COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 8(3), August 1991, pages 51-61

We Write, But Do We Read?

Charles Moran

We believe that networked writing classrooms, computer conferences, and electronic-mail systems are sites that facilitate the social construction of knowledge (Barker & Kemp, 1990). We also believe that by bringing computer technology into the classroom, we can bring voices from the margin (Selfe, 1990) into the center . Supporting each of these beliefs is the assumption that interaction on an electronic network is social. When we talk about social interaction on these networks, we use metaphors drawn from the world of speech: conversation, discussion, conference.

On-line, don't we often find, neither discussions nor conversations, but, a set of asocial monologues? People linked, yes, by a network; but each writing energetically, all writing simultaneously, and no one reading and responding very much--not listening as much as they would in a face-to-face, spoken encounter? Divergent monologue, rather than convergent conversation? If participation in online conversation amounts to speaking to no auditor or writing for no reader, then we have not brought in any voices from the margin; we have created a context that isolates the individual participant, masking the essentially social nature of human discourse.

I want to begin with two true stories. The first is set in Amherst, Massachusetts, where Paul LeBlanc and I ran a two-week teacher-training workshop in the summer of 1990, using as part of our curriculum the Daedalus Group's INTERCHANGE, a program that makes possible a real-time, on-line written conversation among members of a class. LeBlanc began the first day of our training program with an extended INTERCHANGE session. Thereafter, the teachers spent at least an hour in this environment once each day. In Ws setting, the teachers wrote and wrote on-line with real enthusiasm and energy. When we broke for a discussion, on the third day of the workshop, one of the teachers said that she felt somehow lonely in the networked environment. "We write and write," she said, "But is anyone reading? And why write if there's no one reading? Why talk, if there's no one listening?"

I need to say at the outset that, even if the teacher is right, what she says applies not only to on-line conversations, but also to our print environment. In the world of professional publication, we write and write; at the end of it all, how many readers do we find? How often do people come up and say, "I read your article, and I have this response to make?" There is simply too much out there to read. Robert Lucky, in Silicon Dreams (1989), calls this situation "The Papermill," and notes that each technical paper in his field is estimated to have three readers (p. 143).

What our teacher feels about the on-line conversation--that no one is listening--may be felt as well by students in our non-current-traditional writing classes, where the activity of writing is central. In my own classes, I choose "volume of writing" over "certitude of response" every time. The reading I give to student journals is a fiction. I certainly don't read everything the students write. And, despite an elaborate peer-reading system, I know that much of the writing produced in the class is skimmed, and that some of it is not (I admit it, here in public) read at all. Once I abandoned the assumption that the teacher, or someone, must carefully read everything that is written, I created a class in which there is writing that is just written, never read. One can argue, as Peter Elbow (1973, 1981) and others have, that one often writes for oneself: that one writes to discover, that one writes to exercise the writing muscle. A focus on these particular writer goals can produce a class of individual writers, each engaged in monologue or dialogue with an aspect of self.

But, the on-line discussion seems to push us even further than expressive pedagogy in the direction of the readerless writing class. As I read through the transcripts of our teachers' INTERCHANGE on-line conversation, I find these transcripts rather extraordinary reading. In them, I seldom sense that the writers are writing to one another. LeBlanc began our workshop by asking the teachers to introduce themselves on-line--a good and useful exercise. The transcript of this first session reads, as it perhaps must, like Coleridge's definition of the Primary Imagination: "[a] repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM" (Coleridge in Jackson, 1985, p. 313). The students wrote: "I am"; "Hi! my name is..."; "My name is"; and then a variation, "Hi, Everyone," then "This is..."; then "Good morning, my name is." This series continues until message No. 14, when Jean responds to Bill: "[h]i, Bill. It's nice to see you again." But the response is to the "seeing," something that occurred off-line, and not to anything that Bill may have written.

