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How many times a day do you use the internet? Almost everyone uses the internet, whether it be posting on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter; emailing one of your friends or colleagues; or even just doing some research. Thompson’s research says twenty-five percent of Americans report being almost constantly online. Billions of people use the internet every single day. In Public Thinking, Clive Thompson presents his belief that we learn important skills, like writing, from using the internet. He claims that the internet is a significant force for increasing the popularity of writing and learning. Thompson supports his claim by using rhetorical strategies, such as statistical evidence, examples, comparison, causes and consequences, and rhetorical appeals. In this paper I will explore the strategies he used to prove that the internet enhances writing and learning.
Thompson’s main claim is that the internet causes students to write more than they did in the past. According to Thompson, “Before the internet came along, most people rarely wrote anything at all for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college.”(48) By comparing how often people write today to the lack of writing in the past, he demonstrates how technology has influenced the frequency of writing from then to now.
Social media is one form of technology that compels people to write about whatever they want to, whenever they want to. This technology allows people to share their ideas and opinions easily. Thompson illustrates the importance of this technology in today’s society by informing his readers that, “Each day, we compose 154 billion emails, more than 500 million tweets on twitter, and over 1 million blog posts and 1.3 million blog comments on WordPress alone.”(47) By using that statistical evidence, he proves to the readers that his claim is correct. He uses logic to show the impact internet has had on America’s writing habits.
Thompson also claims that the internet encourages better writing because there is always an audience for the writer. Technology has changed the way we read, write and think. He uses the story of Okolloh (an internet blogger) as an example of “the shift in our performance when we know people are watching.” Okolloh started out as a small blogger talking about topics she found interesting, and then became very popular and developed a large crowd of readers. He mentions how she started writing blogs to share her thoughts on certain topics, but once she realized how big her audience was she revealed to Thompson that, “Knowing I had these people reading me, I was very self-conscious to build my arguments, back up what I wanted to say.” (48) This quote shows how Okolloh felt obligated to improve her writing since she had others reading her work.
When people post on the internet, it is there forever, and available to anyone. It is not like a speech, where most people will forget what you said. Applying the “audience’s effect” encourages writers to check over their points to ensure there is no misunderstanding to the readers. Vanderbilt University conducted research on this “Audience effect.” They had children take a test; some had their mothers present and others were by themselves. The professors observed that the children who had their parents watching them take the test scored higher than the kids who were all alone. Older students were tested next. These students were required to post on Wikipedia, where their work could be edited by others, or even deleted if it was not good enough. Knowing that their work could be reviewed made the students work harder and put more thought and effort into their writing. These three examples supported the same obvious conclusion – that both students and adults work better when being watched.
The fact that people perform better when others are watching supports Thompson’s argument that higher quality writing is a result of the use of technology. Thompson uses facts and studies to support a claim, this is a form of persuasion known as logos. Logos is one of the strongest types of persuasion because it is very difficult to disagree with facts. Thompson used logos in order to be able to effectively use ethos. If Thompson was saying ideas he made up it would be a lot harder to gain the audience’s trust. Through his use of credible resources, like research and observing experiments, he expresses his knowledge of the situation making him someone an audience could trust. Another major point Thompson was trying to illustrate to the audience was how writing allows people to communicate with others easily and expand their thinking. Social media makes it simple to talk to people across the world, allowing users to learn about other places and cultures.
Thompson states that sharing ideas across the world helps people both think of more creative ideas and develop those ideas at a faster pace. As Thompson quoted “Failed networks kills ideas, however successful ones trigger them.” He is sharing his opinion that social media makes writers more creative. Thompson framed this claim around the positive idea that public thinking expands knowledge. This claim directly supports Thompson’s primary argument because inspiring creative thinking is another benefit of online writing.
Thompson states that the internet helps clarify our thinking. Professional writers state that, “By putting half-formed thoughts on the page, we externalize them and are able to evaluate them a lot more objectively.”(51) and poets report that, “We do not write in order to be understood, we write to understand.”(51) The writers are explaining that it is difficult to establish what we think before we write it down. People often do not know what they want to or are trying to say. When this occurs, writing is a good way to get out of the situation. Even though the writing might be unofficial, it will still assist the writer’s thinking and learning.
Thompson compared how difficult life would be without the internet compared to how easy it is today. Using this strategy made it hard for the audience to disagree with him because he only mentioned the negative impacts of life without internet. By never giving examples of the internet causing something negative, Thompson made it less likely that readers would think of ways it could be negative. The strategy of only pointing out the writer’s own view without acknowledging the views of the opposition works well in some situations but is less successful in others.
In situations where there are not well widely-held views opposing the writer’s view or where the audience is not well-educated about the subject, it is probably most effective to simply state the arguments and evidence supporting the writer’s claims and ignore any potential counterarguments. Conversely, if there are well publicized opinions that oppose the writer’s claims, the writer may be more successful mentioning those views and then presenting evidence to refute them. Thompson chose the first of these strategies in his discussion of the impact of the internet on writing and learning.
Thompson’s writing was so effective because he used several different strategies or rhetorical devices throughout his book. By using techniques such as comparison, examples, rhetorical strategies, causes and consequences, and rhetorical appeals, he presented a more convincing argument to the reader than had he just used one of these techniques. I pointed out those primary claims- that the internet encourages better writing because there is always an audience for the writer, it causes students to write more than they did in the past, writing allows people to communicate with others easily and expand their thinking, and it clarifies their our thinking- because they seemed to be the points he wanted the audience to focus on. Thompson used these primary claims and supported them with these examples and evidence to persuade his audience to believe that public thinking and the internet are beneficial to writing and learning.
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