New Course Idea: Writing For the Internet

I am trying to put together a new course, called "Writing For the Internet." The idea would be to teach it in Spring 2013. I haven't done anything quite like this, and I am curious to hear feedback from readers, as well as any personal experiences from others who have taught courses along these lines. 

New Course Idea: "Writing For the Internet" 

In their future professional lives our students will likely do more and more writing in an internet context. Their paths may be different – some may be involved in journalism, others in creative work, and quite a few may fall into writing for the internet as an accidental part of jobs that may be technically focused on something else. Many of the conventions of the traditional “5 paragraph” paper assignment will remain important in this new world: students will continue to need to know how to establish a sense of topic and put forward a thesis, and how to offer evidentiary support for that thesis. But in some ways the internet is a very different environment, with its own context-specific writing conventions.

In part this proposed course will be structured as a conventional writing course. But unlike traditional writing courses that stress a divide between creative, personal, journalistic, and expository work, here students will be encouraged to do work that might blur the line between those different modes of writing. There will be an emphasis on rhetorical persuasion and argument, and revision will play an important part in the writing process -- but we are adding a focus on audience and readership, as well as the mode of publication.

Here are a few premises of the course: 

1. Writers on the internet have to think about how to grab and hold the attention of casual readers as well as how to integrate links and images into their work.  
  • These used to be thought of in the context of publishing, but increasingly, with self-publishing venues proliferating and a number of media organizations requiring elements of web production as well as the drafting of text, it may be that publishing and writing are no longer truly separable.
  • Another issue is length and attention-span with internet readers. While the hyper-compression of Twitter leads to arguments sometimes conducted in non-ideal situations, even writing formats
  •   that aren’t length-restricted have to deal with internet readers’ attention spans. 
  • As a result, people writing on the internet,
  • even as non-journalists, have to learn some of the basics of journalistic writing – how to find a catchy but telling title, how to use text boxes to present overviews or pull quotes (along the lines of what you see in newspapers), and how to manipulate images (this is of course especially important in new image-centric writing formats like Tumblr). Writing on the internet one also does things that are very much frowned upon in conventional essay-writing, such as using bold face and italics for emphasis.
  • The course I’m thinking of will likely use examples of people using new writing modes really effectively. Lately I’ve been particularly impressed by the way the novelist Teju Cole has been using Twitter to make complex kinds of arguments, often in serial & connected Tweets. These are then compiled by professional journalists. Teju was recently interviewed on NPR regarding his innovative Tweeting. The larger point is to show that while these new forms may have certain conventions that participants are expected to follow, in fact inventive writers might find ways to push the envelope of what can be accomplished using the formats like Twitter or Facebook. (See:
  • Another issue is of course the self-promotion element of writing on the internet.  Traditional writing and publishing maintained a pretty strict division between the labor of writing and publicity and attention. But increasingly writers on the internet find their own audiences and create their own markets – and use success in getting attention as a segue to formal (and paid) publication. Besides simply “announcing” oneself, one can use strategies such as semantic tagging and metadata to maximize search engine attention (not quite the same as Search Engine Optimization, but we’ll probably read some background material on what that is in this unit as well – especially since it’s become such an important part of how sites like the Huffington Post earn their money).
  •  I may ask students to start a series of blogs on topics that they choose (perhaps in groups of 2 or 3), or I may try and all ask them to write on a given topic of general interest. (One option might indeed be to write about and comment on issues in the news involving writing on the internet – there are always stories out about something Twitter is doing, something Facebook is doing, etc. Not to mention issues like the recent lawsuit (now dismissed) against the Huffington Post, initiated by a group of disgruntled bloggers.)
2. Writers on the internet have to navigate complex issues related to citation, borrowing, and sharing. The standard distinction between blockquotes and short citations, the approach to footnoting, and the construction of Bibliographies can follow a very different pattern on the internet. As in other classes that entail (or at least, allow) some measure of research online, students have to learn to evaluate the reliability and accuracy of materials they find on the web. They also have to learn to produce their own, authoritative seeming materials.

3. Above all, the internet is an environment where writers have to learn how to actively seek out and find their readers, through social networking sites, blogs, forums, and Twitter. The reader is not simply "there" as a captive audience anymore.

4. One component of this course will entail classifying the forms of online writing, including email, blogs and message boards, formal journalism, wikis, and scholarly publications. Students will learn the conventions of the different online writing genres and learn to contribute to them on their own. Students will contribute to a course blog engaging with current events, and author or significantly edit a Wiki around a chosen topic or area of knowledge.

5. We'll also have a component entailing a more conceptual consideration of issues such as the ethics of online writing and the boundary between private and public. What is it fair to share about the people we know in real life? How to effectively navigate privacy controls to choose the right forums for particular kinds of sharing in the evolving social networking internet landscape? Here, too, there has been much discussion in recent months. One bit of required reading for this unit would have to be Ian Parker's essay in the New Yorker about Dharun Ravi and Tyler Clementi. The issue of privacy in social networks was one of the key issues in that case.


From friends on Facebook, I've received tips regarding using the work of Edward Tufte, Cathy Davidson, and Clay Shirky in this course. These all seem like great suggestions.