This was the first on-line conversation that our teachers experienced, so they had no time to develop conventions that would govern their discourse. Furthermore, we did not structure the conversation so that it had to be responsive. Yet, left more or less to themselves, this extremely social and active group wrote, it seems, into thin air. On the written transcript, question follows question. Answers, if they are there at all, appear--as in an e-mail mailbox--in the sequence of their arrival, not sorted by subject. INTERCHANGE's Thread function, which enables writers to reply to specific conferees and to view as contiguous messages in this reply thread, was not available at the time of the workshop. Yet, LeBlanc reports that in his computer-equipped classroom, where the Thread function is available, and where the conferees have been trained in using this feature, few conferees do use the function. In the on-line conversations we observe, there is an increased production of written text: people typing and typing. But there's not a corresponding increase in the amount of reading--nor could there be, given the limits of available time. These on-line conversations are not at all like face-to-face conversations or discussions, where, when one person speaks, all listen. On-line conversations are much more like monologues; a writer writes, checks in, samples the other monologues, and uses what is found in the stream of discourse as the basis for launching another monologue. No wonder our teacher felt lonely, unheard.

The effect of this condition on members of an on-line "conversation" has been noted by Amy Friedman Phillips (1983) in an article titled "Computer Conferences: Success or Failure?" Phillips writes of the "aloneness factor" in computer conferencing in these words: "[a]loneness may be frustrating due to lack of direct feedback, interfering with both task and emotional processes" (p. 839). In considering ways in which computer conferences can succeed or fail, Phillips quotes one member of a computer conference, who says, on reflection, "I feel that I am essentially standing up in front of an empty auditorium--which can be fun" (p. 845). According to this conference participant, the computer conference is a stage for individual performance. But is it the site of social construction of knowledge? Is this a group process? Later in the same article Phillips suggests that in computer conferences we commonly turn the computer screen into our "friend" and that "the need for feedback may be sublimated by this anthropomorphization" (p. 846). If Phillips is right, the participant in the computer conference communes not with other conferees, but with the friend that is an aspect of self, projected into and onto the computer screen.

A second true story grows from my membership in Megabyte University--a membership that, I hasten to say, I value above my membership in the Modern Language Association. Despite my connection through MBU to perhaps one hundred colleagues, my experience on MBU is at times like that of our "lonely" teacher. I find people writing, writing, writing; but there's much more writing going on than there is detectable reading and responding. I unintentionally set off a storm in the system when I sent a note titled "Junk Mail" in which I asked folks to please, please not send, for example, 10,000 word alphabetized collections of light-bulb jokes, because my electronic mailbox was becoming unusable. I'd returned from a conference and found that my e-mail box had been full (there is an 80-message maximum on our system) and, therefore, the system had been rejecting all messages sent to me for the past forty-eight hours. So, I'd not heard from my son, from my running friends, or from my non MBU correspondents. Their messages were out there somewhere, oscillating in the grid of the New England power pool.

My note was followed by a respected colleague's who amplified my complaint about overload, though he did leave open the option that the problem might indeed be his, and not MBU's . This experience prompted one of us to suggest that we limit ourselves to one message per day, another person suggested that we not send messages intended for one reader to all members, and another person suggested that we devise a system of subject headings that would enable us more easily to read selectively--which is to say, leave much of the written text unread. These suggestions evoked in some of our minds Orwellian network-control, loss of freedom of speech, loss of spontaneity, and so on.

Clearly we'd stumbled on a hot issue here, one raised by our teachers in Amherst the year before. Given that everyone can write simultaneously, the group produce written text at a rate that exceeds any one individual's ability to read and respond. The writer feels lonely and unheard; the reader feels overwhelmed.

So, the observed phenomenon is that in two situations an electronic conversation has not converged but diverged, becoming, not a conversation in the conventional sense, but a set of simultaneous monologues. This situation has produced a sense of unease in some--not all, but some--of the participants. What might be the causes of this unease?

