller nitch, commenting is ubiquitous, and those who develop social reading sites would do well to be informed by the norms of threaded comment conversations.

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When the Digital World requires a Human Touch

Despite an increasing amount of work and social life being led online, the simple truth is that some things just can’t be automated. Last week I touched on the fact that even when automation is possible, it’s not necessarily effective–or even useful, for that matter. I talk a lot on this blog about writing effectively, but today I’d like to focus on a couple of areas where humans, even with all of our imperfections, are unlikely to be outpaced by technology.

Advice Columns

What’s interesting about the shift of these columns online is that while there are certainly more of them than there were when advice writers were confined to newspapers, there are still relatively few personality’s that stand out and certain niches are better defined. In the interest of total disclosure, I’m an enormous fan of Dan Savage, and particularly his love and sex column Savage Love (beware–NSFW content after link).   While many columnists take relationship questions, Savage’s internet savvy has allowed him to take his sharp, biting tongue and astute intuitions from the back pages of a Seattle alt-weekly to viewers and readers worldwide. And he’s done an excellent job of diversifying online and offline: his cult of diehard fans can keep up with his blog, podcast, and column in one place, and he’s even expanded into television and authored several best-selling books.

Dan Savage answering questions to an audience of college students.

While he’s not shy about self-promotion, Savage also fights for marriage equality and is active in the campaign for LGBT rights.His ability to use many media well has also helped his campaign against gay bullying, the It Gets Better Project, which started with videos like this one:

And Savage has adapted for the times: he’s acknowledged that he’s had to adapt his column significantly because of the existence of Google.

Essay Grading

And really, teaching in general. Educational software can be incredibly useful for introductory purposes, but beyond the basics it’s hit-or-miss. In some subjects, specifically languages, human instructors are absolutely necessary. As someone who teaches German on the college level, I often find myself filling in the blanks in digital textbooks and online curricula. These same principles hold true with English.

Some online services, like, which detects plagiarism, have saved lots of work-hours of menial labor at institutions around the country. However, not every teaching service meets this level of utility. Content analysis is the sort of activity best performed by a human being, capable of detecting nuance, understanding complex subjects, and responding to rhetorical appeals.  Most of us are familiar with tools like the Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level feature on Microsoft Word, which attempts to glean from the text.

But grading technology, while ambitious, simply can’t do what a person can do. The technology isn’t there yet, and I doubt firmly it ever will be. A great example of this was posted by a Rhetoric professor friend of mine, who wrote the following nonsensical essay involving puppies, alchemy, and slippers and received a near perfect score from grading software he was testing at the time:
ridiculous grading software essay
…And so on. To view the rest of this essay and read more of Dr. Loewe’s thoughts on the patent absurdity of grading software, visit this post, as he sums this up perfectly. What looks like hilarious bad technology to you, dear reader, looks like job security to me…

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Social Media Fails: How To Take Your Online Crisis from the Frying Pan to the Fire

Responding to crises is never easy, whether you’re a person who screwed up or a brand caught up in a scandal. When a crisis spills over onto social media, you can use it to your advantage or inadvertently fuel the flames. Below are three examples of the latter, each showing how bad social media crisis management had damning effects on major corporations.

1. Delete Facebook

Prominent companies like Apple, United Airlines, and Walmart have recently come under fire for deleting comments from upset customers on their Facebook pages. While it’s understandable to want your brand’s Facebook page to be a positive representation of you/your brand, that does not automatically make it advisable to delete any negative or critical comments. While a good social media policy can help a company decide which comments are inflammatory or generally offensive enough to delete, those that are civil should not be dealt with this way.

Consider the consequences of silencing your audience. If you do delete comments, you’re not removing them from the conversation, but simply moving them elsewhere. Once the commenters catch wise to the situation, they’ll be even more inflamed, and will lash out on their own pages or those of others. Further, beyond a certain point, the comments may outpace the brand’s ability to delete them.

