The Strength of Our Words: An Essay on Digital Writing

Writing Digitally as a Tool:

 I want to introduce digital writing as a tool. It is a method of writing that has been sculpted to fit our ever-growing technology-dependent age. As much as I had hoped to come up with a single definition of what digital writing is, I could not. There are multiple ways to express what digital writing is from “Any writing that requires a computer to access it”- JodiAnn Stevenson to “Creative writing that uses digital tools/software as an integral part of its conception and delivery”- Catherine Byron (DeVoss, Dànielle Nicole, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks 6). However, the fact I could not provide a single definition strengthens my argument. Digital writing can be defined in so many ways because it can be used in so many ways. You see so many forms of digital writing whether it be a caption on Instagram to a post for a lifestyle blog. Newspapers have become digital, our accessibility to educational resources online has expanded, even birthday cards can be sent through email. Even though technology is occasionally guilty of affecting our sense of personal interaction with one another, it is important to realize that our environment is rapidly changing and as its inhabitants we must adapt to these changes and realize its potential.

Our Technical Environment:

The 21st century is often coined by one word: technology. Its people, labeled as “millennials” are often blamed for the overuse of technology as we are bound at the hip with our iPhones, laptops, iPads, and so on. As Sarah Murray puts it, “Few “millennials”- or the generation aged between 18 and 33- can remember a time when technology has not been a fundamental part of their lives. Not only does it answer their questions, but, through social media, it also gives them the ability to alter the way in which they are perceived by their peers and the greater world around them” (Rodgers 11). Although our use of technology is regularly given a negative connotation, it is important to realize that even social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are in fact empowering the human population at a global degree. Murray goes on to say, “While technology might help them [millennials] feel at the centre of the universe, its ability to connect millennials to other communities across the world has also created in many a desire to help solve big global problems” (Rodgers 11). The level of engagement of this generation is like nothing that has even been seen before and it all stems from the power technology provides us. I recently shadowed an employee at Facebook. She told me that she never had a profile until she started working there. She then went on to say she never understood “the point” of Facebook. However, once she began working at Facebook, understanding and applying the vision, she realized the potential Facebook has to change the world.

Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard graduate, created Facebook in order for only Harvard students to interact amongst each other. It began to expand and soon became a site for all collegiate students. In order to use Facebook, you had to have an email which was associated with an institution. In the fall of 2005, it expanded, yet again, to a high school audience. In no time it opened to the whole world. There was a continuous growth in users over the years and by 2013 more than a billion users had joined Facebook. Why did Facebook spread like a wildfire?

The human population has a constant desire for human interaction. In “Face to Face(Book): Users’ Traits and Motivations and Effects of Facebook Use on Well-Being” one of the authors, Daniela Crisan, argues that the attraction of Facebook is due to Nadkarni and Hofman’s Two Factor Model of Motives Relationship with Facebook Use (2012). The two factor model is the idea that Facebook fulfills the yearn to be a part of something and the need to display oneself. People look for acceptance from their peers and they measure themselves by how others perceive and accept them. With liking, commenting, and sharing capabilities, Facebook is the perfect place to fulfill this need.

What most people don’t understand is that their 2 sentence post has a lot more power than they ever could imagine. Facebook has now used its competence to do things such as bring the internet to third-world countries in order to reduce poverty levels. Mothers looking to provide basic living necessities are being taught how to use the internet to sell their jewelry, clothing, woven goods to people globally just to put food on the table. But just as digital writing has the ability to build lives for those less fortunate, it can also tear down lives that are fortunate.

It is hard to believe that something as small as a 140-character tweet has the ability to affect a problem of a large scale such as poverty levels or even an individual’s whole life. Jon Ronson, a writer for the New York Times, wrote an article in 2015 on a woman named Justine Sacco. The title is “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” and that is exactly what this article is about. “…Justine Sacco, 30 years old and the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, began tweeting acerbic little jokes about the indignities of travel” on her way to South Africa to visit family for the holidays in 2013 (Ronson). Sacco’s tweets were an attempt at humor and had little to no substance to them.

She developed momentum as she sent out a new tweet at different points in her travels. Finally, “…on December 20, before the final leg of her trip to Cape Town” she typed “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” (Ronson). This 64-character tweet changed Justine Sacco’s life completely and she had no idea her words had the strength to do so.

