Journalist and editor Sam Ward ponders the meaning and purpose of writing in the internet age.
Like a deep winter, which started with a light icing sugar frost on the leaves before becoming a blanket whiteout, the internet has come to dictate much of what I do. I was aware of it as a child, in much the same way I was aware of polar bears in the Arctic or that people played golf. It was an otherworldly computer magic my dad used at work. In many ways, his work was making the internet happen for people. I was unaware then that the polar bear would fit in my pocket one day; that I could play golf on the train. I was, perhaps, slower in the uptake than most of my generation. An unfavourable social situation, with little access to computers, and a budding anachronism meant the internet played only a minor role in my early life; a walk on cameo with a little dialogue. Now, like many of us, I get unduly angry at the wandering inefficiencies of my 3G and have the seeds of RSI in my thumb from endless scrolling.
The internet is billions of rivers all flowing into one ever expanding ocean of information. Before this ocean, to write something meant to produce something physical, even if just a post-it note on the fridge. We wrote less but with more deliberation. Now, anyone with an internet connection is a constant content producer, posting their post-its as posts, for anyone’s eyes.
Every day millions of people write statuses, tweets, and blogs. They take photos, make videos, share music, and exchange meaning through ever transforming methods. It’s the greatest democratisation of information in history and with it the largest torrent of man-made nothingness. This bulging mass of data doesn’t always feed more knowledge. Instead, to be cut adrift on this ocean confuses and disorientates. The anchors of identity are ripped up and discarded. Raising the anchor can be a necessary release from the binds of reality, but with nothing to fix you to your destination when it’s found you can drift on past, caught always in the storm of information.
Hunter S. Thompson vowed to write against injustice with ‘a voice made of ink and rage’. The ink is fading but the rage is spilling over the sides, flung out by the angry anonymous to land on the screens of their prey. Protected by their avatars, scrambling their identities, they care only about attention and power.
What does it mean to be a writer in this tempest?
I wanted to be a writer because of the joy of words. The limitlessness of storytelling and the infinite play that stays with you when all the other games of childhood slip underneath the bulldozer of maturity. Writing is at its best a voice; a way for even the shy to speak up and shout. Being dumped into Portsmouth’s assisted housing system at 16, dragged around like a stray cat being told to grow opposable thumbs fast or lose your income support, is enough to make the words rise up like bile. Often they did.
But how does a writer differentiate themselves from the ceaseless stream of words? The deeper into the vortex we slip, the shorter our attention spans become. We live like dogs out for walkies in the woods, always catching a new scent infinitely more interesting than the last. My browsers are scrapbooks of half-read articles, things I’ll “read soon”, and the footprints of my hopscotch from site to site, intriguing link to intriguing link.
To pull people’s attention away from this sweet-shop of pick ‘n’ mix possibilities can feel like standing at the sea wall throwing water at the ocean. A thankless and unsettling endeavour that starts as a compulsion and ends as a jaded passion.
When I was a student at the University of Portsmouth writing was a requirement. Not all of it enjoyable but nearly always with a purpose. The student newspaper too, provided a platform that had power in the process. Having a deadline to write to, even if just humorous imitations of rage, can be the catalytic spark that keeps you writing through the doubts. If you’ll excuse the terrible Galleon-related pun, to step off those vessels, without a harbour, was to be truly dropped in the drink. Every final year student’s nirvana, a deadline free world, quickly became a damp purgatory.
Why bother write an article when you could put it into a status? Why struggle with the mirror of allegory or fable when you could tweet your observations in a pithy meme?
I was told to market myself, become visible or memorable. But all internet users market themselves. An oft mocked and rightfully derided idiosyncrasy of the American legal system is that a corporation can be deemed a person, but so many people now are tiny corporations of selfhood. Our own little micro-brands we build, monitor, damage, and rebuild. Constantly mindful of our image, subtly manipulating it closer to who we want to be seen as not who we are. It’s no great surprise. In every other arena of our lives we are insidiously taught the heroic value of the individual and the internet gives everyone a stage to perform their very own, sold-out, one person show on an indefinite run.
Like most of us, I will be a better diagnostician than healer in this piece. I know when I encounter the common cold but that puts me no closer to curing it than anyone else. I have also written in expansive terms here, of “people”, “us”, “society”, and I’m all too aware that the society I speak of is only the one I am part of. Billions of people alive today may never use a computer. I am writing about a paralysing creative ennui that prevented me from writing, and I’m sure prevents others. Once overcome, I will again use my voice – a voice of compassion, binary, and anger – to rage at injustice.
Epiphanies are imagined as explosive moments of clarity and realisation, but whatever got me back to the water’s edge, bucket in hand, was a slow tension released quickly but without a snap. I told myself to forget about that tyrant in the waves and rediscover the play. Because, good or bad, writing should at least give some joy, offer some release, and fulfil that wonderful, childish yearn to create. If it does any of those things, the ocean can swallow the words and you’ll stand by and delight in the ripple.