Solution: Treat critical comments as a PR exercise, or what Scott Hepburn from Media Emerging calls a customer service opportunity. Address the person’s concerns and needs, and if it’s a service complaint, do everything possible to solve the problem. Then post once the situation is resolved. If responding to en masse comments, make a status update that genuinely

2. Automate

Nobody likes receiving those automated out-of-office emails. The same tactic goes from obnoxious to downright offensive in the context of a PR crisis. Possibly the gravest example of this from recent history were the robotic Tweets from Progressive Insurance’s Twitter account responding to criticism for defending the driver who had killed one of their policy holders in an accident in court. The tweets were even lengthened through a 3rd party app, and were sent so many times that the company essentially spammed their followers with robotic-sounding content. These multiple breaches of twitter etiquette made users question Progressive’s sincerity and ultimately damaged the company’s online reputation.

Dozens of enraged and offended people tweeted their ire back to Progressive. Culture icon and actor Will Wheaton also called them “inhuman monsters” in a soundfile with an automated computer voice posted to his account’s thousands of followers.

Solution: Give anything with this much emotional gravity the attention and concern it deserves. Take the time to actually address the concerns and complaints of your friends and followers. If you’re going to use a medium, be sure to use it correctly. On Twitter, this means sticking to the character limit (linking a statement would have been far wiser). Never, ever spam, regardless of medium. Social media fails are more than just a PR crisis; bad rhetorical choices online quickly translate into a bad reputation in real life.

3. Lie

Recently, Applebee’s entered the depths of social media hell after not only made the first two mistakes mentioned here–deleting comments and automating responses–but proceeded to actually lie about their actions after the fact and engaged in a sloppy, half-hearted cover-up. Yes, after both deleting thousands of comments and literally spamming complaining customers by copy-pasting the exact same explanatory message (and even tagging individual people), the company lied about deleting said comments.

Applebee's deleted comments

Which, of course, invited the wrath of the 20,000+ commenters from the previous day:

Angry customers call Applebee’s on their online lie. Image from J.L. Sorral’s blog, Thoughts and Provocations.

Unfortunately, the best possible solution here is to not lie in the first place. Avoid deception at all costs, because between throngs of enraged customers and screenshots, you will get caught. And you might get exposed in a tell-all visual essay, like the one above. Tools like the Wayback Machine make it easy for literally anyone to prove if you’ve changed your personal or corporate page to cover up a lie. So in the internet age, deception is not only difficult but not worth the trouble.

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Social Media Components for TV Audience Engagement: The Awesome and the Atrocious

Most corporations these days either worry about their online presence or pay someone else to do so. Television has followed suit, with many major networks adopting a social component in an attempt to increase engagement and stay relevant. But there’s a big difference between just doing it because a brand thinks they have to, and doing it well. To look at the details of making effective and engaging campaigns, here are examples of the extremes of the spectrum of very good and very bad social media components from major TV networks.

The Awesome: RuPaul’s Drag Race
The reality hit has a multifaceted social media approach, primarily using Facebook and Twitter. Logo has taken an approach across several of its shows in which writers are including suggested hashtags directly in the program to encourage live tweeting. This tactic is used in their live sex advice program That Sex Show to allow viewers to ask questions during the show. Drag Race does this particularly well: producers even play off of Rupaul’s often-shameless self-promotion with a wink and post-production twinkle in his eye. The hashtags are often as catty as the queens themselves (one poor queen’s outfits were lampooned with the tag #BedBathandBeyonce) and directly relevant to the content.  The show even uses its neologisms and drag lingo as hashtags: #WERK , #sickening, and #Dragulator are fan favorites. Translating the show’s unique rhetoric to Twitter brings the show’s clever style and bold aesthetic into its online presence.Better still, many of the queens are also on Twitter and interact with their fans.

