Update Culture and the Afterlife of Digital Writing

by John R. Gallagher

Reviewed by Marissa Baker


Ethics of Online Writing

Given the amount of scholarly attention directed toward problematic elements of online interactions (for example, Bailey Poland’s Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online), it is no surprise that Gallager devotes a chapter to “Ethics in Update Culture.”

When speaking about the negative effects of online writing, Gallager describes the toll that writing in an intense online environment takes on the writers. Three Amazon reviewers said the time they spent writing led to trouble in their marriages. A journalist talked about writing from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. because that was the only time that childcare and other jobs left her for writing. In the “Textual Management” chapter, Gallager also touched on the emotional toll that dealing with negative comments can have on writers, particularly women who are more likely to report that they cannot ignore comments (pp. 115-16).

Gallager also talks about the question of unpaid labor and a sense of exploitation on the part of the writers, particularly Amazon reviewers. Many online writers—including most of the 40 that Gallager interviewed—are not compensated for the vast amounts of unpaid and often unacknowledged labor that comes before and after publishing. Though these online writers know they will not be paid for their work, there is an ethical question as to whether or not they should be compensated by companies that make money off their labor (such as through sales produced by Amazon reviews or by driving traffic to sites that make money off advertising).

Turning to the positive lessons we can learn from online writing, Gallager identified virtues that emerge from a study of online writing. He says, “consistency, persistence, and patience are communication virtues for contending with the way ICTs [information communication technologies] shape our discourse, specifically IPI template and the environments they produce” (p. 145). These virtues represent the most useful ways that Gallager found online writers engaged with “update culture and the afterlife of digital writing.” They also provide a framework for teaching online writing to students in our composition classrooms.


John R. Gallagher is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In addition to Update Culture, he is coeditor of Explanation Points: Publishing in Rhetoric and Composition, and his work has been published in Computers and Composition, Enculturation, Rhetoric Review, Technical Communication Quarterly, Transformations, and Written Communication.