Watching the web
Where nobody knows your name
Writing used to be easy. More complex and expensive, yes, but reassuringly slow. The writer would write, it would be sent to an editor who would edit. Then a sub-editor would get involved. It would be typeset, printed and then eventually distributed. Even writing letters was slow, since it was normally done by hand, then had to be folded, addressed, stamped and posted.
The internet has changed everything. Writing is instant. It shouldn’t be, but it is. And I’m not sure we’re prepared for the changes that have already taken place. For example, it is very easy to forget the situation of your reader. Previously, he may have been a commuter on the train or she may have been a friend with a mug of tea at the kitchen table. Now your reader is a someone peering at a screen. So one has to be brief. Despite the fact that the internet has a limitless amount of memory, the need to be concise has never been greater. Twitter makes a virtue of it. 140 characters can say an awful lot. This is no bad thing — one Bible verse can take a lifetime to unpack.
But there are pitfalls here. In compressing your views on a tweet, messageboard or blog post, you may end up being crass, or say something you will regret. Remember that writing used to be slow and there was plenty of time to change your mind. Even if you think of something terse and meaningful, it might not be a good idea to write it and send it. Some MPs have already regretted tweets and emails, where certain attitudes and prejudices have just slipped out.
So here’s an idea. Write an email and save it as a draft and come back tomorrow. Compose your blog post on a different document and transfer it later when you’ve had time to think. Send your communiqu? to a friend, colleague or spouse first to get their opinion, especially if it’s really important.
The point is that the internet is instant. You can start your own blog in moments, and post a few hundred words that can be read by anyone in the world with a computer and a phone line. 150 years ago, the richest and most powerful person in the world did not have that kind of power. Now it just takes a smartphone.
More permanent than marble
Most things in life that are instant are disposable. But not the internet. When writing online, it’s best to assume that your words are more permanent than those chiselled into marble. They are there for ever. You may think you’ve removed them, but an imprint of your ill-advised remark will be sitting on a server somewhere in Nebraska and can be found with persistence. Whenever I blog, I assume that any opinion I state will be thrown in my face at some point. If I apply for ordination or stand for Parliament, examiners or journalists will dig around for my views on all kinds of subjects.
In the face of this, one could be tempted to say nothing at all and be the mealy-mouthed politician who just seeks to avoid gaffes. But why blog if one is trying to avoid saying anything? What the permanence of the internet has done is forced me to think carefully before writing anything, be it dashing off a blog post or leaving a message on a forum.
The temptation, then, could be to blog anonymously and say what you like. Vanity stops most of us from doing that, but there are godly reasons to avoid untraceable pennames, like Flameguy87 or AceMavRick101. Not only do our names make us sound like seven-year-olds, but we can be bolstered by the liberty of anonymity. We can end up exaggerating our views, criticising people overly harshly and being hateful. Soon we find that we are in the company of gossips, slanderers and mockers because that is what we have become. The Bible warns about such people. Let us write well online, concisely, boldly, but humbly and full of grace.