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September, 2004


I just wanted to post a link to a very interesting essay by Paul Graham titled "The Age of the Essay." In it, Graham illustrates the problems with the current state of essay writing, especially in schools. Graham examines the very idea of the five paragraph essay and brings up some, of its many, problems.
The topic sentence is your thesis, chosen in advance, the supporting paragraphs the blows you strike in the conflict, and the conclusion-- uh, what is the conclusion? I was never sure about that in high school. It seemed as if we were just supposed to restate what we said in the first paragraph, but in different enough words that no one could tell. Why bother? But when you understand the origins of this sort of "essay," you can see where the conclusion comes from. It's the concluding remarks to the jury.

In the early stages of writing, it was basically speech on paper. This is a pattern that appears in the first few years of any new medium. For example, television was essentially radio you can see in towards the beginning of its existence. The problem here is that when you are stuck using the past medium you do not fully explore the possibilities of the present one. By presenting arguments just as you would orally, you are missing the point of writing, which allows you to work through your own thoughts without someone there to interrupt you. I see writing as a dialogue with yourself, rather than the monologue that is presented in so many five paragraph essays.

Graham brings up the source of the essay, a book published by Michel de Montaigne with "essais." "Essayer is a French verb meaning 'to try' and an essai is an attempt," explains Graham. "An essay is something you write to try to figure something out." It should not have a thesis statement because that would mean that you already had a set conclusion, rather the essay should explore the question set forth and try to answer it looking at the issue from both sides.

This is an idea that goes very well with the web. Exploring a topic is only a click away and thanks to things like trackbacks on blogs, you can now see both positive and negative commentary alongside whatever you're reading. What is more, gone are the days when only those deemed worthy of publishing could publish. The internet is a more complete realization of writing as a democratic medium. One of Plato's early worries about writing was that only those rich enough to learn to write would be published and therefore views would not vary widely enough. Who knew he'd be so forward thinking? With media consolidation at an all time high, we are seeing an unprecedented level of one-sidedness from the media (not necessarily liberal versus conservative, but rather consensus views of pro-wealth and pro-deregulation). Graham sees the internet as a welcome change to that. "Anyone can publish an essay on the Web, and it gets judged, as any writing should, by what it says, not who wrote it. Who are you to write about x? You are whatever you wrote."

On the internet, people are judged on ideas, rather than titles. The web is a meritocracy: Google ranking comes from how many inbound links you have rather than how many visitors or how rich your are. Because they're publishing on their own, they are bound only by their own rules. Of course there is a negative side to this. In an interview I did recently, someone referred to this problem as the 'drudgerization' of the internet. 'Drudgerization' is a process where no one has to fact check anything and journalistic integrity takes a back seat to the speed at which you can get a piece to print (or HTML). With all that said, however, these online writers are able to take their own approach to writing, rather than being bound by things like journalism school teachings.

This includes meandering along (something which I am certainly guilty often guilty of). Graham suggests that "an essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn't meander." Graham even includes the source of the word: "The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn't do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea." Writing is about getting to your final conclusion and letting people join you on your trip there, rather than about trying to convince them of some grand point your making in an obviously calculated way.

I think in a lot of ways the internet is bringing some flare back to this style of writing. By giving anyone a place to publish it is making the act of writing exciting and helping it to realize its potential. What is more, computers are helping people to think of the medium in a different way. Once something's written, it's not set in stone. Rather the process is more fluid than it was in the past. I would argue that computers make it easier for me to just get rid of some writing I don't like. I don't need to think about it too much, I just read it, delete it and move on. Nine times out of ten, this was the right move. Drafts exist in a different way than they did before, rather than a first, a second and a third, I tend to work through it as I go. When I do make it to a final, I've reworked it any number of times, but mostly a paragraph here and a paragraph there.

In Graham's essay he compares good writing to creating good software. "You start by writing a stripped-down kernel (how hard can it be?) and gradually it grows into a complete operating system. Hence the next leap: could you do the same thing in painting, or in a novel?" Using the computer, or the applications created for it, as a metaphor seems to be something I've been noticing more and more lately. This morning I read a Wired article titled Kingpin . It is about the three digital media moguls who purchased the Professional Bowling Association (PBA) and helped to revamp it. The article quotes Chris Peters, 1/3 owner and Microsoft employee 105, who explains that reworking a sports organization is a lot like making software. "When you have a season, you can do revs . . . You launch version 1, put it out there, see what you did wrong, and you come out with version 2. It's a process I understood well. You don't spend 10 years on a grand plan and then finally put something out there; that's just stupid. You've got to have a constant product cycle."

It fascinates me that we're seeing people using a new medium to help them better understand an old one, rather than vice-versa. I expect that this is a sign that the internet is really coming into its own. Can you imagine people looking back after television had caught hold and saying that radio was, in effect, television without the images? Computers are doing more than just ushering in a new medium, though, they're also bringing us to a new digital age. More and more people are using digital metaphors to help them better understand the non-digital world. This makes sense because digital media tend to be more closely associated with the way humans think and interact and therefore lend themselves well to helping us better understand the world around us. What better way is there to understand six degrees of separation than seeing it mapped out on a social networking site? How can you look at the way information propagates in a better way than watching it move through the blogosphere? The digital age, which we are only on the brink of, is altering the way we understand everything around us, not just writing but relationships and business as well.

I think that's all I have to say for now. So have I followed Graham's rules of an essay? I certainly meandered. I'm not sure I started with much of a question, though, other than 'how can I write about this article I just read in a semi-interesting way?' I kind of concluded with something that I didn't really see myself getting to when I set out to write. (I guess that's good?) In the end, I do believe I have a better understanding of what Graham meant when he talked about the problem with the essay now that I have actually hashed out the issue myself. I find it fairly interesting that I came to the conclusion that digital media has a huge effect on preceding media, like writing. Was it a success? As Graham suggests, and I agree, that's up to the reader to decide.

With that said, I will leave you with one last quote from Graham's essay which clearly illustrates the connection Graham sees between writing and the internet:

If you're curious about something, trust your instincts. Follow the threads that attract your attention. If there's something you're really interested in, you'll find they have an uncanny way of leading back to it anyway, just as the conversation of people who are especially proud of something always tends to lead back to it.
September 7, 2004
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.