By the time Sacco landed, completely unaware of the situation, her tweet was the number 1 worldwide trend. While she was fast asleep on the plane, the whole world was in rage over her ignorant tweet. At first glance you read “…that white people don’t get AIDS, but it seems doubtful many interpreted it that way. More likely it was her apparently gleeful flaunting of her privilege that angered people” (Ronson). Ronson argues that Sacco’s tweet displeased so many because “…a reflexive critique of white privilege- on our tendency to naively imagine ourselves immune from life’s horrors” (Ronson).

Credit Photo illustration by Andrew B. Myers. Prop stylist: Sonia Rentsch.

Sacco claimed the point of her tweet “…wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble” (Ronson). Sacco’s life was flipped upside down. She lost the respect of her family, her successful job, and received countless forms of “hate mail”; and it was all because of an unthoughtful formation of words posted to a digital environment.

An incident similar, but not quite to the degree (yet) at which Justine Sacco’s was, occurred this past Halloween weekend here on Dickinson’s campus. Halloween has become a topic of great discussion and sensitivity, more so than past years. The common term “my culture is not a costume” has gone viral as different ethnicities protest people dressing up in ways similar to their lifestyles.

A student dressed up as Colin Kaepernick on Saturday, October 28th 2017. Kaepernick, a previous quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers made himself a name beyond the football field: “A little more than a year ago, Kaepernick became one of the most polarizing figures in U.S. sports when he took a knee during the national anthem. It was a unique and jarring form of protest against police brutality toward African Americans” (Babb). As a biracial man himself, he chose to use his influential image of being a NFL player to express his opinion on police brutality. His actions have cause great controversy amongst the nation as to whether or not showing disrespect to the National Anthem was the “correct way” to express his political views.

With their face heavily bronzed attempting to mimic Blackface (not confirmed) and an afro on their head, this student went about their Saturday night not realizing the repercussions of their costume decision. With a large presence of social media, between Snapchat and Instagram, on every college students’ phones it was inevitable that there would be a picture of this costume. With no surprise a student decided to make their snapchat story of the student dressed as Colin Kaepernick down on one knee and different student holding a gun in their direction. By Sunday night the entire school had become aware of this student’s costume as the Snapchat story was screen-shotted and sent around.

It wasn’t the fact that the student was dressed as Kaepernick demonstrated disrespect, it was the possibility of Blackface on the student. To me, this disrespect stems from history. Just as Ronson says about Sacco’s tweet, the anger arises because it is a “…a reflexive critique of white privilege…” (Ronson). Blackface was first seen in the 19th century as a form of theatrical makeup. It was used predominantly by non-black performers to mock black people to make them appear more animalistic on stage. Resurfacing a form of mockery from so far back in American history is simply unacceptable in this day and age and was bound to start a problem.

This incident exemplifies the strength, once again, of digital writing. The speed in which the image was astonishing. By Monday, October 30thFox News 43 had published an article, protests were happening in Briton Plaza, forums were being held, emails were being sent in masses all of which were dealing with the issue at hand. The power of the image was created in the hundreds of digital writing pieces done by students on campus and media outlets covering the story. The words written about this image are not of the students’ that were involved. More and more screenshots of the image are being taken, each with a new caption. A whirlpool is being created of occurrence as more people get involved and feed off of one another.  All there is are interpretations of the picture. No one knows the context behind the image and truthfully at this point I would find it hard to believe the truth would matter. People have built their own stories revolving the costume and it is officially out of the control of the perpetrators.

This student is facing serious consequences. This matter has caused great deal of emotion amongst our community here on campus. This student has cause a great deal of shame for himself and the group(s) he associates himself with. Not only will they have to deal with the wrath of the incident present day, but what will the repercussions be for this student in the future? An incident of this degree will have major impacts when trying to obtain a job, work colleagues, a significant other, etc.  Once something is posted online, whether it may be by you or of you by another, it truly becomes permanent along with its associated writing.

