Words I/We Use to Talk About Tech & Text

In a post on Sweetland’s Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, Claire Lauer discusses the difficulty of “pinning down” the words we use to talk about digital media/new media/digital writing/multimodality/multimedia texts. I share her interest in investigating the definitions we use — as a PhD student, I’m constantly asked to explain what I mean when I say anything. Words I’ve had to try to define in the process of defending my ideas include:

  • Identity (ugh, so much time spent on that one)
  • Space
  • Navigation
  • Practice
  • New Media
  • Digital Writing
  • Digital
  • Writing (yes. together and separately.)
  • Relationship
  • Interaction
  • Experience

…Among others. Definitions matter. What you mean when you say particular words matters for your readers and listeners. Much as we sometimes want to scream when someone says, “what do you mean when you say ___?,” this is a valuable question to ask ourselves and others. We position ourselves in particular discourse communities when we choose to say “digital writing” instead of “new media,” when we say “multimodal” instead of “multimedia,” just like when we say “identity” instead of “subjectivity.” Indeed, I found myself recently asking a few of my colleagues to explain what they meant when they used the word skill instead of strategy, because these words mean two different things to me, but in other contexts are used interchangeably. I’ve caught the definition bug of academia, it seems.

Lauer, at the end of her post, challenges us to grapple with questions about why these definitional differences matter so much in our field. 

  • What technology-related terms do you use in your research? Teaching? Administration?  How do you define those terms?  How have those definitions evolved?
  • What are your reactions to what is being said in these excerpts?  What can you relate to?  Agree with?  Disagree with?  Approach differently?
  • Should we reach consensus on our understanding of these terms, even partially?  What do we risk by doing so?  What do we risk by NOT doing so?
  • Why are definitions important?  Why do they matter?

Well, when it comes to tech-related terms, I talk about “digital writing” in my own research, and I tend to agree in general with Anne Wysocki’s definition of new media from Lauer’s webtext (note, this is spoken word) (another note: check out this webtext. It’s awesome.):

So new media result from digitization, entail using code to control the presentation and distribution of media, so I needed to pull in code; depend on digital networks, so pulling in the networked aspect of it. Because again, I worked on this sort of backwards: what are the texts that technical communicators need to know about, what characterizes them? So digitality, networks, are faster than print media, that seemed, I mean it seems sort of trivial, and yet that feeds into what comes next: enabled different kinds of interactivity than print media, are becoming ubiquitous, and that’s it.

I have read other definitions from Anne Wysocki that contrast this one considerably, notably in the book Writing New Media, where new media is defined more aesthetically/materially, but this is the one I like. Why? Because I’m interested in the digital aspect of new media — not the materiality of multiple media (which could include, say, chalk), but the digital, networked media of our modern world. The fast, interactive “stuff” of our plugged-in 21st-century society. That’s the “part” of “new media” that I study (if new media has parts), so this is the term I cling to.

I deliberately do not use the term “new media” in my research. This is a conscious choice. I don’t judge those who do use this term (I have good friends who do), but I don’t use it because it doesn’t serve my purposes. First of all, I don’t consider a lot of the “new media” that get called “new media” very “new,” at all, so I don’t understand the term on that level. But, perhaps more tellingly, I choose not to use the term “new media” because I work primarily in a secondary education / social science world, where terms like “new media” are not as widely “understood” (whatever that means) as are terms like “multimodal” or “multimedia.” I don’t like these two terms, either, though — they are not specific enough for me, and I’ve struggled forever to figure out what the difference is (I’ve had it explained to me a number of times and know where to look for the distinction — but it just won’t stick). So I straddle the fence, choose the term “digital,” tack on the word “writing” (because I do mean to emphasize practices that involve self-expression via the written word), and call it a day. Sometimes when I find “writing” too constraining, I’ll say “digital media,” but I often use the word “digital,” partially to distance myself from conversations about materiality (which I think is very important but which is not part of my immediate project) or to avoid the (perceived, by me anyway) nebulousness of the term “new media.”

Lauer asks us: do we need to reach consensus? I don’t think so. I think we risk losing some of the nuance of exactly that internal battle that I just described when we try to decide “what to call” any one thing. However, my position assumes that these battles are valuable in some way. Are they? If we all just agreed, “this is what new media is,” “this is what digital means,” and “this is what counts as multimodal or multimedia,” wouldn’t that make our lives easier? Well, first of all, that might be a futile question. After all, humanities scholars and social science scholars eventually agreed to disagree about the words subjectivity and identity, and the literature I’ve read on both sides still hasn’t reached a consensus about what those two words mean. “Partial consensus” might be possible, and I think that in some circles and some subgroups of new media studies/new literacy studies/digital literacies/digital media — whatever — some of this is beginning to happen. For example, in my consideration of which term to use, I position myself within the world of new media scholarship by choosing instead the term “digital writing,” more common in conversations about secondary English teaching.

I think what’s most important is for us to recognize the benefits and drawbacks of the terms we use to talk about new media/digital media/digital writing/multimodality… and so on. We need to carefully consider what we mean when we use one term, define what we mean by it, and acknowledge its limitations. We need to work together as a community to develop more robust, meaningful definitions of these terms, engage in friendly debate about their usefulness, and (as Lauer has encouraged), even engage in friendly debates about how to have friendly debates about these terms. I enjoyed working my way through her digital text, contemplating her questions, and hashing my way through this response. Reflections like these drive the community, I think, to new ways of thinking about writing and its many media.