One possible cause of the participants' unease is that when we write on-line we are moving from conversation to something else--and that the transition itself, the change from the old to the new, is accompanied by feelings of dislocation and discomfort. Shoshana Zuboff (1988) describes the results of moving from physical to electronic management in industrial work sites. The workers who move from the factory floor to the control booth, from handling the material to handling information, feel a difference between what they used to do--what Zuboff terms "action-centered skill"--and what they now must do-- what Zuboff terms "the mental effort associated with intellective skill" (p. 186). Under the old dispensation, workers would discover the moisture content of woodpulp by dipping into the vat and squeezing or chewing a bit of pulp; now the same workers read the woodpulp's moisture content from a computer screen. Perhaps there is some of this felt difference in the teachers' reaction to the on-line discussion? A face-to-face discussion is physical in a way that an on-line exchange is not. In a face-to-face discussion, there's physical motion to be made and to be interpreted: hand gestures, facial expressions, and all the signs that we use in face-to-face, interpersonal communication. To use Zuboff's language, in live conversation "the body is an instrument, actively registering information and, in turn, expressing what it learns in action" (p. 187). In on-line conversation, there's just the text and one's intellective skills.

A second possible cause of our unease with the situation of the online "conversation" is that the medium encourages the production of text but discourages its reception. There's a strand of research in computer applications to writing that suggests that people really like writing on computers. A room full of computers "encourages a sense of enterprise and accomplishment" (Sudol, 1985, p. 332); the computer helps basic writers gain "confidence and independence as writers" (Rodrigues, 1985, p. 337); the computer seems to help professional writers (Catano, 1985, p. 311) and college professors (Case, 1985, p. 320). Computers make many, and perhaps most, writers feel good; these writers approach their work with new confidence and excitement and authority.

I would suggest that the screen environment, as one composes, makes writing exciting and active. The cursor, the runner, where the action is; it is the lighted, moving hot spot where symbols appear and disappear. I'd suggest that this hot spot phenomenon is one of the factors that makes writing on-line different from writing on paper. If you type on a typewriter you could, if you worked at it, watch the key, or the IBM letter-ball, strike the page; but you don't, because it is not as visible, not lighted, not a video game-like move of a bright, perhaps blinking square on a dark screen. If we write with pen on paper, do we think of the pen nib, or the pencil point as the center of the action? Perhaps, if we are graphically oriented, and perhaps, when writing was new, we saw the point of contact between quill and paper in the way we now see the cursor. But for most of us, now, the pen and pencil are pretty dull.

So, on-line composing is easy, fun, and fast; but reading on-line seems to be something of a problem. The computer screen seems to enhance the experience of composing; but it does not seem to enhance the experience of reading. Haas and Hayes (1986) summarize and add to the research that suggests that readers read screen text more slowly and less accurately than they do the printed page. Haas (1989a, 1989b) has continued this line of research, finding that students writing on-line have less sense of the large contours of their text than those who write and read on paper. I'd guess that this reported reading difficulty is the corollary of the hot-spot phenomenon: as we write, we are drawn to the word we are now writing, drawn to the instant of composition, the almost-immediate present--and we are correspondingly drawn away from the big picture. In addition, word-processing programs are designed to be writing programs, not reading programs. Apparently, the hardware and software we now have privilege the production, not the reception, of text.

A third possible cause of our unease in on-line conversations may be that the conventions we have for face-to-face verbal interaction do not serve us well in the new on-line environment. I note that in our own writing about these exchanges we use terms taken from the world of speech, and I use that borrowing, with its implied analogy, as license to review the literature of turn-taking in speech-based discussions and conversations. In an article in Language, Harvey Sacks et al. (1974) develop a "Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation." In this project, the authors look for a context-independent system of conventions that governs turn-taking behavior in the situation of the face-to-face conversation. They argue that there must be some such context-independent "system" of turn-taking in conversations, because conversations take place in such a wide range of contexts. Given these conventions, we could sit down anywhere and--given several people and a common language--generate, or follow, appropriate behaviors.