My Involvement with Digital Writing

As a reader, I have always been drawn to texts that spoke to me at my level. In other words, authors that tend to write in a more casual tone compared to a scholarly one catches my attention and maintains it. I have always thought higher of authors who could convey all essential information in a fashion that was enjoyable to read. I find that these authors happen to in fact be smarter than those who go on for pages and pages in complex vocabulary with graphs that take half an hour to interpret that only those on their level can comprehend. This is not to say that those of a scholarly tone are less intelligent. By smarter I mean the authors of a more casual tone are able to envision themselves at the other end of their writing and understand that one is more likely to read and continue reading their work if they understand it and are genuinely interested in the content. I envy authors who take writing as an art rather than a science.

Throughout this course so far, I have begun to realize that writing in and for digital environments captures the casual tone that I admire. It is a tricky balance between the two, but as I have explored more digital platforms this balance between tone and intelligence has become more prevalent. There is a sense of talking with ones’ readers rather than at them and I believe this is achieved due to the fact authors writing for a digital environment treat their writing as art. By inserting photography, polls, graphs etc. an invisible relationship between the writer and their audience is created because of this sense of interaction beyond words.

I love to pose questions and insert myself in my writing, but have always hesitated to do so in fear of it sounding less academic. I think this is because I have never thought of an audience outside of my teachers and professors. Writing for a digital environment pushed me to expand my audience, leading me to write in a way I have always admired.

While creating my own piece of digital writing, I have learned a variety of ways to get a message across as I studied pre-existing blogs. Whether it be travel destinations or environmental conservation, writing digitally has unveiled the many other ways to go about sharing ones’ goals, hopes, and or dreams. Writing digitally allows you to use multimodal tools such as pictures, interactive activities, maps, music, etc. that other forms of writing don’t allow. What truly spoke to me was photography on blogs. Blogs such as Paul Nicklen use beautiful photography to gain its audience. With a goal of ocean conservation, Paul Nicklen (an extremely talented marine biologist, photographer, and filmmaker) fulfills his goal of creating awareness towards the hardships animals and ocean life endure through his photography. I copied his technique in using thumbnails to capture the beauty of the places I visit to get my blog viewers reading further into my site. Writing digitally allows you to choose the most powerful and effective methods of relaying your message whereas other forms limit you to words on paper (or a screen).

Outside of my Digital Writing course, I take primarily business classes as I am an International Business and Management major here at Dickinson. At first I had a difficult time trying to connect digital writing and my major. However, the connection between the two was so obvious that I overlooked it: Presentations.

In order to be successful in presenting, you need to keep your audience engaged, just as in digital writing. How this is accomplished is the same way: through concise and essential information. In a presentation this means keeping little words on a power point and adding images that support and convey your argument, just as it is writing for a digital environment. Businessmen and women are using digital writing in the work force without even knowing it.

Moving past my career at Dickinson (although I am only a sophomore) I think about how my major pertains to what I will do once graduating. As cliché as it may sound, I have found myself fascinated by the media/ advertising/ marketing world. As mentioned earlier, this past summer I had the opportunity to shadow an employee in the marketing/advertising department at Facebook, a job of my dreams. I was able to sit in on a meeting where the team was going through a power point they created in order to gain a client. The entire meeting was spent going over how to adapt to the specific client (the audience). They did this by honing in on the perfect word choice, number of bullets, and what graphics were deemed most appropriate, all of which tie directly back to digital writing. I have genuinely become aware of the power of my words through digital writing as it pertains to numerous aspects of my life.


Works Cited

Babb, Kent. “The Making of Colin Kaepernick.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 07 Sept. 2017. Web.

Benson, Vladlena, Morgan Stephanie, and Crisan, Daniela . “Face to Face(Book): Users’ Traits and Motivations and Effects of Facebook Use on Well-Being.” Implications of Social Media Use in Personal and Professional Settings. Edited by Vladlena Benson and Stephanie Morgan, Hershey, PA, US, Information Science Reference/IGI Global, 2015, pp. 45-65. PsycINFO, 65. PsycINFO,

DeVoss, Dànielle Nicole, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. Introduction. Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments. N.p.: Jossey-Bass, 2010. N. pag. Print.

Murray, Sarah. “Which Came First, Technology or Society: “Transition: Technology Puts Power in the Hands of Many”.” Technology: A Reader for Writers. By Johannah Rodgers. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2015. N. pag. Print.

Ronson, Jon. “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Feb. 2015. Web.

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