Writing Online: The Key to Literary Immortality

It's been years since I've taught a writing class, and during those years writing has changed completely. Back in the 1990s, I taught writing at UC Berkeley using books and movies. My students would read the books to get a sense of how writing worked, and watch the movies to have something to write about. They got what you might call multimedia input (books, movies) but there was only one possible kind of output: linear narratives written on sheets of paper.

When I taught writing for the past couple of weeks at the Kearny Street Project's Intergenerational Writers Lab, I couldn't imagine teaching writing using books and linear narratives. I taught writing by showing my students how different software applications could help them structure their writing.

Together they built a wiki, a type of Web site that many people can edit at the same time. Wikis, it turns out, are ideal for exquisite corpses, tales begun by one person and finished by several others. One writer stops, and next one jumps right onto the Web page and continues the story.

Then I made them all join Twitter, a social network I've written about before that lets you to post messages to your friends only if they are 140 characters long or less. You have to communicate succinctly, but engagingly enough to keep people reading. After the whole class had been twittering to one another for a week, we read a chunk of our twitter stream out loud. It sounded like a strange but compelling play, with each of us voicing our own (short) thoughts, sometimes chatting back and forth to each other, and developing odd, poignant themes as time went on.

My students didn't think it was odd to be writing with Web tools. What was unusual to them, I think, was that I referred to the kind of writing that they do all the time as "publishing."

"Writing online isn't publishing; it's posting," one said. Other students said you couldn't really publish fiction online because everyone would assume it was real. At the same time, they felt like nothing online was "real." It wasn't solid, like a book with your name on the spine. I know what they mean. Although most of my publishing is done online, I still write for print publications. But I do so because I see no distinction between online and print: I like publications that exist in both forms; therefore I write for both.

To me, there is one great distinction between print and Internet publishing, and that is storage. Where should I publish if I want people to be able to read what I've said after I die? Books are excellent because they have an interface that holds up easily over time: you open the book and read it. You don't need a particular software program or operating system to make the file open.

But books can be burned. All copies of a book can be wiped out by one crappy political regime bent on censorship. Online it's much more difficult to burn a book. Just try deleting a book or movie or sound file you want suppressed. Ten copies pop up elsewhere. Then 10,000 copies. And they're stored on servers all over the world, in countries where your shock troops can't reach, in high school kids' closets where even their parents can't reach.

Sure the oil reserves will run dry, or an electromagnetic pulse could wipe all of Google's server farms clean. Then you'd want those books as backups. But I don't think electricity itself is something we'll ever lose as a civilization. There are just too many ways to make it: water, air, sun, the motion of your legs as you ride a bicycle -- all can be converted into enough energy to boot up a laptop and read what's been written there.

I guess what I'm saying is that whether you choose print or digital, odds are pretty much even on whether your words will survive over time. But in the present day? If you want to be sure your words won't be suppressed by some local oppressive regime -- like your nation, your family, or your employer? In that case, the Internet is the best way to publish.


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