More information, less depth
The largest change that the internet has made in the figurative topography of society is in the amount of information that it exposes the public to. Information is now so prevalent on the internet that it is conditioning our brains to expect information overload. A 2007 study demonstrated this by monitoring a group of volunteers via brain scans as they surfed the internet. The brain activity of the half with a lot of experience in surfing was “far more extensive” than that of the novices, but after a six day period of using the internet for an hour per day, said novices’ brain scans resembled the veteran surfers (Carr, 1).
But Googling information didn’t exactly make people smarter: the researcher, Gary Small, said, “Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers.” The brain activity indicates what Wired writer Nicholas Carr called a “cognitive overload” (Carr, 2). Postman agrees, saying that a focus on information “is a form of AIDS, which I use here as an acronym for Anti-Information Deficiency Syndrome” (Postman, 63).
The internet gives too much information. As a result, as the developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield stated in 2009, our increasing dependence on the internet and “and other screen-based technologies” gives us better visual-spatial skills, but reduced “inductive analysis, critical thinking [and] reflection” (Carr, 2). The web’s excess information has changed our minds, which have adapted by improving intake ability, but decreasing the ability to process any of it. Our memory for information is worse, while our ability to search for it is better.
Because of society’s worsening ability to process information, writers must focus on the meaning behind their words. In the words of George Dyson, a historian of science with a special focus on the internet: ““We now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive” (Dyson, 1). Lucy Marcus, recently selected as one of Britain’s “best connected” women by the business magazine Director, concurs, saying that the “most interesting part of social media is how it enables more meaningful connections with friends, colleagues, and advisers” (Marcus, 1). To better connect with an information-swamped audience, the meaning behind facts must be easily digestible.
1) The Candied Dwarf
This impact leads the internet writer towards three conclusions. The first is that writing on the internet must be incredibly concise and clear. All statements must be like a candied dwarf: short and sweet. This is a form of instant gratification: why should an internet reader spend five seconds reading something when they could check Facebook or Twitter instead? Small agrees, saying that “numerous studies—including one that tracked eye movement, one that surveyed people, and even one that examined the habits displayed by users of two academic databases—show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online” (Carr, 2). Obviously, writing must be shorter and clearer to compensate. To use another author’s phrasing, “‘One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters,’ as Twitter founder Jack Dorsey said in just sixty-five of them” (Fenton, 1). Shorter, punchier phrases are given more attention in the ideology of modern society.
This truncation of text should be taken seriously in every single word, not merely each paragraph or sentence. Earlier in this post, for example, I wrote the phrase “easy to digest,” but on second thought, realized that the phrase “easily digestible” was, in fact, more easily digestible. If a writer regularly checks for ways to shorten the text, it becomes a second nature. The end result is a streamlined, aesthetic composition.
2) Spunk and Bite
Humor, in addition to conciseness, helps the internet writer to spoon-feed his or her audience. Comedy, as every great speaker and quite a few poor ones well know, has always been an effective way to gain attention. Everyone loves a good joke, and it can often allow one to make a point that would otherwise be either unnoticed or forbidden. The mediaeval jester, for instance, could insult the king without comeuppance. Hilarity is valued highly on the internet, and he who welds it in tandem with a moral can impart meaning without letting the audience slip away to the wiles of pointless information. The above Neal Postman quote provides an excellent example: he compares information overload to AIDS through an acronym, intriguing his audience while still lecturing to them. To the internet era, pedantic writing is anathema: Strunk and White have been replaced with spunk and bite.
Not all jokes are created equal: one-liners are a particularly good commodity, since they combine conciseness with humor. Instant gratification is upheld by a joke that can be set up and paid off within a single sentence, and our era loves gratification. In his book Technopoly, Postman implies television gives “immediate gratification,” and the internet is an extension of this (Postman, 54). Web users don’t work hard to learn the definition of a word, or the latest news, since they can use Google to find both within seconds. This creates a trend, as people don’t learn how to put effort into anything else in their life.
Authenticity is the final conclusion to be drawn from the largest ideological change that the internet gives society. With information so prevalent, writings that expect to be taken seriously must be genuine. Writers should be honest about their intentions. Throughout history, manipulaters and liars have been generally disliked, but in the era of the internet, information dissemination is at an all-time high, and liars are much easier to unearth. Fact-checking and transparency are required.
Carr, Nicholas. “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.” Wired. n.d. Web. 30 November
Dyson, George. “Information Is Cheap, Meaning Is Expensive.” The European. October 17,
2011. World Wide Web.
Marcus, Lucy P. “What it Means Today to be ‘Connected’.” Harvard Business Review Blog
Network. n.d. Web. 30 November 2011.
Postman, Neil. Technopoly. New York, NY: Random House, Inc, 1993. Print.
Fenton, Ben. “Outside Edge: Wit and wisdom in 140 characters.” The Financial Times.
10 April 2009. Web. 30 November 2011.
The “spunk and bite” quote used in a 2005 writer’s guide by the esteemed Art Plotnik.