The Facebook component is also quite effective. As with Twitter, individual queens have their own accounts and can update with their own content and interact with fans. Yet among the best features of the Facebook campaign is the “RuDunnit?” game and ad series, a dual effort from Logo and Absolut Vodka. The game correlates with a series of vintage detective noir-style ads featuring the previous season’s top queens, each in her own representitive color, being “interrogated” by Michelle Visage over the theft of Season 3 winner Sharon Needles’ crown. The object of the game is to help solve the mystery, and of course, Tweet about it. This interactive advertising is fresh and interesting, and treats viewers as intelligent rather than appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Sharon Needles reporting her crown missing to Detective Michelle Visage in the #RuDunnit promo.

This campaign shows that a little creativity can go a long way, and that sticking to what works for the show never hurts in either traditional ads or social media campaigns. Gamification, when executed well, can be an excellent strategy for engagement. This strategy has also worked quite well for AMC, with The Walking Dead social game.

The Atrocious: True Blood
HBO really dropped the ball on the social media component of the incredibly popular True Blood series. The biggest fail on this front is the ‘baby vampire’ character’s blog. While this is a format that a few programs have experimented with, the only ones that seem to get a lot of interaction are those geared towards younger viewers (Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation jumps to mind). In the case of True Blood, it’s actually the teenage vampire who keeps a blog, and writes in perhaps the most obnoxious alphabet-soup of abbreviations possible. The tone is juvenile, the content is vapid, and worst of all, there’s tons of it.

While the character blogging tactic has the potential to add extra narrative dimensions or subplots to a program, the content of the blogs does not appear to be related–even tangentially–to the plot. On top of that, the blogging just isn’t effective. Entries are long streams of barely coherent, linkless text, and the blogger never responds to comments at all. These factors combined mean, for the audience, that there’s nothing to gain from the blog that one couldn’t get better, and more efficiently, from the TV show.

Despite the TV show’s immense popularity, True Blood’s social media campaign is as dead as its main characters.

The rest of the campaign follows the suit of abundant, low-quality material: there are lots of wallpapers and screensavers, but not much behind-the-scenes or effective interactive material. Again, there’s plenty of the aesthetic fluff that has worked for the series, but nothing to gain from engaging. The social media component of their advertising could have been successful if its organizers had kept in mind what keeps the show’s viewers coming back: content.

The Bottom Line:
The success and quality of a social media campaign depends largely on creativity, good content, and (as always) attention to audience. Details matter: one generic campaign for an entire network with the information for various programs just copy-pasted throughout conveys laziness and carelessness. True Blood‘s lackluster approach doesn’t give incentive for most viewers to connect with the online community and won’t even command the attention of die-hard fans in the long run. Interactivity is certainly good, but achieving the kind of engagement you want requires real effort knowing your viewers’ interests and their limits.


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Online Storytelling: Creative, Nontraditional Approaches to Digital Literature

Anyone who has been to my house can attest to the fact that it looks like an overflowing library. Books and literary magazines overflow from all of my shelves, and are stacked atop virtually every piece of furniture. And while I absolutely won’t be sold on the idea that the book is a dying art form, I’m equally interested in the possibilities of digital literature. Here are a couple of innovative uses of the internet, online communities, and multimedia in the literary field that I have been following lately.

Neil Gaiman’s “A Calendar of Tales”

Neil Gaiman is the critically acclaimed author of books such as American Gods and The Sandman series of graphic novels, as well as the award-winning children’s books The Graveyard Book and Coraline. Gaiman is one of the popular authors who has taken to the online environment easily, maintaining Facebook, Tumblr, and blog that contribute to a well-developed personal brand. He is active and engaging on Twitter (@neilhimself), and uses his account much more for amusing commentary than self-promotion. He is especially adept at connecting with fans online, and regularly publishes short stories for free on his personal website.

“A Calendar of Tales” is his latest project, in which he crowdsourced inspiration via his Twitter feed.

