How and why we write online

Bec Allen
Bec Allen
Apr 19 · 9 min read

What would Orwell think?

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

In 1946, George Orwell, the English writer, penned “Why I Write”. Orwell’s essay investigated his own motivations for why he wrote, identifying “a feeling of partisanship (and) a sense of injustice” (p. 3) as the thematic threads that preoccupied his work. Orwell recounted his experiences of authorship from childhood to adulthood, theorising four great motives for writing. He applied the motives of “sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose” (p. 4) to all authors in varying degrees and, in the modern context of writing on the Web, these motives still hold relevance. As a media form, the Internet has powerfully re-framed the notion of the author and authorship. Its interactive ecology provides accessible space for a critical mass to collaborate and participate in public discourse with “political purpose” (Orwell, 1946, p. 4). The concept of traditional authorship is challenged online as blogging and social media offer authorial control to anyone with an internet connection. The democratisation of the media in this way challenges legacy media, such as television and newspapers, signalling the rise of the “active audience” (Hartley, Burgess and Bruns, 2013, p. 2006) and scrutinising the role of the legacy media “gatekeepers”. To quote Barthes (1968), the rise of collaborative writing and comment culture signifies the “birth of the reader (which) must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (p. 148). This essay is framed by Orwell’s four great motives as it analyses how the blog, as a collaborative and participatory online platform, affects the way we approach our writing on the web. Through my own experiences as a blogger writing about the technological challenges in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia, as well as through broader research, it will use Orwell’s motives to argue that the Internet is a politically charged, collaborative tool that influences how we write and what we choose to write about.

Firstly, though it is useful to examine the context of the blog. The Internet has transformed our relationship with writing and when we write online we are influenced by the complexities of the Web 2.0 environment. Wolff (2013) argues that the digital ecosystem is constantly evolving with its interactivity and overlap. His research identifies a range of negotiations that writers are presented with, such as how and when to use the compositional modes of video, audio, image, and code. Further, he maintains that writers need to sustain a current level of digital literacy to negotiate the “compositional implications” of this convergent and interactive environment (p. 224). As Bolter (2009) summarises, the Web is a “writing space that is animated, visually complex, and malleable in the hands of both writer and reader” (p. 13). To provide further context to this interactive domain, Liu (2005) emphasises that reading has become “hyper-extensive” with its hyperlinks and distractions (p. 707). Readers are presented with a multi-modal web-experience that can shift quickly between numerous, hyperlinked platforms. With this in mind, writers on the Web face certain ambiguity when considering how they need to approach their writing. It is equally important for writers to consider that the collaborative and open nature of the Internet provides readers with capabilities to influence the writer’s narrative intent.

Orwell identified “sheer egoism” as a motive for all writers. He contended that writers were “acutely selfish” and were driven by the desire to be remembered after they die (1946, p. 2). As a genre, blogs have progressed from a distinctive online diary form to a highly ubiquitous social and collaborative communication instrument (Pinjamaa, 2016). Academic research into the field of interactivity suggests that the personalisation of media builds the credibility of the creator and persuasiveness of their message (Thorson and Rodgers, 2013, p. 37). Audiences are confronted with a vast amount of online content, so it is paramount for writers maintain their interest. To achieve this, writers often publish personal information to emphasise a personalised point-of-difference. Van House (2004) highlights that writers often participate in a series of self-disclosures and role-playing which may, by virtue of necessity, verge on narcissism (p. 4). The decentralised, user-generated nature of the Internet has provided space for writers to be “either a voyeur or an exhibitionist — or both” (Miller and Shepherd, 2004, p. 6). As a consequence, writers can risk their privacy to maintain their audience. Not only can this “context collapse” (Marwick and boyd, 2010, p. 122) alter their message but it can also leave them vulnerable to personal attacks. Lee and Kim (2015) point to the participatory media phenomenon of trolling as a significant form of “social violence” and “social divisiveness” that highlights a lack of barriers to privacy invasion (p. 2). To what extent does the writer reveal themselves and risk their authorial integrity and safety?

My own experience as a blogger presented me with the problematic decision to disclose my geographical location. I decided to publish the name of my community because I had the desire to speak from a place of authority. Similarly, in a blog called, “Tech in the Tropics” I chose to tell a personal story about the challenges of extreme heat and torrential flooding to demonstrate experience (Allen, 2017a). Orwell would likely perceive both creative decisions as a “desire to seem clever” (1946, p. 2). As a writer with a clear understanding of the implications associated with these disclosures, I was compelled to conform to the egotistical impulses of the blog genre to win over the audience I hoped to develop and maintain. To this end, Orwell’s conjecture that all writers are fuelled by degrees of egotistical impulse holds truth. As writers are confronted with the friction between authorial control of their narrative and the desire to compete for audience attention, questions of egoism naturally come in to play.

With similar sentiment, Orwell described his concept of “aesthetic enthusiasm” as the “perception of beauty” and “words and their right arrangement” (p. 2). Orwell emphasised that writers attempt to design a pleasurable experience that “ought not be missed” (p.2). Where Orwell’s concept of “sheer egoism” highlights what writers will reveal, “aesthetic enthusiasm” highlights how writers will reveal it. Blogging presents the writer with a new frame and a new set of rules. Davenport and Beck (2001) identify “attention” as the most valuable of currencies in the post-industrial age (p. 3). In the dynamic, online environment where everyone is potentially an author, writers must frame their prose for the “attention economy“(Davenport and Beck, 2001, p. 4) and consider that how a story is told can hold more value than the information contained within it. Aligned with Orwell’s “aesthetic enthusiasm” is Kelly (2009) who suggests that writers who publish online should consider the notion of “generative value”. He describes quality as one that cannot be replicated because it is “generated uniquely” by the writer. Kelly puts forward “Eight Generatives” to guide web publishers in the competitive digital economy; “immediacy, personalisation, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage and findability” (2009). Owing to space limitations it will not be possible to elucidate each of these concepts. However, I will use my own experiences as a blogger to attempt to illustrate “authenticity” and “immediacy”.

