Has Writing Always Been Beta?: Patching and Revising in the Digital Age

by Guest Blogger on April 23, 2015

Richard BeselGuest post by Richard Besel, Associate Professor in Communication Studies. You may find additional posts by Richard Besel on Write Margin Media.

I admit it. I used to play World of Warcraft. Some of you may recognize it as one of those massively multi-player online games that has been criticized heavily for sapping energy from one’s soul because it requires a player to spend an absurd number of hours in front of a screen before reaching the end game. Luckily for me, my more significant and time-consuming incursions into Azeroth—the fictitious land created in the game—lasted for one summer only while I was in graduate school. Today I tell the students enrolled in my Media Criticism class any given quarter that I am thankful for having that WoW encounter several years ago. Because of it, I now have a different perspective on the book chapters and peer-reviewed articles about gaming culture that I have them read as part of their course assignments. Many of these texts about gaming culture discuss the psychological and economic consequences associated with the activity. Some argue gaming addiction is a growing concern; others study how and why players are willing to pay real money for a game’s artificial currency (usually this is a matter of buying virtual items to demonstrate one’s virtual status). One element of games like World of Warcraft that has always captured my attention was the idea of “patching.”

Outside of the gaming environment, patching is a means of mending or strengthening something with a WoW IMagemodest addition, often a readily available material. Analogously, a virtual patch for a game is an addition of code that is meant to mend the bugs or flaws in the program. Players will often wait for the patch to download while a progress bar slowly makes its way to 100%. Sure, the technological and historical aspects of patching have been discussed to some degree in various places, but something about this idea does not sit well with me. Perhaps it was the notion that a product could be released before it was finished. Perhaps it was the growing idea that this was acceptable. Imagine the consumer outrage if cars were sold with the same mindset: “Drive it now; airbags and seatbelts coming soon!” It was only a matter of time until those in the gaming community found a name for this phenomenon: beta culture. Unfortunately, beta culture’s influence is no longer confined to the world of online games. Now don’t get me wrong, I do recognize that there are instances where patching and updating matter a great deal for new products. Patches and updates ultimately enhance gaming content or allow my smart phone to function a little more smoothly. However, I do have a concern about how these newer technological and cultural changes may be altering the way we think about the practice of writing.

What is Beta Culture?

Technopedia defines beta culture as a “recent trend” of releasing programs or products before they have been fully tested. The assumption is that the product can be patched at a later date. Companies are betting that consumers will embrace these beta products, “quirks and all.” However, the drawback is that some consumers may be left disappointed with the initial product. Jesus Diaz, writing for Gizmodo, has ranted about several beta products and the feelings of alienation accompanying them. My recent encounters with several students have led me to suspect that the idea of releasing a technology or gaming product in its beta version has crept into our writing activities as well.

How Beta Culture Changes our Writing

That there is a tension between beta culture supporters and those who find it frustrating should not surprise those of us concerned with the craft of writing. We have been struggling with similar concepts for years (for example, think of the rewriting process). Although writers may say a work is “never finished,” publishing a text gives it at least some semblance of stability. Thus, with traditional print outlets it was extremely important to make sure what one published was not still in the draft or testing phase. One simply did not have an opportunity to “take it back” or update the printed text without drawing attention to the errors. Today, technology has changed everything. It is possible to publish something on a WordPress blog, find a few mistakes in it, and then revise that post within minutes, if not seconds. And few readers, if any, would really know what had happened. The concern is not with the technology, but with the change in our mindsets. Just because we have the technological ability to correct errors quickly does not mean we should be careless about the production of those errors in the first place.

Recently I assigned a paper to one of my classes. I will skip over the specifics of the assignment (it’s not really the point anyway), but I will note that it was divided into two parts. First, students would turn in half of the paper in draft form. I tell them at the outset that the paper, although a draft, should still reflect their best efforts. I would then provide those students with suggestions for their revisions. They would then make the changes and write the rest of the paper, turning in the completed assignment at the close of the course. For some students, my comments on their final papers would allow them to revise it as they considered transforming the text into an expanded senior project. This process is not unusual and is one familiar to instructors in several disciplines. What struck me as unusual was the number of students who no longer thought they needed to really put forth their best effort for a draft. Sure, some drafts are meant to be worked out on a few napkins at the local coffee shop, but those drafts are not usually submitted for a grade. It seems as though some of my students, when confronted by a situation where they had an opportunity to revise an assignment, likewise felt as though they did not have to try as hard. Why did they need to correct the errors in their paper if I was going to do it for them? Perhaps they expected me to act like a game consumer, one who should accept the idea that their products were turned in incomplete because they will have the opportunity to patch things later. Unfortunately for them, this was not the case.

Has Writing Always Been Beta?

In some sense, writing has always been caught up in a beta culture. Authors write, revise, and rewrite. Sometimes the rewriting process is excessive. My point is not to simplify these observations into a simple “beta culture good” versus “beta culture bad” binary. Instead, it seems as though technological and cultural changes have enabled students to slide a little further into the beta culture mentality. How are instructors to face this changing environment?

Ultimately, instructors must keep standards high for academic work and must realize that although there are similarities between the beta culture of industry and the writing and revising processes used in higher education, they are not synonymous. Although some exceptionally gifted students may feel as though they do not have to turn in their best work because it can be patched at a later time, or perhaps they turn in shoddy work because they feel correcting typos is beneath them, instructors cannot assume that the student deserves an “A” on the paper. The “A” must be earned by demonstrating particular skills in the assignment. Of course, the comparison between education and the gaming industry begins to break down. Yes, papers and games now each have a revision or patching process. Yes, writers of papers and writers of code both believe they will have opportunities to improve their products. However, instructors are not consumers. No, instructors may not have faith that students will correct their papers with the same vigor that profit-making multi-national companies possess when improving their products. No, a company releasing a product before it is ready so that it may beat its competition to market is not the same thing as a student who thinks the instructor is his or her proofreader. Instructors should expect our students to give us their best efforts. Once they do, only then are we best able to push our students in new directions.

Do you have similar observations about this beta culture mentality? Feel free to share them in the comments section below.



April 27, 2015

Hi Richard! Just wanted u to know I checked out your blog. The opener of WWC made me laugh! See u around campus!

– Rebecca (fellow COMS instructor)



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