The finished stories are now available for free both on Soundcloud as audio files and as a downloadable .pdf document.  But the project doesn’t end there. Since the stories have been released, he is now inviting fans to make artwork inspired by them, in hopes of creating a physical calendar to correspond with the stories. This type of community interaction is the kind of collaboration I think we’ll be seeing more of as writers continue to fully embrace the possibilities of creating work online.

Resurrecting Hypertext Fiction

Readers who recall the early days of the internet or are interested in digital literature may have seen hypertext stories. But for those who haven’t, they are fictional works that take advantage of digital possibilities, often by means of clickable text within the work. Some use typography to convey a point, and some take advantage of multimedia by incorporating sounds (either as background music, or initiated by the reader’s click) and animation. Many take the form of an online version of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, wherein the reader can actually interact with the text by choosing from a given list of possible actions, as in this story, “24 Hours.”  This technique has even been applied to make flash fiction (very short stories) interactive, as in “The Mating Ritual of the Modern Man” which is one of 100 such hypertext pieces.

A map of how hypertext paths link together, showing how content is creating to diverge and converge. In this case, the text is a comic.

Though many aspects of hypertext fiction persist in other areas, such as the use of linked text in blogging, it is largely an artifact of the past.This medium has generally been left behind, as many experiments are, though not necessarily because it is a bad idea in principle. Author Paul LaFarge notes in his Salon article about the subject that a big reason for hypertext fiction’s failure is the fact that few serious writers used it, so the pieces were largely written by amateurs and nonwriters. This was in the 90s, when many academics were still suspicious of the notion of literally anyone being able to create content. Many hypertext pieces failed the logistical task of rendering complex, nonlinear stories with many possible endings easy to navigate, some pieces simply over-used the tools, creating a web design disaster all too common of the era.

Despite these hurdles, LaFarge is one of the serious writers who is revisiting the medium. His book Luminous Airplanes is available in both hardcover and what his publishers call “immersive text” format (in an attempt to beat hypertext’s bad rap), and has so far received favorable criticism. Readers are encouraged to visit the corresponding website for the fullest experience of the story. The site contains a map with extra information that helps the reader navigate the story and its branching-off points.

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How Your School Papers Messed Up Your Online Writing

Most of us eventually realize that the things we learned in school don’t always apply out in the real world. This fact is especially true in terms of our writing habits.

I have been a private writing instructor for close to six years now. Most of my students are college students, though I’ve also taught middle and high-schoolers. Public education is a stressful and often thankless field, and I am not criticizing the many wonderful, hard-working teachers of the world. Rather, I’m pointing out that the average English teacher’s job is to teach you the grammar and rules of academic writing, generally in preparation for standardized tests and college. While these are undeniably important skills for that context, they don’t all transfer to the real world. Here are three things that worked for your school papers school that you want to avoid online:

* Pointless Elaboration
If you’ve ever found yourself tempted to refer to Webster’s dictionary while struggling to write an introduction, you’re not alone. Similarly, if you’ve ever wanted to use something like “For the entire history of [insert field here], man has sought [insert value here]” to open a paper, you were probably doing so to fill up the assignment’s minimum page count. By requiring you to fill up a certain amount of pages, your English teacher unwittingly taught you to use a lot of words to say very little.

In online and business contexts, being concise and clear are your top priorities as a writer. Avoid summarizing to fill space: it tends to be redundant, especially when you can link to whatever you’re referencing. Think about your audience, and assume that they know the basics of your subject. Avoid jargon, and link relevant words if you’re referencing something that might be too specialized for an educated general audience.

* Terrible Document Design

Most high school and college papers require the same recycled format: 12-point, Times New Roman font, double-spaced. Usually you will have to have a header. The double-spacing is practical in this context. For a teacher, it’s much easier to make notes and corrections in the spaces between lines. However, this practice also leads to many students never understanding the importance of white space.

Though subtle, white space is one way that you know this paragraph isn’t about the exact same topic as the one just before it. The space between paragraphs and headers helps the reader visually navigate a piece of writing. This visual cue is especially important online, where people tend to skim writing for its most interesting and relevant pieces. Headers and lists serve a similar function, though if your teacher was an MLA style purist, you probably never had occasion to use them in school.

