Academic writers have lots of different needs. For example, some people need to physically share space with others while writing, some need a stern authority figure to answer to, some need solitude and the kind of support that is silent, some need a quantitative accounting of their progress, some need to be in groups with similar others, some need to be regularly inspired, some need ongoing substantive feedback by those in their specialty field, some need regular cheerleading, some need therapy, and some need an occasional exorcism (from the demons of bad academic socialization). It’s even OK if you need all of these things at different times! The important thing is to identify what you need without judgment, shame, or self-flagellation.
Three weeks ago, I attended the Computers & Writing 2010 conference at Purdue University. What I experienced there is fodder for multiple entries here, but I want to focus on Bill Wolff's Deliverator talk, "When Understanding Hypertext Isn't Enough: Thoughts on Writing in the Age of Web 2.0." Of the many things Bill discussed, foremost in my mind right now are the ideas of information movement and formerly invisible acts of composition.
Writing happens now in a more expansive way; I don’t think there can be any doubt expressed about this. I use a half-dozen social media tools in rather focused ways every day, and sharing is the paramount action. I pull images, text and video from email listservs, Google Reader and Twitter, posting to those same listservs, Google Buzz and Twitter. Seesmic Web helps with cross-posting and URL shortening. I also bookmark and tag via Delicious and Diigo, maintaining networks of influence there even though Twitter is dominant. Posterous is an additional repository but also functions as an opportunity to revisit previously shared items and share them again in an ongoing series of “What You Might Have Missed” entries.
Much of this happens because, as Wolff observed in his talk, websites are less silos and more interactive domains, facilitating and promoting the kind of sharing and referencing I’ve just described. All this is more than just part of a writing process, too; it is a kind of composition. This is so not just because Wolff made a compelling case for it in his Deliverator either.
I carried these online methods of organization offline to my bookshelves, though I should mention that Weinberger's Everything Is Miscellaneous was an additional inspiration. Now I keep articles and books on shelves not by author or title, but by connection. I’m able to move from Ong’s Orality and Literacy to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens on one shelf. The range of print I go through in making such movement, though, isn’t visible unless I look. I’d probably also need to explain to any witnesses just how it works. Via social bookmarking and tagging, however, explanation isn’t required, perhaps not even necessary. It’s even likely that my tagging justifications aren’t as meaningful or right-minded as the interpretations of those witness to such action. And that’s okay.
Bookmarking and tagging are previously invisible forms of composition made visible. We see the pathways and make the threads connecting a recent article in the New York Times to an O’Reilly Radar report from 2008. This visibility is, of course, helpful for research processes, allowing us to build and see beneficial source relationships for ourselves as well as those in our learning networks.