Archive for June, 2010

Jun 08 2010

Short doesn’t mean shallow

Writing style needs to change to take advantage of the hyperlink. That’s the message I want to inject into the discussion about whether deep, long-form writing can survive online — especially long-form journalism. Many people assert that articles need to be shorter online than they are in print, and Nic Carr even famously argues that the internet is making us stupid by destroying our attention span.

But I don’t think the web is shallow at all. I think it’s the deepest medium ever invented, with incredible potential for telling complex, irreducible stories — or at least it can be, if you don’t treat it like print.

Here’s how a long story works in print:

The yellow bits are the unique information that can only be found on that page. The other bits of writing are there to provide the context needed to make sense of the whole , or to get the reader up to speed if they don’t know the backstory. In print, this is absolutely necessary, because a print story is a self-contained object. There is no where else the reader can go to look up an unfamiliar term, to check out a sub-plot, or to investigate the history. That is why we have context paragraphs. That is why we have little definitions of terms that might be unfamiliar to some, and explanations of who a source is and why we should believe them.

Online is different. We can move the context, verification, and background out of the main story, paring the piece down to a thing of streamlined beauty — but all the depth is still there, via links, for anyone who wants it.

When I try to understand how the internet changes communication, one of the points I keep coming back to is the personal nature of online media: it’s now possible to present a different experience to every single reader (user? viewer?) Choosing whether or not to follow a link is a simple way for a reader to tailor the presentation to what they already know, and to indulge their own curiosity. And links let you skip the boring bits.

We’re used thinking of “an article” as a self-contained unit of story. It’s not. The component parts of a story might even be written at different times, published on different sites, or created by different authors.

And now our diagram looks like the web actually looks, lots of pages from different people about different aspects of a very complex world. That is the medium we write in, not some simulation of a stack of paper, no matter what your word processor shows you. Of course, the web also allows fully interactive stories, but it’s often forgotten that hypertext itself is an interactive medium — or it can be, when we put the right links in the right places. People have been experimenting with non-linear stories for decades, but given that a generation or two has now grown up with hypertext, it’s probably time to let our storytelling style grow up too.

Online, short doesn’t necessarily mean shallow. We’re just measuring “depth” wrong when we only look at a single article. That’s not how people actually consume the web, and we shouldn’t force them to.

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Jun 07 2010

They remember because they are told to forget

On Friday night I went down to Victoria Park in Hong Kong and found 150,000 people holding candles in the dark. It was June 4th, the anniversary of the state-sponsored killings of  hundreds of democracy protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen square.

I could not understand the speeches over the loud-speakers during the two hour presentation. I have few close Chinese friends, and I have never managed to have a candid conversation about what happened in 1989. Many of the people in Victoria park were not even born when the Chinese military opened fire on its own people. I know the history, from documentaries and books, but I don’t know why it should matter so much on a balmy Friday night, 21 years later.

But a hundred thousand people weeping over candles says it still means something.

I began to ask people why they were there.

“We came to learn about the history,”  three young girls told me in halting English. They were secondary school students, and their teacher had encouraged them to come.

That history is not taught in mainland schools, and all mention of what happened in June 1989 is elaborately censored online — including web pages, online forums, IM conversations, and personal emails. Last year a former Chinese solider was arrested and taken from his home in the middle of the night for publishing an open letter calling for a review of the incident.

Hong Kong operates under a different constitution, and you can talk about Tiananmen here — most of the time. Last week a group of activists tried to display a statue called the “Goddess of Democracy” in front of the Times Square mall, a sort of faux Statue of Liberty that mimics a famous paper-mache figure erected by the original protesters in Tiananman square in 1989. Thirteen people were arrested and the statue was confiscated.

“It wasn’t hurting anyone,” said a man in his late  20s, who would only identify himself as “a worker.” “It’s not right for them to take it away.”

He said this was his first June 4th vigil, as it was for many others I spoke to. In fact it’s estimated that this was the biggest turnout ever, exceeding even the very first vigil in 1990, when Hong Kong citizens openly feared what the 1997 handover to China might mean for their freedoms.

This demonstration would be impossible in Beijing. Officially, the students who were calling for “democracy” remain dishonored; the Communist Party of China insists to this day that the military violence was necessary to maintain stability of the country. That’s what they say when they can be forced to talk about it at all — for the “June fourth incident,” as it’s been blandly retitled, is taboo. The June fourth incident does not exist.

There was no coverage of the Hong Kong demonstration in the Chinese media; nothing on Xinhua, nothing in China Daily.

And I think that’s why people keep coming. Occasionally someone I talked to used  words like “freedom” and “democracy,” but when I pressed them it always came down to specifics. The statue was taken away. The Chinese government won’t talk about what happened. There was no grand ideology uniting the people in Victoria Park, no deep ideals other than this: we want to talk about it, and you will not let us.

When it comes down to it, the 1989 protestors didn’t know what they were doing. They wanted change, and they boldly called out the crimes and repression of their government during the horrors of the cultural revolution and after. But they also wanted to force students to attend demonstrations, according to later interviews. The protest movement was hardly democratic or even organized; it had no coherent philosophy and was riddled with internal power struggles. It’s easy to make the students and workers of 1989 into heroes or martyrs, but the truth is messier.

“I’m willing to keep an open mind,” one Hong Kong medical student told me. “Maybe there was no way to finish the affair without blood. But many mainland students don’t fully understand what happened that day. They need to know so they can make a careful judgement.”

Maybe that’s the sort of diplomatic language that will be necessary for reconciliation. But the history isn’t so bloodless. People died. Lots of them. People lost limbs and family and friends, and then lost friends again when everyone connected to the protests was quietly rounded up, silenced, or exiled. A series of laminated yellow posters recalled the victims, with the name, photograph and whatever is known of the story of each one. We know that some people were shot or crushed by tanks; others simply disappeared that night.

Does it help to imagine a woman sitting alone in her Beijing apartment, grieving silently for a long-lost lover? She can’t even write an email to a friend to say how she feels (try; it will bounce.) There will be no commiseration. It is not yet allowed.

And here, at last, I began to see what was denied to me as an outsider. I am not Chinese. I do not have family on the mainland — family who disappeared 21 years ago, and family who live still with the threat of a government that cannot talk about what it did. For me Tiananmen is abstract; I can make it about ideals like “freedom of speech” or “human rights” but I have no faces to attach to the violence. It was not my statue they took away.

“For me it’s a memorial,” said a middle aged man there with his wife. He wore glasses and a white polo shirt, with a camera slung around his neck. He had a slight pot belly. He said he had two children.  “I have to keep coming every year until the Chinese government admits what they did, and that it was wrong,” he said.

“I may not live to see that day.”

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