Sacks et al. has developed a model that has 14 characteristics, three of which are important for my argument. The authors call these characteristics "grossly apparent facts." In face-to-face conversations, "[o]verwhelmingly, one party talks at a time." In face-to-face conversations, "[o]ccurrences of more than one speaker at a time are common, but brief." And finally, in face-to-face conversations, "[r]epair mechanisms exist . . . e.g., if two parties find themselves talking at the same time, one of them will stop prematurely, thus repairing the trouble" (pp. 700-701).

An interesting feature of the model that the authors discover is that the system of conventions that govern face-to-face conversations forces each member of the group to listen. If you want to speak, you have to listen. In others' language, you find the cues that will tell you when and how to speak. In face-to-face conversation, listening, and not speaking, is the principal and privileged activity. Thus,

An intrinsic motivation is identifiable for listening. In its turn-allocational techniques, the turn-taking system for conversation builds in an intrinsic motivation for listening to all utterances in a conversation, independent of other possible motivations, such as interest and politeness. In the variety of techniques for arriving at a next speaker, and in their ordered character, it [the model] obliges any willing or potentially intending speaker to listen to and analyze each utterance across its delivery. Thus a participant, willing to speak if next selected to do so, will need to listen to each utterance and analyze it at least to find whether or not it selects him as next speaker. And any potentially intending speaker will have to listen to any utterance after which he might want to speak, to find, at least, that no other has been selected as next speaker. Under either of these circumstances, a willing or potentially intending next speaker will have to listen through the end of the current utterance in order to effect turn-transfer properly, and perhaps in order to secure the turn. . . . By maximizing the set of potential next speakers for any next turn, the system translates a willingness or potential desire to speak into a corollary obligation to listen. (Sacks et al., 1974, pp. 727-728)

This description of the conventions for face-to-face conversations helps us realize that these conventions for turn-taking do not apply to on-line conversations. On-line, we can just start typing; we don't have to read carefully to earn our turn to write. We have not yet developed a system for on-line discussion that obliges us to listen--to read what others have written.

Following this line of argument, it should not surprise us that the Daedalus Groups' INTERCHANGE User's Manual, despite the program's INTERCHANGE name, is much more helpful in suggesting expressive, divergent-thinking--brainstorming--uses for the program than it is for the uses of an on-line class interchange, discussion, or conversation that would facilitate convergent thinking. Brainstorming, the INTERCHANGE User's Manual tells us, is "often hampered in the conventional classroom by the dynamics of group discussion--only one person can talk at a time" (p. 32). So, what it is that makes conversation possible--turn-taking--is simply out-of-play in an INTERCHANGE session. The authors continue: "INTERCHANGE has numerous advantages over traditional large class brainstorming in that all participants are 'heard' (read); no one has to wait a turn" (p. 32).. This, given our review of Sacks et al. (1974) above, seems a bit problematic. How do the authors of the manual imagine that all participants will be heard/read? There is no built-in motivation to listen/read in an on-line exchange. Brainstorming, the authors tell us, is suited to INTERCHANGE. But they seem to recognize that on-line discussion may be a bit of a problem. They write, "although large-group INTERCHANGE conferences are dynamic and exciting, they can also become unwieldy and unfocused"(p. 33). And the authors, therefore, suggest ways of avoiding trouble. As an example of possible disciplined use of the program for convergent thinking, they give this scenario: "a teacher puts up a 'prompt"'--a passage that carries with it relevance to the course and potential for controversy. Students, thus, "respond to the quotation, passage, or statement, and then respond to one another's responses" (p. 33).

It is this responding to responses that I'm looking at--the conversation that follows the individual response to the teacher's prompt. Given the possibly-exponential growth of responses to responses, how will the readers cope? How is this growth to be managed? What conventions apply? Should they be used? Taught? Our experience tells us that it is doubtful, as the Daedalus Groups' INTERCHANGE User's Manual claims, "all participants are 'heard' (read)," precisely because, as I hope I have demonstrated, "no one has to wait a turn" (p. 32).

