Terms of Engagement, part 1

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Portrait of Tommy Dorsey, Beryl Davis, Georgie Auld, Ray McKinley, Johnny Desmond, Vic Damone, Mel Tormé, Mary Lou Williams, and Josh White, WMCA, New York, N.Y., ca. Oct. 1947, Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress

Each time our charter bus would lurch into Montana towns, our high school debate coach would queue up the “Imperial March.” Inflating adolescent egos with John William’s grandiose symphony proved far too easy. Dressed awkwardly in suits, rolling Rubbermaid tubs of files through locker-lined halls, somehow we already felt we were a forensic force. Our battle hymn just made each competition seem mythic.

This introduction to rhetoric armed me with Latin fallacies and elaborate philosophical critiques that I clearly didn’t comprehend at the time. (When I recall running a Malthusian disadvantage in a fatal policy debate, I cannot imagine anyone, myself included, believing that saving lives was actually a detriment.) Like Luke with the force, I had to learn how to use the innate lingual abilities we all possess. There were artless periods in this development, many revisited to this day–in each conversation we calibrate our communication style. But learning the fundamentals of formal rhetoric in high school led me to Classics as an undergraduate, which led me circuitously to digital media as a professional.

Reading Aristotle, Seneca and Cicero in my twenties fanned my love of language. Not only were these writers some of the earliest speech theorists, but they lived during the transition of an oral society to a literate one. Works from this early period of Western Civilization struggle with the impact of a major communication shift. Plato’s Socrates famously dismissed writing, claiming it was a pharmakon for memory in Phaedrus. In that same dialogue, he condemned rote oratory, citing that authors, unlike orators, could not be examined. Celebrated post-modernists like Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes picked up on these themes in the 60s and 70s.

The relationship between the author and the reader is particularly tenuous online, where in the comments section readers may engage, and often enrage, writers; where the metrical success of an article–not an editor or a famous byline–may determine its web placement and subsequent popularity; where content is repackaged and aggregated legally and illicitly on a variety of platforms; and where bloggers may pen their own reactions to and spinoffs of content. As Barthes predicted, there is no longer a “real author” that retains full authority for a text. Online musings are quickly assumed and consumed by a community of writers and producers, who interpret and dissect these works at will. The result is an increasingly vibrant but volatile environment teeming with digital treatises. If we have rebuilt the fabled library of Alexandria online, as Hanson Hosein suggests in “Storyteller Uprising,” then it is an archive that is built and buried daily.

Human memory and attention cannot possibly keep up with the near 36-hour cache refresh of the information age. Because of this surfeit of content, our time has never seemed more taxed, even as we spend more and more of it in front of screens. As Kevin Kelly stated, “The only factor becoming scarce in a world of abundance is human attention.” This sociocultural condition piques modern communications theorists: How can we both maximize and limit our time in front of computers? Solving this quandary falls to strategists and editors.

Following my undergraduate studies I decided to contribute to our cultural record, or to write. For various magazines and online journals, I interviewed artists and wrote music reviews. But as happens to many female writers, I became pigeonholed as a women’s lifestyle reporter. Stymied by fashion and beauty writing, I took a role as an editor at Microsoft in 2010. There my opportunities broadened when I was tasked with developing the editorial direction of a proof-of-concept multimedia website. However, much of my more recent editorial work has resembled content aggregation management. In order to better understand editorial strategy and writing in the digital age, I enrolled in the Comm Lead program at the UW.

Strong content paired with a successful dissemination strategy can be more powerful than a well-funded campaign or enterprise. Post Citizens United, digital communication may be the great leveler. Marshaling my love of speech, debate and beautiful content, I will continue to contribute to our cultural record with work that reflects our era as it shapes it. As a digital journalist now focused on politics and culture, with videography and photography added to my editorial arsenal, I feel prepared to be an honest commentator and critic in the online space.

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