09 March 2009

Why would you want to publish your writing on the internet?

I wrote this in preparation for leading my writing group's workshop today. We met this morning and I spoke about these points. I gave a little Twitter demonstration.

Do you feel there are differences between writing for print and writing online? If so, why? If not, why not? Let's discuss. (We did and agreed that length is a key consideration, because of the limited time and attention people have online; and that one has very little time to attract the interest of an online reader.)

A software developer friend of ours, a fully-grown Bart Simpson-type who has worked at various software-company startups around Boulder, was working on a social media application a couple of years ago. I pooh-poohed it when I first heard about it, although back in 2000, I had been intrigued by the promise of mobile networking software that would -- gasp -- allow you to see which people in your social network were in your vicinity and even where they were.

"Why would you want that?" I demanded. I was still resisting owning a cell phone then.

"Well, there are lots of reasons..." he started, but I had lost interest.

For me, it took seeing Twitter to understand the potential of this idea.

As soon as I tried it out, I was intrigued by the way you could start following anyone. It was the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game in a social networking application, and it was proving my theory that really we are probably no more than two or three degrees of separation from most people we would be interested in meeting personally or interacting with professionally.

I found that just being myself and posting updates on the things that stood out at random moments, I had a couple of hundred followers in a fairly short time. And I wasn't aggressively trying to court new followers by following lots and lots of people; it was just a steady progression. I'd follow a few new people every day, choosing a couple of new people to follow here, and a couple more there. Some would follow me in response; others didn’t; others didn’t immediately but started following me a while later.

Today, it takes just a few minutes to start a new account on Twitter, or start a blog on Blogger, LiveJournal, or WordPress. You can apply interesting styles and templates to make your home page look playful or clean or unique; just select your favorite color scheme, or something pleasing that reflects a side of you you're itching to put out there. Any piece of writing has a place online today.

When I sit down to write, I feel like I am mining. I look for the vein. What can I tell that no one has already pulled out of this? What burden must I offload today? What am I most nervous about writing about, what scares the living hell right out of me, or what could make my mother/husband/best friend/a stranger cry?

When I clear enough space in my life -- an hour here, twenty minutes there, or a minute, I invite something in: Okay, I'm ready, I say, sitting down at my keyboard. My intentions fall somewhere along the spectrum from wanting to share a good tip, spin a good yarn, or give myself a little free therapy for my wounded heart. One way I can do this is by writing about those charged moments, the ones that can be the clearest harbingers of what needs to be done next. But sometimes it's just as satisfying to write a haiku about cats or the wild winds.

Twitter has shown me it's a good time in history to start our own channels, to become the pillars of our own media empires, to speak our own truths to power, and to cheer on the big and little things that make our day different from the last. What I see when I look around at the wild world of publishing online is that every kind of writing has a place.

In Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See writes:
"Here are a few things you might write about: Travel, anything from an around -the-world jaunt to the one-hundred-mile trip to see your wife's parents. Camping. Life in RVs. Sexual function. Sexual dysfunction. Good kids. Bad kids. Your weird childhood. Your happy childhood. Whales. Fishing. Hunting. Cooking. Tequila. Keeping a neat house. Keeping a sloppy house. Sleeping pills. Hamburgers. "Profiles" of anybody you happen to know. Alternative medicine. How you got cancer and got better, or didn't. Whatever you're interested in now. "

She's not exaggerating; there are blogs and tweets galore about all of those things and many more.

On Twitter, I'm interested in reaching out to people, but the social scientist in me would also like to see if I can grow a following who will be willing to take risks by investing in each others' work. Like microloans, if everyone gives just a little, everyone weaves a tighter social net, the kind that can even help catch you if you fall. The other night, a friend sent out a message on Twitter that a fellow who had published a children's book just needed a few more people to buy his book and his bank would give him a loan. I saw another person raise more than $25,000 to build new wells in Africa; I was one of the many people who contributed a small amount toward making someone's dream a reality.

So I write my tweets and blog posts with the hope that advancing my own ideas can benefit all of us in some small way. I hope to build connections this way, much in the way that holding a baby or petting an animal stimulates the production of oxytocin and builds trust between people and animals. You know how we tell kids, "There's no such thing as a stupid question, because chances are if you are wondering about it, there is at least one more person wondering about the same thing." Well, I write with the same hope: that if these things are on my mind, someone, somewhere might find it useful to see me attempt to verbally sort them out. And I write hoping to reduce the degrees of separation between us.

Big changes are underfoot in the information revolution. The print media are crumbling, and publishing may mean something completely different five years ago from what it means today. One day, information-gathering "bots" will roam the internets, grouping writings by not only genre or author or titles, but by subjects, themes, settings, or even regional dialects, as easily as we can look up old friends and flames on Google today. So what's most important now is to gather our stories, our thoughts, and our ideas in one place.

Just as we can't find others we're interested in if they don't write and share what they're working on, the same goes for us. We have to not only write down our most pressing ideas but we must also allow others to see what we do. I believe we owe it to each other, to the world, to use our time here to make our mark, whether the exercise has at its center the preservation of family beliefs, values, and rituals; the personal catharsis of storytelling; or a desire to inflict the emotional earthquakes of shock and fear that remind us we are lucky to be alive. The internet has made this easier than ever.

A couple of links to get you started with online publishing:



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