How Is The Internet Changing The Way You Write?

1. Perambulating. This is not at all the post I meant to write when I began to think about it this morning. Only half way through the original post I realised that my attention was elsewhere—probably because of a talk about online identities I had to give in the following week (in Berlin in German) on the way the Web has changed the way we do science, a talk that I’ll give again (differently) in London next month and yet again (differently) to an audience in Stockholm. This habit of continously changing lanes of thought, moving in and out of ideas is one way in which my thinking has changed. Or rather, I’ve always done that—in a recent interview for Flash Frontier I admitted that “I’m a lat­eral thinker and writer and it takes strength to keep the reins and carve out tracks deep enough so that oth­ers can fol­low my crabbed path later.”

The Internet’s not making it easier to keep a tight rein on one’s thoughts or lines…

What helped me to the insight of what I really wanted to write about (which is this what I’m writing about now in case you were wondering about my meandering…) is the way in which I sit here and write while weaving in and out of the Web. My browsing history in the past few hours include sites related to my research on virtual identities (Wikiversity, Google Books), social media sites (Twitter, Blogger), statistics information and general reference (dictionary), covering the broad areas of: learning, sharing and vanity. All of it while trying to write a blog post (sharing, vanity) about something that I’m curious about (learning).

2. Modeling. Now, if this was an MBA course, I’d draw a triangle (see fun and Freud in the figure) with ‘learning’, ‘sharing’ and ‘vanity’ in its corners, and perhaps I’d draw another triangle with the corresponding Freudian spaces ‘id’ (sharing), ‘super-ego’ (learning) and ‘ego’ (vanity) next to it, because I’m so fond of all things Sigmund (in part because the man wrote so damn well). But this is not an MBA course and I must get back to my original question and to writing.

How then is the Internet (or rather, the Web, which is what most people, although it is technically incorrect to do so, identify with the Internet) changing the way I write?

W. Daniel Hillis, in an introduction to the similar EDGE question, calls our time “the dawn of entanglement”. We’re perhaps not more entangled than we ever were (one of the privileges of getting older besides losing your teeth is the insight into how terribly and beautifully connected we all are at all times) but there’s a greater consciousness of this fact in the world.

I’m going to leave the plane of abstraction now and tell you some things that actually happened:

3. Writing. A couple of days ago, I saw a picture of Fritz Thyssen, a German industrialist who helped bring Hitler to power and later fell from the Führer’s grace, on Jürgen Fauth’s Tumblr site “Tulpendiebe”.

The next morning I woke up with a story on my mind focusing on how Thyssen visited Hermann Göring in his Nuremberg prison cell in 1946 (something that never happened as far as I know).

I spent some time researching the facts surrounding Göring on the net. I found stuff out and I got excited, hopping from page to page like a rabbit, pen and mouse in hand (I do take notes in longhand, too).

I had started with one sentence that had bubbled up from my unconscious. After half a day or so I’d arrived at a pretty clear idea for a story linking the 1946 Nuremberg trials, the Beer-Hall-Putsch of 1923 and my desire to take a different look at fascism and its characters (which is one of my long-running secret projects, at least until this post).

I sat down and wrote my short story, going back to some of the web pages I’d saved and finding new ones along the way. This finding of new information and new ideas set in motion a more complicated process because I now had to defend my chosen course while the Web constantly whispered in my ear.

The tale itself is a story of entanglement. It could probably have been written between library visits, but my muse at least is a beautiful, moody cow: when she calls, I need to milk while the juice’s warm. I might never have written this story otherwise, not this one anyway.

4. Translating. A third dimension, discussed in the aforementioned recent interview is the going back and forth between German and English which, in this case, never left the level of individual words: I tend to look up a lot of words even if I know them; I don’t do this consciously while I do it. In hindsight, I think it helps me broaden my base of choices—something that every literary writer likes to do—avoid repetition or cliche.

As an early user (since 1990) I’ve not really been without the Web ever. As a writer, doing serious work since about 10 years, I’ve benefitted enormously from the growing density of information. This richness comes at a price: it is harder at times to find one’s way. First there’s a billion roads inside your head and then there’s another billion Internet highways outside your head. “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” says Toto to Dorothy. On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.

The Web operates like an external memory bank. It has become an ocean whose waves quietly lap at the back of my brain while I think and while I write. It contains all manner of creatures. I’m excited to see which ones will crawl out of this “Urschleim”, this primordial soup and find their way into the pages of my writing.

