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Writing to be taken out of context

by Michael Nielsen on February 11, 2009

In a world where it’s becoming easier and easier to reshare information in other forums, where it can be a sign of authorial success to have your words reshared and then reshared again, I’ve noticed that the way I think about what I write is gradually changing.

Increasingly, I write with an eye not only to the immediate way my words will be received, but also with an eye to how they might be read, in the event that they are taken and reshared in other places, perhaps stripped of the context from which they were taken.

This effect has been strongest, by far, in my stream of delicious bookmarks. These are automatically shared not just with people who follow my delicious bookmarks, but also on my friendfeed, and on my blog.

Each of these forums has a slightly different tone and constraints. I find myself sometimes thinking “oh, that description won’t quite work on friendfeed”, when I know that it’s just fine on delicious and on my blog. And I sometimes pause to think about how things might read, when taken and put in a context over which I have no control.

None of this is new, of course – people have always quoted both themselves and each other. Still, I can’t help believing that the frequency and ease of doing this has increased so dramatically over the past few years that it must gradually be coming to strongly affect all those who write on the web.

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13 Comments
  1. No kidding. I often get taken out of context in person. The web is so much more difficult with the lack of inflection, facial cues, etc.

  2. Michael says: “Success … is … tak[ing] … strongest control … dramatically … of all those who write on the web.”

    Aha! So all this “open science” *was* a plot to take over the world! 🙂

    Seriously, aren’t web communities (when they work well) very much like the American Constitutional Convention?

    Ideas that are clearly stated and deeply cherished going-in to a web-based community-building process, inevitably emerge battered by criticism, distorted by compromise, and constrained by real-world checks-and-balances … all of which evolution is necessary and good.

  3. I think it makes a lot of sense to insert human moderation into the system. Trying to write something that’s suitable for any forum is nearly impossible.

  4. “Increasingly, I write with an eye not only to the immediate way my words will be received, but also with an eye to how they might be read, in the event that they are taken and reshared in other places, perhaps stripped of the context from which they were taken.”

    As someone who teaches writing, specifically to young scientists, this was a particularly interesting entry altogether; the quote above illustrating a particular process that is notoriously hard to teach (understanding audience, esp. those not sitting right in front of you). Given the thoughtfulness/introspection displayed in many of your essays regarding writing, thought, practicing science, etc., I was wondering if you had a handle on how you know what you know about writing for abstract audiences? I’ve found when I can get across meta-understanding to students, or use it for motivation, it helps keep the lessons real!

  5. Nathaniel – This is not possible once you lose control of your words. In a way, you could say that’s my point.

  6. Mickey,

    I’ve written a lot – I guess getting on to a million published words – for audiences I care about, and where it’s possible for me to gauge how well I’m writing. I can tell that some pieces fall flat, while others really have an impact on people. This makes me very, very motivated to improve my writing. Lots of motivation + a great deal of writing = improvement, although not as much as I would like 🙂 I know, none of this exactly counts as novel insight, but it’s all I’ve got.

    With many students, the difficulty seems to be in the motivation, which is perfectly understandable – most of the writing assignments I did were pretty pointless, and I didn’t begin to care (and improve) until I was writing for a purpose. The solution may be to up the level of the challenge. Offering an A+ for any student who gets a piece of science writing published in a major newspaper or magazine might do the trick, at least with some students.

  7. Thank you, Michael; in fact, many of my students go onto publish–some publish articles written in my class. Not because of me, usually, but a combination of a supportive environment and an excellent science mentor. Since my classes are all discipline specific and work from published articles and immediate needs (clinical documentation for health practitioners), student motivation is pretty high. One difference, I believe, is from something you said in “Extreme Thinking” about assigning roles…I talk to students as though they are already practitioners with a practitioner’s set of responsibilities (it helps that in my career, I began with established scientists/doctors, and worked my way backwards). Undergrads find this somewhat novel. Perhaps this is also tied to motivation.

    My latest interest, blogging, is emerging as a writing tool with enormous potential, even when it is kept private — we had a very energetic 20 min. discussion yesterday about the proper relationship b/w undergrad researchers and PIs, all of which stemmed from blog posting and comments — 2 students remarked that they were “getting this blog thing” and finding it far more interesting than they had imagined — happily, another commented that he could feel his writing “changing” because of the blog; it was forcing him to be more succinct and more honest at the same time. Blogging also adds immediacy, decreasing the abstract nature of a lot of writing training. Perhaps electronic publishing could also be used to motivate!

  8. To guard against one’s thinking becoming as modular as one’s sentences, it is also prudent, at regular intervals, to read from authors whose sentences are flowing and convolutedperhaps even meandering … an excellent choice is Patrick O’Brian.

  9. Michael,

    I have some ideas in mind regarding losing control of one’s words.

    The first is a sort of checkbox-style system, where every time you posted something which would be automatically forwarded into another context, you had the option to “allow forwarding” or “disable forwarding” for each such context.

    The second is a permission system, where if someone wanted to put your words into another context which you either hadn’t considered as an option or hadn’t decided about appropriateness, they could ask for permission to quote and you could either affirm or deny that permission.

    The third is that you could maintain a collection of “moderators” that you had pre-authorized to make the call about forwarding.

    #1 would prompt authors to take more care with their writing. #2 is a kind of “open copyright”. #3 is a more careful way to give up control of one’s words.

    Good ideas?

  10. Nathaniel – I think this is closely connected to the ongoing debate about copyright and control over IP. My point of view on these issues is hard to summarize briefly (which is why I’ve had some trouble replying), but I have considerable sympathy for the point of view Lawrence Lessig lays out in his book “Free Culture”.

  11. John – Just by the way, WordPress automatically holds comments for moderation if they have three or more links.

    I enjoy O’Brian, although I haven’t quite caught the bug – I’m still working my way through the first book. My wife read the whole set very quickly.

  12. My experience with O’Brian (which I think resembles many people’s) was that Master and Commander was a fun date, H.M.S. Surprise led to an infatuation, and Desolation Island initiated a full-blown love affair.

    It took me awhile to realize that O’Brian’s novels can be read (among other ways) as an extended narrative of eighteenth century scientific life … a scrupulously realistic narrative that strikes every chord of romance, comedy, tragedy, and desperate adventure.

    Romance, comedy, tragedy, and desperate adventure … O’Brian’s novels reflect, too, our twenty-first century scientific lives.

  13. This closely relates to what Michael Wesch has been calling “context collapse” in the context of video blogging: http://mediatedcultures.net/ksudigg/?p=183

    “Like a building collapse, context collapse does not create a total void but a chaotic version of its once ordered self. The would-be vlogger sits stultified as his imagination races through the nearly infinite possible contexts he might be entering, all of which pile up as parts, pieces, and pieces of parts, a rubble that becomes the ground on which he must struggle to get his footing. The familiar walls that help limit and define the context are gone. He must address anybody, everybody, and maybe even nobody all at once.”

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