* Wordy, Excessively Formal Prose
“Don’t write how you talk” is a common mantra of the grade-school English teacher. In the age of text-speak, most kids need to be told not to use acronyms and abbreviations. But often, this point gets driven home to hard, causing older students to try to “sound smart.” A common side-effect of this is using unnecessarily long or obscure words: “utilize” instead of “use,” “equilibrium” instead of “balance,” etc. Rather than making the writer look smart, these verbal gymnastics make the writer seem pompous. (Ironically, someone who does this can be described as “sesquipedalian.”) Avoid verbose or confusing terms by choosing the simplest way to say what you need to say. Don’t say “due to” or “in lieu of” where “because” or “instead” will get the job done.

As a rule, online writing–whether on a blog, social media, or message board–tends to be informal. Context is the key to making decisions about mechanics and grammar. Avoiding contractions may be appropriate for a research paper, but in blogging that’s simply not the case (see what I did there?). A sentence fragment would be out of place in a literary analysis, but can offer emphasis and style in conversation or story-telling.


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Online Voyeurism and the Unintended Audience

Though a lot of things have changed in the field of rhetoric, most of its basic principles governing printed writing hold true in digital spaces. The first principles drilled into comp classes for First year college students are generally the “rhetorical triangle” of elements of speaker, message, and audience, which correspond with the rhetorical appeals ethos, logos, and pathos respectively . The idea is that any piece of communication that is missing any of the three elements is in serious trouble, and probably destined to fail. Similarly, arguments based only on one of the appeals (such as pathos, or emotion) are incredibly weak. The relationship between these groups of elements is illustrated as an equilateral triangle to emphasize that each element is equally important, though it’s important to realize that none of these principles of argument exist without context. And in a digital context, the same expectations traditionally held regarding audience don’t always hold true.

Rhetorical Triangle of Speaker (ethos), Message (logos), and Audience (pathos). Note that the entire thing is encompassed by context.


Classical rhetoric, for instance, draws a distinction between imagined versus actual audiences. “Imagined” audiences tend to exist in the minds of writers, and inform the process of crafting a particular argument for a particular set of people. Actual audiences might be quite similar to the audience a writer imagines, but often an author’s actual audience comes to include many types of people he/she couldn’t have expected. While this paradigm still fits, the gap between the two may be even broader in an online setting. In the age of screengrabs, very seldom is an intended audience of a message its only audience.

Take curation sites-turned-communities like the Cringe sub-Reddit or the STFU, Parents Blog (or any of the other fine STFU Tumblrs for that matter). While it’s generally frowned upon to actually spy or eavesdrop on strangers in real life, online voyeurism is not only socially acceptable, but incredibly popular. A particularly amusing example of this phenomenon is Passive-Aggressive Notes, a site where ordinary people upload the often-rude/embarrassing notes of colleagues, family members, and roommates. To wit:

Many of these communities, like Lamebook, take the whole of their content from social media. Most are Tweets, Facebook Posts, or even private messages that were intended only for one’s friends or even a particular person. Simply put, online voyeurism is huge, and nobody can guarantee that their information is private. All the privacy settings in the world won’t stop someone in your intended audience from reposting your words/photos to one of these sites.

Most of us would prefer not to become the object of these communities’ satire. So, how can a savvy user avoid becoming the butt of an unintended audience’s joke?

  • Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want a family member, potential date, or employer to see. If you absolutely can’t resist, use whatever privacy settings are available. Most major social networks allow you to control your privacy settings to some degree, but also be aware that this isn’t foolproof.
  • Be aware of the popular social media curation trends. Browse the tags of sites like those listed here and take a glance at the various subReddits that mock clueless users.  The best way to avoid being made fun of in this setting is to not provide ammunition against yourself.
  • Avoid oversharing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again–every minor detail of your life is not the rest of the internet’s business.

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