John Lennon by David Redfern5. Asking. Now, all this was written in smoothie mode: put it all in, turn on the mixer, pour out the slush. There’s so much more to be said about how the Internet changes the way one writes, but I can’t get my four hands around it yet. I only wanted to get the ball rolling.

Here are a few recent witnesses from my blog roll: Alt Lit (like Noah Cicero on American literature in the absence of “honor” and “duty”); sad true habits of highly effective writers (like the commitment of Roxane Gay and others); people creating all over the place (like my 11-year old daughter Taffimai’s ambition-free web art exhibit); writers wondering why they do what they do (like Jim Davis & friends on Fictionaut); remixes and mash-ups (like Jürgen Fauth’s Tulpendiebe). So much to digest, read, digest, read.

How has the Internet changed the way you write?

Update September 2012: the story about Göring and Thyssen, “Demons”, was published in bluestem magazine

23 thoughts on “How Is The Internet Changing The Way You Write?

  1. Marcus, a fascinating post. I’ve always been all over the place, so I don’t think the internet has changed the way I write, except that I pay more attention to typos, etc. and still miss. I think that I’ve just been waiting for it to come along and let me be me. That being said, re the identity thing, well I am, through the internet, more conscious that I and my pseudonym, AstridL are two distinct writers. Yet, they do have a lot in common and seem to be more in harmony than distanced from each other, even if their genres are very different. An interesting discovery. Thank you for your post and all the background on teaching and Sigmund graphs.

    • I didn’t even know you had a pseudonym, or perhaps I knew it and suppressed the knowledge? I know of your ominous Twitter name (@mblob) and of course I’m more than sympathetic with the whole process of splitting off a part of yourself who can then do his/her own writing…that (with Finnegan Flawnt) is really how my interest in online identity officially began. It’s good of you to bring that up, because while I had originally wanted to write about identity, I got then more interested in the process. Perhaps identity and process aren’t as separable as we’d like to think.

  2. Marcus,
    Good article. Seeing as I have always tended to wander and multi-task as well as that I work in a collage mode I don’t find the Internet to have changed my writing activity in respect of the pattern of the process though it has at times increased the metabolic rhythm, pace, beat, the tick and flow.

    • GO, to click on the “Like” button is my first instinctive reaction—on social media sites, my writing (in the form of comments, which does count, too) this is like the first beat of the rhythm. I like your remark on the musical elements of the writing process, same here.

  3.  Marcus, that is a sehr interessant post with a useful link to writers’ griefs about writing at the other
    website. I like the MBA dual triangle model!

    My collection of stories and other prose comes in two volumes, yet to
    be published, the first written for print, the second for the Internet.
    I look into them as if they were a scope, and try to realize if the
    stories written for the Internet can have a similar effect to that of
    the stories written for print. The end result — product — seems
    different, the process on the Internet faster, the process for print
    slower. How the Internet affects product is a different question than
    how it affects procrastination.

    Tendency to digress has always been with me, and it is a hallmark
    now. Audiences — assuming their shorter attention spans and beginning
    with the voluntariness of reading what I write at all (as opposed, say,
    to the required reading of works on a syllabus) — wend.

    I dislike it when I refer to writing on the Internet IN a piece of
    writing intended for publication, Internet or print, as when I write
    Internet jargon: thread, email, Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Fictionaut,
    profile page, tweet, site, et al.

    I view the Internet as a habitat.

    Writing for the Internet is closer to writing for a daily or weekly
    publication; writing for print is closer to etching or inscribing.

    • Ann, I like your view of the Internet as a habitat. That’s more than an office and more than a publishing venue. I like it. Of course, we are multi-habitat creatures, so one place is never enough. I also embrace the tendency to digress. Publishing to “wending audiences” I will remember, too. 

  4. Interesting to come to this today, as this topic came into
    other discussions recently too. In a set of workshops I ran last weekend at a
    creative symposium here in Whangarei, we explored how artists create (or
    become) identity (identities) – and how one’s local and global sense of being
    in this world has changed that. The internet certainly plays a part here;
    artists might define their work in a local sense (belonging to a model like
    artisans guilds, perhaps) but the internet has shifted the awareness of who we
    are, and the age-old discussions of ‘art’, ‘object’ and ‘audience’ have
    certainly changed. Add to the discussion the commodification of art (which must
    always be in the mix as a topic, too), and it gets even more complicated. With
    the internet, we can create more art for art’s sake and simply “put it out
    there”, or we can target an audience to sell something – whether jewellery, or
    ceramics, or words.  Either way, the
    artist (writer) must come to terms with motivations, goals and the age-old question
    of the “meaning of art”.

