Is the Written Web Better?

To date, I think most would describe the web as a medium dominated by written discourse. If we measured the most addicting activities online, from communication media like IM and email, to discussion forums and chat, to the popularity of blogs, written dialogue really has been the star of the show.

Recently though, as in the past 2 years, we’ve seen audio and video content make huge strides. Most of us have watched the inroads made by podcasting, vodcasting & the youtube generation, each given the media moniker of the next ‘great one’ set to dominate the web. And technology wise, it’s hard to argue: streaming content would seem to be getting better by the day, and downloading movies & TV shows is easier than it’s ever been.

A big question for me now is which way will the web turn content wise? Is this a case of the entertainment value of audio & video -VS- the exchange of ideas within the textual web? or are we simply adding another layer? While I suspect it is the later, I also wonder which way thinking professionals like lawyers will turn. Will they market themselves by sticking to their strengths with the written word, or become ‘rock stars’ and attempt to market to the masses? If the answer depends on the market audience, the next generation of personal injury lawyers may just need a few theatre courses under their belt prior to law school admission.

Deep down I think (hope) web video will play a lesser role. Like TV, web video is a passive communication tool, and comes with the same issues – less interactive, doesn’t promote literacy, and rarely involves an exchange of ideas. It’s ugly one-way communication in my books. And with the interactive web (2.0?) and online gaming seeing a renaissance, I still see the core of written discourse within the web as going strong. The next generation of web users under the age of 30 also give me hope – they are much more in tune with the written web (driving it?), and I believe there was something recently published about them buying more books.

If my parents were right, and TV rots my brain, then web video can’t be any different, right? or am I just a luddite in disguise?


  1. When I attended Podcamp Toronto recently I was very surprised to learn that, while audio was the main topic of discussion, blogging (i.e. the written word) was a very close second. They still need to house podcasts (and videocasts) on blogs and use text to describe or discuss the content of the podcasts, for the most part.

    Even in Second Life, the graphical interface world, the main mode of communication is currently chat and instant messaging, not audio. There is talk of adding audio, and some people call each other using Skype to talk while they are in world together. But I was very surprised when I got there that we are still writing to each other.

    You are right, there is a shift, but writing is still the most accessible medium through which to communicate at any distance. At least until we all have VOiP telephones that allow us to easily record and move around audio messages.

    I ask you this: if everything was audio and video, would lawyers be able to surreptitiously use their blackberries during meetings?

  2. This is a conversation that greatly interests me and something that I’m doing a tiny bit of historical research into (for my own satisfaction, never fear). The law has always had a written and an oral strand, as has the larger society, of course — how else to explain the survival of oral argument at the SCC, say, when complete reliance on written briefs and correspondence would make a great deal more sense. And there’s at times been a serious tension between the two modalities. This tension may be winding up again. Connie’s point about chat is important, too, I think; worth considering whether “chat” isn’t exactly that: the nearest thing to speech that’s possible with writing. There’s even a special jargon developed to make sure no one mistakes it for (real) writing.

    (I’m never too sure how best to fit video in to all of this — I suspect it’s truly new, a “third thing.” But I’ve noticed in my field of education, for instance, lawyers love video conferencing and avoid computer-based learning — opposite to the way I’d play it, myself.)

    At any rate, spoken and written English are two different languages, that are not easily translated one into the other to good effect. Each does a different job. Some of us may be better with one tool than with the other, but neither one will erase the other in law, it seems to me.