Sunday, July 28, 2013

On the tone in writing, the subjective-objective distinction, and the consequence of micro-blogging

Fallen Idols is a piece about loving an author's prose, from that conjuring up an imagined personality of somebody who could produce such wonderful stuff, then by happenstance meeting the author and discovering to one's dismay that the guy actually is a jerk, though at the end of the piece there is an example given of a wonderful author who is also a really nice guy.  What I want to distill from this piece is that the products that a writer produces and the writer's personality are two distinct things, not one and the same. 

With Facebook the experience is quite different.  The vast majority of my friends are people I knew in some capacity well before we started to interact online.  So there is some impression of the personality first.  Only later does one confront the writing.  In many cases I haven't seen these friends in person for quite a while.  So I wonder when reading what they've posted whether they are still as I knew them, if I ever really knew them well to begin with, or if their personality has morphed in the interim with online writing part of the reason why.

During the week when I go to the New York Times, I begin with the Opinion section.  (When I was an undergraduate, I started with the Sports section.  Now there are other Web sites to indulge that taste.  On Sunday I might go to the Magazine or Book Review first.)   My attention span is limited and I start with what I expect best to grab me and from which I expect to learn something.  When I do read straight news pieces, I'm often unsatisfied with what is given, partly because it seems only half a loaf - they can't write about conjecture and must stick with verifiable facts (the two independent sources rule), and partly because in their need to offer "balance" they actually present a distorted view.  Op-Ed pieces are not so constrained.  They present the author's point of view, supported by evidence to be sure, but without making any representation that this is objective truth.  It's the reader's job to decide where truth lies and how much the author is bending it to satisfy his ulterior purpose or to reject objective reality entirely and then view the piece simply as an impression of what's going on.  The reader may then embrace some aspects of the opinion without swallowing it whole.

Long ago I lost the fear of using the subjective in my own writing.  Many younger writers (particularly the students I teach) haven't found this comfort zone yet.  They tend to write like an eye witness and are very descriptive about what they see, but then refrain from synthesizing ideas from multiple sources into a coherent viewpoint.  It will take some time for them to develop their approach, which possibly might include inserting themselves into the writing at various junctures.

Something else seems to have happened with many of my Facebook friends, most of whom are middle aged, like me.  Their posts are very brief, mainly one sentence or sometimes two, and while they are clearly offering their opinion, it is presented as definitive.  How could somebody else disagree?

One possibility is that they don't mean to do this at all.  They are simply embracing a style that Twitter accommodates, treating brevity as the primary imperative and any need to qualify the opinion as secondary (and therefore absent in their post).  This is the most benign interpretation and the one I hope is going on, but I don't really know.

Another possibility is that we've lost our ability to argue, so these posts are not in some way meant as a place to start a discussion.  They are instead a way to stake out a position.  The "likes" and comments then are there to demonstrate how many other friends are adherents to the same position.

A third alternative is that there is only habit in the posting and not a conscious thought process about whether either of the prior alternatives pertains.  It is so easy to dash off the first thing that pops into your mind.  If you are processing a lot of different pieces of information each day, that's a lot of first thoughts, so impulse becomes the product and slower reflection doesn't materialize.

Imagine this counter factual, that Facebook posts had a 500 word minimum requirement.  I might be the only one on the planet who'd be pleased by this hypothetical.  I'm not advocating it as a marketing ploy for Facebook.  I'm putting it forward to ask, for those who would not be so put off that they continued to post, albeit less frequently, how would it impact the tone of the writing?  Would it still be as definitive or would it then move in a way to give the reader more space to judge?

If the answer is that the writing tone would change, then my follow up question is: are my Facebook friends aware of this now?  Could they keep writing the short posts and yet give the reader more room at the same time?  And if the answer is that the tone would not change, then I'd like to remind folks of the phrase, "reasonable people may disagree."  As a reader, I like to be presented with that option.

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