    (By the way, as I’m writing this I notice Ann’s comment has
    appeared now, and I find what she writes about the difference between writing
    for the internet or print very interesting.  I don’t
    tend to delineate between the two so much as see them mingling together, back
    and forth – but I do see how one might change one’s approach based on the
    intended audience.)


    I find that I personally live very much at the intersection
    between local and global. My life as a writer but also as an individual is
    informed very much by personal choice on a small, local scale but with a strong
    sense of how I fit into a broader global scheme. And I’m able to think more
    about these things because of the internet – it has allowed me the luxury
    to weave in and out of local communities while connecting to something larger,
    too.  Art (writing) is impacted by the
    particular location in which it is created. And, more and more, the internet
    allows room for that sense of locality to change, too – while also creating
    global space/community.  Both of these (local
    and global community) are enormously inspiring.


    Regarding writing, I find myself in agreement with you, in terms
    of how contact with entire worlds across the web leak into way we think and
    subsequently the way we write. It’s not so much an entanglement as a layering
    effect, in my case. Things settle deep down on the bottom (of something
    bottomless, no doubt) and occasionally bubble up, yes. And in between that
    bottom and the thin layer at the top are more ingredients. The question is,
    which concoction will they find their way into? Could be a character in a story
    or a conversation with my ten-year-old – both of which inform who I am as a
    writer, of course – and, equally importantly, an individual. This is very much
    how I cook, too, incidentally. No recipe, just throw it in the pot and see what
    comes out. As in writing, it works much of the time. Sometimes it tastes
    terrible and it’s best to throw it out and begin again. It’s always better with
    papaya or lime.

    Thanks for this discussion to start my day, Marcus.  We are always becoming, yes.

    And I like the cow. Always the cows with you, Marcus. 

    I’m rambling here.


    • I’d like to taste that cooking. I have an idea that it’s pretty marvelous though perhaps not what anyone had expected…thanks, Michelle.

  5. I think, that, it should  be one’s goal: not to allow the internet to change the way you write, but for you to change the way the internet writes.  

    To me, the internet has already changed me, my life and the way I could have written. If I had to type things out on paper, and then keep typing each page out till it was perfect. I would have edited the hell out of my books and they wouldn’t be the same books. If I lived in a world where the only literary magazines were in print, I would probably have never gotten published that much. And 20 years ago, people from nowhere places without nice college degrees who wanted to write weird books were reduced to paper zines. The Internet has made my writing career possible.  I mean, currently, I got a job via the internet that has landed me in South Korea, I’m talking to a guy that is in Germany, all via the internet. My very existence, the location of my body on the planet, has been made by the internet. You can’t avoid the internet.
     I have to play the game of the internet.  And if you’re gonna play  the game, you gotta go hard. 

    • I always like stories of global reach. It’s like anti-colonial: engaging just to be there, not to dominate. I like that. I also like how you turn the question on its head in your first statement: the goal to change the way the Internet writes—yes to that, mate! And lastly, it indeed IS a game, and I like that about it, too, though I don’t much like games otherwise (at least not anymore). It is also a at the same time highly competitive (win! publish!) and highly anti-competitive (the rules change all the time! the players, too! they might be dogs!). Thanks Noah, for coming here, enjoyed.

  6. The internet is so many things, patient, malleable and complacent as a mail-order bride in Kansas named Philomena, quiet, lovely, impossibly cheerful, incessantly waiting for whatever attention Mr. Dobbs cares to offer.  (This allusion is entirely fictional and, though conceptually and politically incorrect, is offered only as a metaphorical example of what the internet can be and the names of the characters herein bear no reference to any actual persons living or dead.)

    It’s a stage, an open mic, an opportunity, a place where we can either be ourselves or travel like a rock star all over the world on tour, sans bus, sans Leer Jet, sans gravity or gravitas, if we wish, under pseudonyms and nom de plumes, a man or a woman behind a mask. 
    Its only mandate?  “Surprize! There is no mandate.” 
    Its only rule?  “Oh, silly man, there are no stinking rules.”
    It’s a writer’s paradise, takes every word we wish to send aloft and flashes boldly bright and far and wide like a dirigible with a neon, flashing sign or a globe-trotting bi-plane trailing words in the skies over Tokyo, Berlin, Nebraska, Tegucigalpa, and Singapore, Dubuque… simultaneously, everywhere at once, 24/7 for as long as …. forever.
    Writers take note and ask not what you can do for the internet, but what the internet can do for you… mainly this:  Whatever you can imagine.

