Writing In Entertaining And Serious Aspects: Teaching Digital Writing With Stephen Colbert


What is Digital Writing? Freedom of Expression In The Digital Age

Every day we use digital writing in ways that share information and, as Facebook puts it, “what’s on your mind”. The news is no longer limited to print media and broadcast journalism. News is now communicated in the form of WordPress blogs that people read on their phones and laptops. Even online platforms of social media like the picture-editing and sharing service Snapchat are considered forms of self-expression. Snapchat pictures – called “snaps” – are great for expressing in-the-moment enjoyment of cute dogs and selfies with captions. However, platforms like Snapchat are not appropriate for sharing sophisticated ideas or complex thoughts. When they try, like the recent like snaps from the 2016 presidential election, it usually results in an epic fail 


But how do other forms of digital writing have social dialogues? They do that by attacking our opinions and making us both laugh at their weaknesses and feel uncomfortable. Stephen Colbert, through his show The Colbert Report is an example of popular culture that does just that. Colbert uses satire and sarcasm to express his views on the substance of current political topics to his large television and online following. In fact, blog students would do well to follow his style to make their own blogs effective.


While Colbert starts the conversation, more scholarly use of digital writing may be needed to keep the conversation going. From the words in his essay, “On “Liberty”,  Philosopher John Stuart Mill writes, “[e]very man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service. We should be grateful to him for attacking most unsparingly our most cherished opinions.”True to Mill’s view of freedom of expression, digital writing today is a conduit of free speech on ideas and issues that should make readers feel uncomfortable. Moreover, when serious scholars use digital writing to talk about issues, they too are acting in a way consistent with Mill’s idea of free speech.When we compare Snapchat, Colbert to scholarly writing, we see that digital writing is a spectrum of writing styles that ranges in the entertainment factor and complexity. Each of these three styles work correctly for their specific purposes and incorrectly when they work for incompatible purposes. But when we look at the middle path, the comedic Colbert style, we find the perfect combination of a serious topic and an engaged large audience


Snapchat Is A Relaxed Form Of  Digital Writing

Snapchat is an app that lets people create attention-grabbing photos and videos for a small group of friends by incorporating editing tools such as in-app doodles and photo manipulations.  Each photo or short video is deleted Seven seconds after being opened, so the entire app is about fleeting snapshots of life in the moment.


In her article, “Consider The Audience” Jen Rajchel quotes an article by researcher Danah Boyd  to make an example of how digital publication has a wide reach which needs to quickly capture people’s attention. In Boyd’s article titled, “Why Snapchat is Valuable: It’s All About Attention”, there is a central idea that Snapchat is all about getting an audience to focus on you quickly. Boyd explains by sayings, “In a digital world where everyone’s flicking through headshots, images, and text without processing any of it, Snapchat asks you to stand still and pay attention to the gift that someone in your network just gave you.” Boyd’s article humorously talks about how a flashy headline title, just like a humorous snapchat, determines how much attention content receives from your friends. Did you paint over yourself so you look like Mario? That’s attention-getting gold. Did you post  a picture of yourself just watching tv or just eating breakfast? You’re probably going to get overlooked. The point is that Snapchat rewards the bold and the flashy with a shower of attention. I think what Snapchat says to us is “Who needs substance? Have a ‘rainbow vomit’ effect!” But I do not think that is the right answer for digital writing on pieces with substance, especially for growing students and writers. (Boyd, Rajchel)


Stephen Colbert And Sarcastic News Blogging In The Classroom:

Stephen Colbert knows how to bring attention to an issue and not let go. He also is savvy with organizing a political storm with television, websites, and social media. In 2012, Colbert made a  parody of Super PACs as well as invited college students to mock the Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision online and through orders of his “Super Fun Pack” parody donation service.  He also sponsored various events on his Super PAC website. One such event was about finding a silver painted turtle somewhere in the United States to earn a visit from Mr. Colbert to their college campus. This all corresponded to his tv show and social media sponsored  “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow Super PAC” protest event against  Citizen’s United and actual  Super-PACs. Susan Grogran, a Political Science Professor at an St Mary’s college, saw Colbert’s rabble rousing as an opportunity to encourage her students to challenge civil criticism of the injustices in the American political system.


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This also includes a funny site about just wanting Colbert to come to their college superPAC


Grogran writes in her article, “Civic Engagement: Political Web Writing with the Stephen Colbert Super PAC”, that blogging the Colbert way was a refreshing change. In her class, students created WordPress blogs with Colbert’s uncomfortable yet humorous way of talking about politics. Articles of their blogs included titles like “Ben Cardin: Senator, Second Banana, Invisible-Man?” and “The American Political Media: Why Bipartisanship is Going Extinct.” Furthermore, the blogs gave Grogran’s students an opportunity to understand how to search for facts in news headlines and how to get to the heart of what makes it strange or interesting. Parody news like Colbert gets students energized about making arguments against injustices in American politics and earns a tip of my hat, but social media like Snapchat that only focuses on short ephemeral content gets a wag of my finger. (Grogran)

For those of you that have not watched The Colbert Report, “tip of my hat, wag of my finger” was the name of a routine bit from Colbert’s show.