In saying what I've said, I don't mean to suggest that on-line conversation is inherently good or bad, social or asocial. I do not see a devil, or a god, in the medium. In my view, the new technology is, in this particular respect, more-or-less neutral. It may now seem, in this time of transition, to carry with it its own imperatives. But at the heart, it is a matter of our adapting to the new medium and of discovering ways of flourishing in this new environment. We are already developing conventions for coping with on-line discourse (Feenberg, 1989). Once these conventions are in place, they will become transparent--the subject of later discovery, as Sacks et al. has discovered the conventions that govern face-to-face conversations. Our lives will be changed, of course, by the advent of this new medium, as they have been by the telephone; but the discomfort, the unease, will disappear, leaving traces in our literature, yet not in our memory.

If, for example, Zuboff's "felt difference" is a factor in our present reaction to on-line discourse, this "felt difference" is not likely to be a factor in our future. We can, it seems, become accustomed to what once seemed new. Zuboff notes that, "in the early days of photography, the discrepancies between the camera's eye and the human eye were avidly discussed," but, "once they began to think photographically, people stopped talking about photographic distortion, as it was called" (p. 13) . We will develop, consciously and otherwise, conventions and routines that will become transparent. Robert Lucky (1989) notes that in the early days of the telephone people had to be told, in the literature that accompanied the telephone, not to talk when a correspondent was talking. Lucky quotes from a 1877 advertisement for the telephone the following passage:

[c]onversation can easily be carried on after slight practice and with occasional repetition of a word or sentence. On first listening to the Telephone, though the sound is perfectly audible, the articulation seems to be indistinct; but after a few trials the ear becomes accustomed to the peculiar sound.

Additionally, he quotes from another contemporary document the following advice: "[w]hen replying to communication from another, do not speak too promptly. Much trouble is caused from both parties speaking at the same time. When you are not speaking, you should be listening"(p. 202). Lucky observes, further, that many people for whom the telephone was a new medium never did become accustomed to the medium; but they adopted extremely formal ways of speaking, particularly when the call was long-distance (p. 202). Now our conventions for speaking on the telephone are so fine-tuned and transparent that we don't see them until a change in the medium--like the one-second delay on a call from Australia to Massachusetts--completely disrupts a conversation. We have adapted, and we will continue to adapt.

Again, I'm not talking about an ineluctable difference in medium here, though there is certainly that difference. What we are feeling is not a medium problem but a transition problem. We spend, many of us, most of our time in a print environment. I've developed, for example, a system for sorting my print-mail, a system that print-mail seems to have collaborated with. Junk mail comes clearly identified as such, except for the Visa credit card mailings, which come disguised as junk mail (to fool the mail-thieves?) but I've learned to penetrate this disguise. It takes me perhaps two minutes to sort through the 15 to 30 pieces of print-mail I receive every day. I've not developed a similar system for sorting my e-mail, but I will.

And, I'm doubtful that on-line reading is, finally, inherently more difficult than reading print. Kay Moran, a newspaper editor, does all of her editing and writing on screen and reports no difficulty in screen reading, or in imagining the finished print text. Indeed, she reports that, working only with a screen of unformatted text, she can envision column length and paragraph breaks. In her mind's eye, without using paper at all, she can translate screen text into newspaper-page format. In contrast to the reports of Christina Haas' (1986) students, Kay Moran has a fine text-sense, as do the other workers in the field of journalism. There are, indeed, no typewriters in Kay Moran's workplace. Print does not appear in the composing process until the last stage: the finished newspaper. In this field, no one would, could, go back to the old ways. This demonstrated ease of use is the result of practice: of doing something steadily, for eight hours each day, and adapting.

In this ambiguous time, when we are in a transition from print text to screen text, we may have to work at developing conventions for online conversations, as we must have when we first became able to use our voice boxes, and as we did when we began to talk on the telephone or on short-wave radio. The next generation will look back on this time in mild disbelief. "Do you mean," they will say, "that people didn't always do it this way?" By that time, the new conventions for on-line communication will be in place, transparent to the users, and we'll not remember when the world was otherwise.


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