      • The Borscht Circuit, yes.  A very old term referring to the seasonal opportunities for standup comics in the Catskill Mountains, in resort hotels.   Before that, a guy had to pay his dues in the Vaudeville Circuit, or at clubs in resorts…. or even in the burlesque circuits where a comic was used to enhance the celebratory atmosphere between strippers.  Life for the comics in these places was subject to immediate negative feedback which often included hefted and hurled assortments of overripe fruits and vegetables if the comic was not up to snuff.

        Lenny Bruce, Henny Youngman (not to be confused with a recurring character in my flash fiction, Zenny Youngman), Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Joey Bishop… these are a few of the many comedians who earned their bones in the Catskills ‘on the circuit.’

        And, yes, the Open Mike Effect or OME would be a marvelous cover for the effect of the internet on writers… or, better yet, the Boerscht Effin Circuit & Open Mike Effect Syndrome (BECOMES) 

        Please, stop me now…

  7. Great discussion here! Thank you, Marcus! I have to say the internet has changed the way I write, but most definitely the way I publish. I spent years writing in a library and coming home to edit what I had written that day on the computer before FB. And that was the time when everything was mailed out and you waited for responses for those print magazines. Now, everything is moving so fast! And even the concept of flash fiction has changed and become more popular with the fast moving online magazines. Many of them only take flash and so my writing has changed in that arena. I’ve written many more flash pieces, whereas I used to write long stories exclusively. Now, I write both and am writing poetry as well.
    And I do love editing for an online magazine as well as a print magazine. The best of both worlds. And both very different. Connotation Press is a bimonthly magazine, so I am constantly working on editing those issues while The Santa Fe Lit Review is an annual magazine and is put together much slower and also only takes mailed submissions.
    And I believe the internet has given me a much wider audience than I would have had without it. And also so many writers to read and get to know through their work online. So the community has been a huge asset for me. I’ve found so much support and been able to support so many writers I might not have known otherwise through FB and Twitter.
    And like you said, it’s so much easier to access information. A few taps on the keyboard and you can be pretty much anywhere. And buying books, as well. I still love scouring used book stores, but now if I am looking for something and can’t find it out there, I go to Amazon to find it.
    Yes, it has made a huge impact on my writing, reading and community.  

    • Hi Meg, thanks for coming out to play in my sandbox. It’s great to hear from another editor especially one with so much on her plate. From what you say the gap between what was (for you and all of us) and what is, is already quite large—and I daresay it’s getting larger. I wish I knew how we’re all going to write 5, 10 years from now, and I have some guesses (for another blog post perhaps) but it won’t be the same way. You’ve also highlighted the meteoric rise of flash…

  8. I’ve only been writing for three or four years so I don’t know what it’s like to write without the net. I do love writing WITH it though, and as I don’t like leaving the house unless I absolutely have to,  this machine serves me well. I find it thrilling. I love the way it scatters me. I am always working in a room with floor to ceiling books and I can’t bear to imagine not having them here. And all my notebooks and sketchbooks/diaries and some of my old paintings…it’s the soup I like to stew in…as much of the world as I can stomach.
    It does bother me that when I was painting – without the net – I worked longer hours with less breaks in my concentration, but this may have more to do with the difference between making paintings and making word-things… I hope.

  9. Just to add my voice to the mix…. I think writing in the net makes me faster and more precise. I look at the book I wrote two years ago, and then all of my blogs on the subject of the book, and realize that my book is baggy and full of wind and fog, but my blogs are precise and meaty with imagery. My blogs are a rewrite. The other really great thing isn’t just the access to research, but also the access to audience. It’s nice to get paid, but I think at the heart of writing is wanting to be read and appreciated. 

    • Thanks Heidi, this is nicely put: “blogs are a rewrite”. I never looked at it that way as a possibility, but I see what you mean. In my case it probably works the other way around, but if I wrote non-fiction, I’d probably come round to your method. Access to readers is also really important to me, though it’s an upward battle as a one-man-show without the help of Oprah…who’s unlikely to ever endorse someone whose first book (to appear) is called “Thank You For Your Sperm”. But who knows…at least I’m not easily identified as a German with that title…

    • “I put an effort in” was what intended say.well, well surely not on the comment above… f*** thats how the net changes us, adhd galore, hitting publish before thinking. so what. that’s what you get for free, isn’t?
      ANALOGY much.

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