My recent writing on the web, coding with Aboriginal girls in the remote Kimberley, was a challenging topic because it emphasised the often-uncomfortable political truths in remote Australia. To maintain the “authenticity” of my subject I approached my writing of the blog, “Comfort Zones and Gravel Burn” (Allen, b, 2017) with self-caricature. I highlighted my ineptitude in negotiating a fire at Yiyili Aboriginal Community while the local young people laughed at me (Allen, 2017b). The technique of self-deprecation worked to locate myself in an inferior position to the subject and to deliver a “stamp of authenticity” (Kelly, 2009) onto the story. Orwell might define this as an “aesthetic” choice, with the “desire to share an experience” (1942, p. 2). To generate “immediacy” I situated a blog about the challenges of living in the remote town of Kununurra within the context of a current issue. Entitled, “Making it Work” the blog discussed non-indigenous people making decisions about the lively-hood of Indigenous Australians. The story was approached sarcastically, focussing on Tony Abbott’s 2017 visit to the remote town of Halls Creek (Allen, 2017c). While the intent of the blog was to highlight my own personal challenges, I was very much guided by the need to harvest audience attention by creating “generative value” (Kelly, 2009). As Stutsman (2012) points out, “the readers and the compilation of consciousness grant true narrative legitimacy to the blog…” (p. 5).

Orwell’s “historical impulse” specified that writers were driven by the need to publish works that are truthful and desire to archive these truths for future generations (1946, p.2). The ubiquitous nature of technologies that provide instant access to the Internet has instigated an influx of web contributors. Hermida (2012) points out that the Internet has facilitated a shift from individual, institutional authority and expertise to an environment where intelligence is collective, distributed and networked (p.1). While knowledge is being democratised by the Internet, users are confronted with questions about truth and accuracy. The current phenomenon of “Trumpism”, with its officious and outward social media presence, is conducive to the new, networked environment. Pels (2017) argues that Trumpism “demonstrates that lies, bullshitting and fraud are fast, and truth, facts and nuance are slow…”. Orwell’s ideas about the need to write for historical accuracy could not be more pertinent when web authorship does not always equate with credibility or truth. Scott, Millard and Leonard’s study (2014) found that Internet users are now able to exercise considerable influence on the distribution and production of online news media (p. 18). Metzger (2007) argues that the abundance of information on the Internet has raised the importance of critical thinking as individual users become a new wave of gatekeepers (p. 25). My historical impulse was to speak the truth as I see it in remote Australia. I wanted to use my blog to generate a conversation about perspective and the importance of understanding the inequity between indigenous and non-indigenous people.In the increasingly “authorless” (Warnick, 2004, p. 264) web-landscape, I can only hope that my blog is authentic and immediate enough to compete for audience attention.

Orwell’s final motive, “political purpose” is defined this as the “desire to push the world in a certain direction” (1946, p. 2). Orwell emphasised his own feelings of being “isolated and undervalued” (P. 1) in his world. Likewise, writers are increasingly using blogs are to facilitate global, political change. Pole (2010) argues that political blogging is a dynamic new system of “political participation” that has an incredibly transformative effect (p. 2). Orwell identified an overwhelming sense of injustice as the initiator of his prose and in ‘Why I Write” he argues that although writers are egotistical, they write to help readers consider the kind of society they should strive for (p. 2). Liu (2014) observes that blogs should not simply be categorised as simple, personalised texts but rather “purposeful connections” have the capacity to facilitate important societal change (p. 2). Perhaps it is the personal nature of blogging that makes political calls to action so enticing. Liu also emphasises that while blogs are certainly forms of “emotional catharsis” web publishers are soliciting comradery for political change (p. 8). For example, thekooriwoman skilfully personalises her blog by emphasising her experiences as a mother yet persuasively critiques the issue of Aboriginal youth in custody; “When they were 12 or so I sat them down and had the talk with them. Not the birds and the bees talk, the interacting with police talk” (thekooriwoman, 2016). Gillmor’s (2004) conjecture that the escalation of citizen-journalism providing voice to the people who are unrepresented in media and society (p. 63) would surely have Orwell’s support.

George Orwell’s, “Why I Write” holds currency at a time when the ability to be an author and to cultivate an audience is more achievable than ever. His four motives align with the participatory and collaborative nature of blogging as spaces for writers to harness political influence through personal narrative. In the online context, “sheer egoism” moves writers towards revealing personal information to keep audiences engaged. “Aesthetic enthusiasm” motivates writers to frame their prose for a digital economy that values attention above all else. “Historical impulse” inspires online publishers to write for historical accuracy at a time when individuals themselves act as gatekeepers. Finally, Orwell’s notion of “political impulse” drives writers to peruse the personal techniques of blogging to drive political change and share their experiences that may otherwise be ignored. The rise of collaborative and participatory media challenges legacy media gatekeeping practices and encourages multiple perspectives that are more representative of a diverse world.

References available on request

Curious

Being curious is about exploring perspective. Through the lenses of technology, media and culture we are ‘trained’ to perceive our world in a predetermined way. These musings are about my admiration and distrust of these three entities.

Bec Allen

Written by

Bec Allen

Bec is an Arts Worker and Media Educator who works with young people in the remote Western Australia https://www.curiouswill.net/

Curious

Curious

Being curious is about exploring perspective. Through the lenses of technology, media and culture we are ‘trained’ to perceive our world in a predetermined way. These musings are about my admiration and distrust of these three entities.

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