How Does Snapchat Work In The Tense Arena Of Politics? Not Well:

Politicians and election followers have been using Snapchat in this latest election frequently. However, even the president of Snapchat thinks it’s format is not suited for a serious expression of free speech. The election of 2008 was called “The Youtube Election” and the election of 2012 was “The Facebook” election, which would make one think the 2016 election should be aboutsnapchat-gop-live Snapchat since it is the latest eye-catching internet service. But founder of Snapchat Evan Spiegel disagreed, saying to Colbert on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert that, [i]t’s definitely not the Snapchat election. It’s probably, definitely, the people’s election.” He’s right, as Snapchat provided little useful content in the 2016 election. At least there were snaps of Senator Marco Rubio vomiting rainbows and Rand Paul with animated hearts on his eyes. The only other election-themed content was the political life stories shared by the candidates and election followers. Personally, I would rather stick toothpicks under my nails than have to sift through promotional candidate selfies. If anything, the 2016 election will belong to the people, especially the people who are writing seriously about the substance of the issues in the race.  





Can Media Be Strictly About Controlled Social Dialogue And Free-Speech?

Members of a group called the “Deciders” believe they can make it that way in New Republic writer Jeffrey Rosen’s article on them. The Deciders are a group of influential members of the tech community, which get their name from the nickname of Legal Director of Twitter Nicole Wong. Now, most people would think these tech giant representatives would be the playground bullies in free-speech talks, but in fact they are actually the guardians. At a talk at Stanford recently, they discussed how free speech in digital writing is disappearing from the web which only straight-faced aggressive tactics will make politicians and web providers turn an ear. Their audiences are small, but their articles are scholarly and focused on the issue of what can and cannot be said in free speech. Dave Willner is one member of the  Decider group who works for Facebook and believes in the ideas of philosophers like John Stuart Mill, who said that speech is only to be banned when “it is intended—and likely—to incite imminent violence or lawless action.” At the same time, Willner also believes that libel in digital humanities should be removed from the internet as it offends large groups of people. As a whole, this anti-censorship and anti-libel group treats digital writing as a serious weapon (not a joke) to be used. (Rosen)


My Experience:

I recognize the importance of scholarly blogging such as those made by the Deciders, but I don’t think they are the end-all, say-all and most important part of the digital writing spectrum. My favorite kind of digital writing is the sarcastic but informative Stephen Colbert form, since the humor is the key element that makes me want to talk about politics with friends without losing their interest.

From my point of view, digital writing is important when it is either for self-expression or stirring conversation. In particular, my blog about tabletop gaming on the Dickinson College Campus called The Red Tabletop is about expressing the board and card gaming communities that are a part of my life. My experience writing The Red Tabletop tells me that I want to improve in my blogging technique to include more content that has reader-attracting titles and is approachable. At the same time, my blog will also direct my views in a comprehensible in a self-expressive way.

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Personally, I found digital writing to be difficult to get used to, which makes the amount of progress I made so far in understanding digital writing in blogging and social media significant. There was once a time when social media seemed like a foreign language to me. I was shy of using digital writing blogging like WordPress because I was afraid I would not seem legitimate or I would embarrass myself. The only social media I used regularly was Facebook and when I did use it I never updated it with posts about what was on my mind. This year, I hope to change that since I started to work in the digital media sub-committee for the English department student advisory committee. There, I’m hoping to use Facebook, Twitter, and blog posts to increase attention to events going on in the English department with the help of alumni in the digital humanities.


So What Is important About Digital Writing To Me?

Social media like Snapchat may be a good way to entertain friends, but there is doubt that it is not serious enough for important topics like elections. Digital writing can be an important tool for an interchange of serious ideas among scholars, but hardly draws a large audience. In my view, the best use of digital writing is to combine the attention-grabbing aspects of comedy with the serious aspects of scholarly writing.


Works cited:

Boyd, Danah.”Why Snapchat is Valuable: It’s All About Attention,” apophenia (blog), March

21, 2014. Web Accessed 20 Oct 2015.

Flynn, Kerry. “Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel To Stephen Colbert: Despite GOP Embrace, 2016

White House Race ‘Definitely Not The Snapchat Election'” International Business Times. Peter S. Goodman, 01 Oct. 2015. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Grogan, Susan. “Civic Engagement: Political Web Writing with the Stephen Colbert Super

PAC,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014).

Rajchel, Jen. “Consider the Audience.” Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts

Teaching  and Learning (2013). Web. 02 Oct. 2014.

Rosen, Jeffrey. “The Delete Squad.” The New Republic. pub. Chris Hughes, 29 Apr. 2013. Web.

27 Oct. 2015.

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