What medieval manuscripts can teach us about digital communications
Medieval Manuscript

There’s been a lot of clamor around how the Internet has impacted language — primarily focused on the heady mix of slang (spam, troll, noob), neologisms (blog, app, tweet) and acronyms (WTF? OMG!) that pepper digital discourse. But these vernacular mutations are actually the least significant of the consequences of our wholesale move from paper to pixels. There are more profound changes afoot, reflecting fundamental shifts in how consumers interact with the written word:

Text is no longer seen as self-evident: Readers now expect digital text to be linked directly to underlying sources, additional references and alternative points of view. At best, this turns every piece of text into a springboard for research, adding context, depth and balance. At worst, hyperlinks can be interruptive, leading readers away, along a chain of distractions that within a handful of clicks, inevitably arrives at porn. And — neither good nor bad, but different — hyperlinks are often used to add a layer of metacommentary to text that, depending on the nature of the linked item, can be witty, scathing or prankish (ask anyone who’s experienced the cringe of Rickrolling).

Text is no longer seen as permanent: Readers increasingly expect digital text to iterate over time, with updates and embellishments that add new information, correct prior mistakes, evolve arguments and respond to critiques. Text that doesn’t change now feels dead, or at the very least archival; it may even raises suspicions among readers that undisclosed changes have been made — a cardinal sin in the world of digital reporting and comment. One response has been tireless watchdogging from the blogosphere and “editorial transparency” services like NewsDiffs; another has been the unofficial establishment of a set of stylistic conventions for iterative publishing — like striking through errors yet leaving them in place; adding timestamped updates at the end or beginning of pieces; and “promoting” noteworthy or critical comments from attached threads to the body of the text as part of a response to the reading community.

But where does this leave marketers? Well, everything that’s true about news, entertainment and opinion content should also be true for marketing communications. Readers expect ad copy to be hyperlinked, and promotional posts to evolve over time. Why shouldn’t they? The fact that they don’t is what calls them out as ‘other’ in the digital world’s economy of ideas.

Most marketers remain still stuck in a world of 20th century corporate communications, where showing signs of internal disagreement or making amendments in response to feedback is regarded as off-brand or off-message. But there shouldn’t be anything to fear: The open texts of the digital world are in essence no different from medieval manuscripts. Their construction, with their crossings out and marginalia, reflected the fact that in the Dark Ages, if you were literate, you were also a scribe, both consuming and contributing to the world of words; in the Digital Age, we’ve simply come full circle.

So here’s a thought: Marketers should embrace the read-write nature of communications in the Internet era. A good piece of digital marketing is one that other people choose to draw attention to — by blogging it, posting it on Reddit, adding it on Tumblr, by Facebooking or retweeting it. The best way of maximizing your engagement footprint is to roll with the new expectations of digital readers. Weave your messages into the web; make sure they stay alive and organic; allow others to talk back, both on and off your platforms. Don’t think of your communications as static content, but as the start of a conversation.

Even if that makes for some sticky moments in the C-suite.

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