Defining Digital Writing

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It seems that Digital Writing Month is off to a roaring start for everyone involved. So far, there has been a collaboratively-written poem and a collaboratively-written novel is still in the works. Many participants are busy exploring new methods and forms of digital writing, while others are happily adding to their existing digital media sites. Despite the daunting goal of 50,000 words in thirty days, inspiration and collaboration are flowing freely and it’s a beautiful thing to see and be a part of.

But for some, the challenge of Digital Writing Month is not so much the word count as it is figuring out what exactly digital writing is (and is not). Do emails count? What about retweets? What about images and videos? How do you “count” those? What about all of the words we delete during the process of drafting and revising? Do those count even though they’re no longer “there”? How much does context/format matter? If you publish the same words in multiple contexts/formats, does your word count double or triple? Which digital “words” don’t count? Hashtags? Links? And what about those collaboratively-written digital texts? Do all of the words count for everyone who contributes or must you keep track of which words are yours alone? Where do ideas end and authorship begin?

While some of these questions may be addressed by the DigiWriMo founders and community, ultimately it’s up to the individual author to determine what they define as digital writing. But I think that the questions about what constitutes digital writing that have arisen over the past few days are interesting because of what they say about our attitudes toward and beliefs about digital writing. Digital writing, even for those who do it often, is a problematic experience. Partly, perhaps, because it is so new, but mostly, I suspect, because it defies categorization and definition. It is organic and, as such, is constantly evolving, expanding, adapting, evading, presenting, restructuring, dying, re-emerging. Fundamentally, our questions about digital writing reflect many of the same questions we have about ourselves: who is the real me? The private me or the public me? Where do I end and others begin? How much do my contributions to my community count? Am I simply a string of code? Who wrote the code and how much of my code is pre-written and how much do I have the power to (re)write? What parts of me, if any, are permanent? Which are disposable and forgettable?

Take the questions about email, for example. Email is obviously a digital form of writing. So why are some DigiWriMo participants questioning whether or not it should count toward their 50,000 word goal? I think that it has a lot to do with the idea of openness. Many of us consider the terms “digital writing” and “open” to be synonymous. For those who do so, digital writing is a political and social act. We see being open as a democratic principle and we value making our ideas accessible for anyone and everyone to consider and use as they wish or need to, and we are suspicious of those who refuse to share their ideas openly. Emails are private exchanges, seen only by those we choose to make privy to them. Access to the exchanges is only granted to those who can be trusted and for whom the exchanges are directly relevant. But many who advocate and participate in digital writing question ideas of limited trust and relevancy. We question whether or not emails “count” during DigiWriMo because other members of the DigiWriMo community cannot see them; by being exclusive, email challenges the community’s standards regarding openness.

Similarly, digital writers value collaboration because they see the openness of digital writing as both democratic and rhizomatic: ideas and media are freely shared, borrowed, referenced, adapted, remixed, mashed up, and revised. Digital compositional softwares such as Google Docs now support peer revision as opposed to peer review, allowing the author and editor(s) to synchronously negotiate changes to a piece of writing. Such software also provides a space for authorial collaboration, as has been demonstrated with DigiWriMo’s collaboratively-written poem and novel. But some have questioned the importance of individual authorship when considering word count, especially within such highly cooperative contexts. This question brings to light the issues with co-ownership. Ownership is problematic in digital writing because of its organic, open, rhizomatic nature. Established norms regarding citation no longer work and new norms have been slow to develop. But even with digitally-enabled citation methods being used, some question where one author’s word count ends and another’s begins and where, and if, they ever overlap. What if you retweet someone else’s tweet? Does the other author’s words count toward your goal? Does agency equal authorship, such that the act of sharing those words within a different context (your followers’ timelines) gives you co-ownership of the tweet (and thus, co-authorship)? What if you author a tweet that contains a quoted tweet? Should we differentiate between the words you wrote and those you’re quoting? Or is this a new composition, with the original tweet wholly absorbed and remade, the way mixed-media art absorbs and remakes found objects?

Speaking of mixed media, even more problematic for some participants in DigiWriMo is how to “count” images and videos. I was pondering this very question as I was considering the webcomic I plan to try my hand at this month. After all, the graphic aspect of comics is of equal importance as the text. And for me, the graphic aspect would be the most challenging to author. It was disconcerting to think my effort would not “count.” One DigiWriMo community member, Kevin Hodgson, came up with the answer: count the code. Kevin, also creating webcomics as part of the project, created a webcomic about how to “count the words” in a webcomic by counting the code. This solves the problem of images, as well, since most programs convert images to code once they’re embedded. Other forms of media are still problematic, though, and this, again, reflects the organic nature of digital writing. Some of us tend to write in still or moving images (or both); some of us combine images and text. What “counts” as writing and how do we convert still and moving images into a quantifiable measurement that’s equal to words? Some of us, especially bloggers, borrow images from others to help illustrate our writing. So, do we count the images we borrow as part of our word count? After all, we have essentially re-contextualized and re-interpreted the image–given it new life, if you will.

As important as renewal is to digital writers, death is just as concerning. We must constantly tend to our digital creations, monitoring pingbacks and shares and responding to new comments (new life!), as well as checking to make sure hyperlinks, embedded media, or blogroll listings have not disappeared (death). For some, if it does not digitally exist at this moment in time, it may as well have never existed (although it is still out there, for those who know how to locate digital ghosts). What about all of those words that get deleted during the process of digital composition? Some of them, like those created in Google Docs, still exist in perpetual stasis, awaiting rediscovery and reversion. But some (like those I am deleting as I draft this post) disappear forever. Do they count? They are, after all, the breath that nourishes those words that manage to survive the process of digital birth.

Aside from the content that will be created, Digital Writing Month has forced many of us to confront our beliefs and biases about digital writing (and non-digital writing, as well). While we may not be any closer to a definition of digital writing by the end of the month, we at least will have come closer to understanding what draws us to it and what challenges it presents for us. We will, I believe, have a better conception of the shared values and community practices inherent in the act of digital writing, as well as those values and practices that are intrinsically personal and, therefore, more ephemeral.

One thought on “Defining Digital Writing”

  1. I wonder if it should really be digital authoring rather than digital writing. Writing is writing, but authoring is so much bigger. Interestingly, in Nanowrimo, you don’t necessarily share what you write, but you do use their word counter to register your word counts. One of the criticism of Nanowrimo is that it encourages you to write in volume, and not go back and edit. It is all about getting the words on paper (or on file) rather than about editing and producing anything of quality. When we start talking about “editing” and which words “count” the focus changes. We are now talking about producing something, not just writing it.

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