The Dangers of Digital DiscourseApril 19, 2022
Understanding genres can help our expectations in communicating online
It’s no secret that the digital world can be rough. The way we talk about each other and to each other online is not often a model of careful reason and good faith. But maybe a little literary theory can help.
We’ve all heard the term “genre” before. It’s a French word meaning “kind” or “sort.” We use it as a designation for any type of communication—often written or spoken—with agreed-upon features and norms. We see, for example, that the Bible contains different genres of literature: narratives, laws, poems, prophecies, epistles, and apocalypses (just to name a few). Each genre follows certain loose but noticeable patterns: common constructions, repeated phrases, standard templates, and the like. If we read the Psalms like Leviticus, or Romans like Revelation, we are likely to misinterpret some passages and miss the meaning of others altogether. Knowing what sort of thing we are reading or hearing is critical if we are to read and hear that thing correctly.
What’s true for the Bible specifically is true for communication more broadly.
Take Twitter, for example. (The late comedian Henny Youngman might say, “Take Twitter—please!”) By definition, a tweet is extremely brief—often devoid of context. We should not expect a tweet to deal with all the “yeah, buts” or “what abouts.” To be sure, it is still incumbent upon those writing tweets to say what is true and edifying, but it is also incumbent upon readers to understand what sort of discourse they are reading.
Think about other kinds of communication. An official statement of faith or a yearlong study committee’s work on a contested issue can be expected to anticipate objections and to speak with maximum nuance. Amendments from the floor of a denominational assembly will usually not be as careful. A local church sermon is likely to be more hortatory and tied to a specific people at a specific time. A personal conversation with a friend or mentor or counselor is bound to be more intimate, have more give and take, and use language that encourages maximum rapport and mutual trust. A 1,000-word blog post will not be as comprehensive as a 250-page book. You get the point.
Or at least I hope we do.
Too often, we pay little attention to genre and expect a specific type of communication to do what it wasn’t meant to do. An essay is not a letter. A journal article is not a Sunday school lesson. A blog post is not an exercise in active listening. With different genres come different expectations. If you talk to your friend on the phone like you are preaching a sermon or issuing forth a doctrinal pronouncement, you probably aren’t being a very good friend. A different type of communication is called for. We understand that personal communication should not sound like public communication.
But the opposite is also true, and this is where the internet has fostered a lot of bad habits in people who should know better. In an age where digital immediacy can be confused for personal intimacy, we often forget that public communication will not have all the features of private communication. Again, this is not an excuse for the writer to be rude, uncareful, and unclear. But it does mean that the fair-minded reader will keep the genre in mind. Public writing, especially in shorter forms like blogs and articles, cannot be expected to deal with every caveat and everything that needs to be said on a given topic.
Likewise, public communication will not normally sound the same as a counseling session or a conversation with a hurting friend. When someone objects, “Well, is that how you talk to someone crying in the chair across from you?!” the honest, healthy answer should be, “No, of course not.” We shouldn’t speak to crying friends like we are reciting the Nicene Creed, and we shouldn’t be expected to write book reviews like we are praying with a hurting church member. A writer will be mindful that all sorts of people might be reading his material. But by the same token, a good-faith reader will be slow to personalize what was meant for public consumption.
Reclaiming some common sense when it comes to genre can teach us to write better and to read better. It can also remind us that public and private are legitimate (and necessary) categories. I don’t talk to my wife like I’m drafting a blog post, and I don’t write blog posts when what I really need is to talk face to face with my wife. It’s OK to have a personal voice and a public voice. As long as the two voices aren’t at odds, the presence of the public you and the private you is not hypocrisy, it’s maturity. If we have something to say about a book or blog or big idea, the internet might be the place to go. But if what we really need is some gospel encouragement or a listening ear, I’d suggest that you go on a prayer walk, phone a friend, schedule a dinner date, and stay far away from Twitter.
This content was originally published on WORLD