“The Internet has been a boon and a curse for teenagers,” (J.K. Rowling). Some people in our society believe that the Internet has done more hurt than help for our generation. This is not the case with author, Clive Thompson, who believes like many others, that the Internet is actually the opposite of a burden on our society. Clive Thompson’s “Public Thinking” is a chapter from the book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. In this chapter, Thompson introduces to us the idea that social media is improving the way we write and think. In our day and age, social media and the Internet is a part of almost everyone’s daily lives. A lot of times, being on social media is seen as a bad thing and something that could only hurt a person cognitively. This is not the case though according to Thompson. Writing should be a major focus of ours, and a form of writing is through social media and the Internet. Thompson’s overall argument in this chapter is that the increase in public writing was made possible by the Internet, which has important, positive effects on our thoughts, knowledge-sharing, and culture and politics. In this paper, I will describe and explain Thompson’s major claims, examine and discuss the evidence he used to backup these claims, evaluate his strengths and weaknesses, and analyze the opposing views he used throughout the chapter.
One of Thompson’s main claims is that writing can help clarify our thinking because writing something out creates clear ideas. Thompson asserts that online writing has exploded recently and has affected many people. According to Thompson, the act of writing forces writers to create understandable thoughts. For example, Thompson states that, “by putting half-formed thoughts on the page, we externalize them and are able to evaluate them much more objectively,” (Thompson 51). What he means by this is that writers figure out easier what they want to say only once they have started writing. In other words, writing is very beneficial to not only professional writers, but everyone to improve their ways of thinking and speaking. Another example Thompson mentions is that, “the audiences clarify the mind even more,” (52). What this means is that when you write something online, you are doing it for the audience. People who write online are looking for feedback from the audience, and to at least have someone read it, even if it is anonymous. In other words, most things presented online to the public are done in the hopes of an audience viewing it, which in turn push the writer to create something that they feel the people will enjoy to see and will relate to. This idea of writing on the Internet and writing in general helps the writer to clarify their thinking and improve their overall cognition.
Another one of Thompson’s main claims is that the effort of communicating to someone else forces you to think more precisely, make deeper connections, and learn more. Thompson states that the audience effect creates a shift in our performance when we know other people are watching. For example, Thompson uses a study on four and five year olds from a group of Vanderbilt professors that says that, “in one group, the children simply solved the puzzles quietly by themselves. In a second group, they were asked to explain into a tape recorder how they were solving each puzzle, a recording they could keep for themselves. And in the third group, the kids had an audience: they had to explain their reasoning to their mothers, who sat near them, listening but not offering any help,” (55). This is important because the group that did the best was the one with the mothers present. What this means is that when there is a meaningful audience that the writer is presenting their thoughts to, they are able to communicate better as a whole. In other words, when a writer presents their material to an audience on the Internet, they care about how this audience will react to what they have to say, so it causes them to be more precise and make deeper connections with what they are presenting. The writer is communicating with their audience, which will allow them to write what they have to say in a much more meaningful matter. Another example Thompson uses where a person is communicating through writing is when, “ asked to write for a real audience of students in another country, students write essays that are substantially longer and have better organization and content than when they’re writing for their teacher,” (55). What he means by using this example is that when a writer is communicating with someone else, no matter if they know them or not, they go more into detail and spend more time making sure that what they are writing is worth reading for the other person. In other words, when these writers share their knowledge and communicate with their audience through the Internet, their whole thought process and level of communicating increases. Writers create their best work when taking the effort to communicate with someone else.
