Rocks and Sand
Using the internet is fundamentally about people and not about technology. People haven't changed their nature very much in thousands of years. Naturally some details are different. But one of the ways that people have not changed is in their ability to be opportunistic about small things. A seemingly minor change in possibility can enable a large change in behaviour.
This section explains the principal ways in which online communication is different from its predecessors. A later section covers the new social behaviours enabled by this new technology.
Since the invention of the telephone, spoken communication has been mostly informal and written communication has been mostly formal. In bygone times, when the post delivered mail several times a day and people wrote letters to one another, there was written informal writing. Its existence in libraries helps us understand the everyday language of that era.
Online communication returns us to a world of written informal language. As always, some of the hallmarks of informality are hard to translate to writing. There are no nonverbal cues. Inflections are difficult. When speaking, you can change the meaning of a sentence by changing the way you pronounce the words in it. It is almost impossible to do that, or anything like it, in writing. Habits that you might have developed in informal spoken language do not always transfer well to informal written language.
Online communication is immediate. You can write a letter, send it, and get a reply back in a few minutes. Of course there are delays occasionally, for various reasons, but it is rare for any electronic message to be delayed as long as the fastest postal letter.
If you have read Sherlock Holmes and thought longingly about a world in which you could write and post a letter and expect a reply the same day, that world is largely restored by online communication. While you will not be able to savour the texture of fine paper or pause appreciatively at the scent of good-quality ink, you can send a message to someone on the other side of the earth and receive a written reply a few minutes later.
Online communication is immediate without being interactive. In truly interactive communication, if you are telling somebody something unpleasant, and you see a look of pain on that person's face, you may stop, or you may actually change what you say. If you are talking on the telephone you can hear changes in breathing, or exclamations. These nonverbal cues are useful to know the effect your words are having.
When you are writing an electronic message, you cannot know how it will be received, and once you have sent it, you can't take it back or change it. The same is true of letters and magazine articles and books, of course, but they are not immediate. People usually take longer in writing them, and often if you stop to reflect on something, you will soften your words.
Telephones are one-to-one. Once a phone call has been made, both parties can talk, but if you need to talk to 20 people you must normally make 20 phone calls. There are means of making phone calls that involve more than two people, but they are not commonly used.
Radio and television and newspapers are one-to-many media, but unless it is your radio station or your newspaper, you are probably not the one doing the talking or controlling what is said.
Online communication is a one-to-many medium in which anyone who participates at all can talk as well as listen. The property of 'one sender, many recipients' combined with 'anyone can send' is probably the most significant of the technological differences.
There's a quote from A.J. Liebling that 'Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.' Anyone can own a 'press' for the internet. Anyone can send information as well as receive it. To send millions of things to millions of people you would have to spend some money, but you can send hundreds of things to hundreds of people for the same cost and effort as a telephone call.
The per-annum cost of operating a web site can be less than the price of dinner for four in a fine London restaurant, but it is possible to reach hundreds of thousands of people if you can get their attention.
Ordinary speaking and writing is linear. You start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, you stop. Sometimes in a written document you can skip ahead, turn back, or browse, but printed documents are fundamentally linear. Online communication, especially the web, supports a style of writing called 'hypertext', in which you can write a short summary and provide links to more information without distracting the reader who does not want more information.
This document that you are now reading was not prepared in hypertext because it is intended for printed distribution as well as online distribution. The skill of writing well in hypertext is different in quality from other kinds of writing, but one can become proficient at it.
Because of the ease of copying and distributing information, any leak of private information can become global. In the days of paper documents, if you showed one copy of something to a person who wasn't supposed to see it, the chances of this being damaging were very low. In the world of electronic communication you cannot show somebody something without giving them a copy of it, which in turn gives them the ability to give copies to others. Leaks can spread very rapidly in electronic communication.
Telephone systems are designed not to store information. It requires a conscious act to record a telephone call. Historically the law has had much to say about the legality of such recordings. Online messaging systems store everything; it requires a conscious act to erase a stored message, and not just your copy of the message, but the sender's copy, and possibly copies made at intermediate points. You must assume that every message you have ever sent is out there somewhere in dead storage.
If you make a copy of electronic information, the copy is indistinguishable from the original. There is no intrinsic meaning to terms like 'master copy' or 'original'. When you get information from somebody, it may not be easy to be certain of the sender's identity, and it is not easy to be certain that the information is authentic.
Older techniques to detect forgeries, such as looking at brushstrokes or seeing how a pen was held or where the paper was bought, no longer work. More modern techniques like digital signatures and cryptographic checksums are neither widely used nor widely understood.
Competing for attention
The person reading your online message has many other options, and if you don't hold his or her attention, he or she will go and read something else. If you are not brief, most people will ignore you. Though by proper use of hypertext techniques, it is possible to be simultaneously both brief and prolix.
Respect for authority
The internet has a certain anti-authoritarian flavour to it. Some historians claim that the internet originated with plans to produce a communication system that was utterly decentralized, so that there was nothing for enemies to attack if they wanted to destroy it. During the formative years of the internet, whose concepts originated in the 1960s, most of the people who were drawn into it as designers and builders had an antiestablishment disposition. They designed and implemented, perhaps subconsciously, an infrastructure that neither requires nor welcomes central control.
Whatever the reason, today the concepts of national sovereignty, state, and governmental power are startlingly vague in the context of the internet. Laws about what people can and cannot say or quote or publish differ from country to country, and it is easy for people in one country to write something that violates the laws of another. It is often impossible to determine just how information moved from one country to another, making it difficult to hold anyone responsible. And there is no guarantee, even if the responsible person can be identified, that the government of that person's country would agree to extradite or prosecute.
People are still people
The recipient of your message is a living, breathing, thinking, feeling person. You can hurt, insult, disappoint, infuriate, tease, educate, or any of a thousand other things that you can do in person. The person who is reading what you have written is probably alone; it is unlikely that you are communicating with a member of a crowd. You probably do not have the person's complete attention.
No matter what the medium, people respond to communication in their own way, from their own point of view. The successful communicator will master this medium. It can be mastered, just like any other medium. But not everyone succeeds. Just as a successful newspaper columnist does not necessarily do well on television, there is no guarantee that your skill in some other medium will translate into skill in this one.
Ultimately, what matters is your ability to write well. If you are trying to reach a large audience, writing for a popular web site or a large email distribution, your reputation as a writer or publisher also matters. If you do not write well, people will stop reading. If you are unknown to your audience, they will evaluate you based on what they see. If you develop a reputation for honesty, dishonesty, precision, sloppiness, kindness, or unkindness, it will follow you around. The imprint of the BBC or the Observer or Salon Magazine tells you that you can expect to find something in line with its reputation. The byline of a well-known writer stands for something.