Currents: An E-Journal  Talking About the Web: 
The Web, Language, English Studies 
by Thomas Swiss 
Duke University, Des Moines, Iowa 

Currents in Electronic Literacy Fall 1999 (2), 

  1. Although the World Wide Web has been in existence for only a few years, it has cut such a wide path across such a variety of daily discourses that it feels to many of us as if the Web has always been there, always being talked about. Of course what's being looped -- in print and on television, in movies and presidential speeches -- is often the same message, one that conveniently doubles as a sales pitch: "the Web changes everything." But what, exactly, is the Web changing? And how might we participate in or even direct Web-related change? Those are some of the questions academic conferences are beginning to address, looking at how the Web -- not the internet generally, but the Web specifically -- is shaped by a nexus of economic, political, social, and aesthetic forces. For the moment, however, I want to take up a somewhat different question. It is not something that gets asked much -- hardly at all in the public arena-- but it's a question I believe is increasingly important to consider: What are we talking about when we talk about the Web?

  2. While we all know there are many ways to answer that question, and that some answers will probably contradict others, the fact is that almost any answer is likely to carry with it some powerful assumptions. Unfortunately, most of them go unspoken. To choose an obvious example, how many times havewe read or heard that the World Wide Web has sparked a "revolution"? A Web browser creates "a pathway for the global information revolution;" Johns Hopkins' on-line journals are part of a "revolutionary publishing model," and so on. Of course it is not at all self-evident what this revolution involves, much less who will have benefited and who will have lost when the revolution is over (and thus whether or not this revolution is a good thing). Nevertheless, many people are willing to accept this assertion as unquestionably true, even commonsensical. Said another way, the term "revolution" is often used as if it were neutral, but in fact it embodies particular values and strategies. So do many other words we use to discuss, define, and interpret the Web, including such education-related terms as "teaching tool," "innovation," "empowerment" and so on. The "silent" assumptions behind this language must be examined if we want to really know what we are talking about when we talk about the Web.

  3. What is the proper forum for discussing these questions? While there are plenty of courses across the curriculum these days that teach students how to design Web pages, and others meant to introduce students to using Web resources in particular disciplines, there are very few courses designed for undergraduate students who want to study the Web in relation to culture broadly, and think about language as part of the culture that shapes our opinions of and thus our relation to the Web. English Studies is the place for such important work. 

  4. Taking the Web seriously means putting a spotlight -- and a critical eye -- on the ways in which the terms we employ do a certain kind of work. By "terms" I don't mean here the jargon of either technology or theory. I am thinking more about the assumptions carried in common terms like those I've already named, or others like "community," "consumerism," "value," and so on. This is the language of everyday life in the Age of the Web. In fact, these terms work so easily and well for us in our daily lives, the baggage they carry is scarcely visible. Here's an example of what I mean. Like many schools, mine has been dabbling in distance education. Indeed, as Director of the Web-assisted curriculum at my university, I have reponsibilities in this area. In the current incarnation of distance education, many faculty conduct "classes" for students who need not be physically present on campus, but who learn instead from course materials located on a Web-server and by staying in contact with the professor (and often with each other) via the internet. The following sentence is part of the pitch the university uses in posters and newspaper ads meant to attract students to these Web-based courses:
  5. All courses have discussion rooms on the Web -- which means you'll engage inactive learning and cooperative interaction with other students and your instructor.
  6. There's nothing unique about the claims made here -- a quick scan of Web-based courses across the country confirms that. And, on the face of it, there's nothing controversial about these claims, either. Looking closer, however, we can see that the logic of this sentence tries to make something questionable appear obvious and factual. Are Web-based courses, as this pitch suggests, really as "interactive" as campus-based courses and is this interactivity a good thing? The terms "active learning" and "cooperative interaction," after all, invoke certain values and beliefs about both technology and education.

  7. The overall description is clearly intended to help construct in advance, and in a positive way, a student's experience of taking these courses. And while students may not care to question whether the writer of this sentence (me, as it happens) is telling the truth about all classes having discussion rooms on the Web, they should -- as careful readers and possible consumers of these courses -- consider the writer's key assumption that discussion rooms promote both "active learning" and "cooperative interaction." After all, as anyone who has been a participant in a "chat room" on AOL or the Web can attest, such virtual spaces often seem to encourage behaviors that, to put it mildly, are far from cooperative and may have little to do with the reflective practices of learning we associate with a college education. 

  8. My point here, in part, is that the Web is new enough and the public hype huge enough that even students who have been taught to think hard about other subjects in English classrooms -- books and movies come to mind immediately -- need enouragement and some useful strategies to begin thinking critically about the Web.

  9. It's no surprise, of course, that words have power over how we understand the Web. Nor that some terms and concepts hold greater authority than others at a given moment. Indeed, one of the reasons the Web is so fascinating to study right now is that it is so new; the rhetoric of and about the Web is still emerging and therefore particularly contested and in flux. Consider, for example, the automobile-age language of the internet "information superhighway" which functioned as the dominate metaphor in the early years (1994-97) of the Web. While it enabled, shaped, and governed over the widespread development and use of the Web, it has now largely faded from public view. Do our understandings and experiences of the Web change -- if only in subtle ways -- as this (strangely linear) key phrase becomes less productive in the social imagination and finally runs out of gas? What metaphors, what kinds of hyperbole, what shift in terms replaces the exhausted rhetoric of the highway? Consult the Web -- as our student often do -- and you'll find new language and new spins on that language vying for attention, legitimation, and power every day.

  10. The effects of the Web on contemporary culture are not easily or precisely traceable. Nevertheless, the Web must be seen against the background of larger processes and issues to which it both contributes and is the result of. In part, this is how the "meaning" of the Web in our lives is produced and why language -- which is a component of the circuit of meaning-making -- matters. To return to my example of Web-based courses, one might examine the university's description of and pitch for them in light of the relationship between "culture," "education," and "economy." In doing so, these Web-based courses might be read as one response to the economic hard times currently driving private colleges to seek out a range of new (and controversial) approaches to recruiting and retaining students and their tuition dollars. Employing a different but related critical approach, one might examine these Web-based courses in relation to questions of academic "value" and accreditation. Web-based courses might also be considered in light of a school's mission statement. And it would surely be possible (and helpful) to consider Web-based courses in relation to employment issues such as the future of faculty hiring and training or the widespread faculty concern that the increased use of technology in teaching will reduce the need for professors.

  11. The aim of studying the "language of the Web" courses should not be to instill particular views of the Web but to invite students into the range of possible ways of thinking, talking, and writing about the Web and to participate themselves in creating its meanings. Indeed the handful of college-level courses devoted to the study of the Web (catalogued at surely came about in some measure from recognizing that Web-related language should be subject to critique.

  12. There's no way, really, of resolving conflicts among the various ways we have of talking about the Web. But we can reflect on our role in participating in these conflicts, a role we are already playing, consciously or not, when we talk -- as we often do these days -- about the Web.
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