Thompson’s final main claim is that public writing on the Internet has had a positive effect on culture and politics. Thompson asserts that with this increase in public writing on the Internet, people are able to express their opinions and say their thoughts on culture and politics for an audience to see. For example, Thompson uses a personal experience from Ory Okolloh, a woman from Kenya who got into public writing. Thompson states that, “ in 2007, the ruling party rigged the national election and the country exploded in violence. Okolloh wrote anguished posts, incorporating as much hard information as she could get,” (46). What this means is that through the use of the Internet with public writing, Ory Okolloh was able to express her opinions and speak about the facts of politics that are occurring in her country. Her blogs were used as a resource for information on the crisis, and she was able to gain a powerful audience from this. In other words, public writing on the Internet has opened up many ways for people to express their opinions online about the hardships that they go through in their everyday life, or even just about what is going on in their country. Another example is when Thompson uses his experience in China and states that, “this sudden emergence of audiences is significant enough in Western countries, where liberal democracies guarantee the right to free speech. But in countries where there’s less of a tradition of free speech, the emergence of networked audiences may have an even more head-snapping effect,” (57). Thompson expected the youth in China to push for democracy once they were able to gain a public microphone, but instead he found out that with this idea of having an audience, the youth enjoyed the remarkable feeling of speaking their mind on any subject that they can. In other words, the youth there in China are expressing their ideas through public writing, which was much different from the ways that their parents grew up. These young people believe in political reform too just as their parents, but these everyday audiences online that they are given are believed to be crucial to this reform process for China. Both politics and culture, shared about on the Internet, has become a big part of our public writing.
In this chapter, Thompson does use rebuttals greatly to his favor. For example, he questions, “is any of this writing good?” (48). This is one of the rebuttals Thompson used to acknowledge the opposing view. He did a great job of using the rebuttal to his advantage. Instead of just letting it be after this question, he answered and backed it up by saying that he personally enjoys much of the work he comes across on the Internet, no matter it be written by amateurs or not. He also states that before this explosion of online writing, there was barely anything out there. This makes his argument more believable and credible because he gives his opinion on the subject and adds in factual evidence to back it up. Another rebuttal is towards the end of the chapter when he brings up Stanford Professor Andrea Lunsford. Thompson states that, “if you’re worried that college students today can’t write as well as in the past, her work will ease your mind” (66). He says this again to recognize the opposing view, and in this situation specifically that students cannot write as well as in the past. Thompson brings up studies done by Lunsford, another very credible source, to persuade his audience that may be skeptical of his views to actually agree that his beliefs are correct and there is enough evidence to back him up. Thompson does rebuttals throughout this chapter to help to persuade his audience.
A strength of Thompson’s throughout his argument is that he uses a lot of personal stories and experiences from multiple people that helps to persuade readers. Throughout the chapter, after making a claim, Thompson will end up using the personal experience of a person who has a perfect piece of evidence for his claim. For example, after Thompson makes the claim that writing helps to clarify our thinking, he immediately follows it with a quote from a poet named Cecil Day-Lewis that states, “if it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it …. We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand,” (51). This is an example of him using someone else’s personal experience to strengthen his argument because once people see that others have been through it, and what he claims actually ends up helping them, then they are persuaded to believe the argument even more. Another example of Thompson using personal experiences to strengthen his argument is right at the beginning of the chapter when he brings up the story of Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan-born law student fell in love with the idea of online conversation. She posted often and gained a following of readers of her blogs. She talked about many political issues in Kenya, and even experienced first-hand the idea of the audience effect, where she became very disciplined with what she said since she was self-conscious of these people reading her blogs. This story strengthens Thompson’s argument because it shows how much public writing increased due to the Internet. Ory Okolloh experienced this increase of public writing on the Internet first-hand, which makes Thompson’s argument more relatable since it shows someone’s personal experience with it. Thompson uses personal stories and experiences to his advantage to help persuade the readers to his argument and show how it has affected other people in our society. This is a great strength of Thompson throughout this chapter of public thinking.
The increase in public writing was made possible by the Internet, which has important, positive effects on our thoughts, knowledge-sharing, and culture and politics. Thompson does a great job throughout this chapter in supporting his overall argument well with strong claims to persuade his audience. A form of writing is through the Internet, and Clive Thompson’s outlook on this is expressed extremely well. Public writing is necessary in our society, and Thompson shows how it is very important with the Internet in our day and age.