Oral Culture, Literate Culture, Twitter Culture


The study of oral culture helps us understand the dynamics at play in social media, but no one knows what the move to skywriting means


Social media may be a throwback to the oral cultures that preceded the printing press and education-aided diffusion of literacy. This idea has been been bouncing around since some of the first Internet users started to realize that the literacy they'd known wasn't just about reading but paper and the contexts in which it was delivered. Occasional Atlantic contributor Zeynep Tufekci delivered a thorough overview of the idea filtered through an examination of the New York Times' Bill Keller's recent Twitter-bating.

Keller is actually trying to complain about the reemergence of oral psychodynamics in the public sphere rather than about memory falling out of favor. If the latter were the case, his ire would be more about Google; instead, most of his frustration is directed against social media, and mostly Twitter, the most conversational, and thus most oral of these mediums.

As traced in the work of Walter Ong and Neil Postman, literate and oral cultures work and think differently.

Keller is actually trying to complain about the reemergence of oral psychodynamics in the public sphere rather than about memory falling out of favor. If the latter were the case, his ire would be more about Google; instead, most of his frustration is directed against social media, and mostly Twitter, the most conversational, and thus most oral of these mediums.

Western cultures are thoroughly dominated by literate thinking, but retain some pieces of their orality. What we're seeing in social media, though, is a reemergence *into the public sphere* of many of the oral dynamics that previously functioned outside the broadcast- and newspaper-dominated media world of the 20th century. And that's where Tufekci makes a key observation about the old guard's problems with social media, and why the digerati are so loathe to take their issues seriously.

What we are seeing with social media is the public sphere, hitherto dominated by written culture, has been more opened up to oral psychodynamics. And this is particularly difficult to deal with for intellectuals who rely on their competence with, and dominance of, the written form as hallmark of their place in society.

For many in the Twittersphere, Keller's self-interest seems so obvious that they stop listening. Tufekci, to her credit, doesn't write off the importance of literate psychodynamics and the importance of the literate culture.

Writing, especially writing at length is a different modality of thought than talking and it also allows a different kind of exchange and discourse..As Postman argues, writing and the spread of the printed word through literacy and the printing press created a culture in which it is possible to debate ideas at length and produce analytic thought which can be produced, advanced, discussed, refuted, rejected, improved and otherwise churned through the public sphere.

So, we need to learn to separate turf war battles and the self-interested of those involved from the real problems that could arise from a culture hashed out solely through the conversational dynamics of Twitter.

I think that there might be a fairly easy hybrid close to our fingertips. Twitter rides atop the Web, serving as a human filter on all the discourse in the world. We can't forget that. While Facebook could exist on its own, Twitter is nothing without the rest of the Internet -- and that's a good thing.

Whatever Twitter is, it can be a hybrid of the oral and literate. Every day that goes by, the links that people include stick closer to their arguments. The applications that we use to access Twitter can shape the experience towards or away from literate culture. Take Flipboard. It allows you to see your Twitter feed not as a conversation but as a crowd-curated newspaper. The app changes the fundamental nature of the Twitter experience and I can toggle between the two experiences at will. I think the official Twitter apps may go down that road as well, not because of a love for literate culture, but because it's actually a much easier user experience.

All this to say: while the study of oral culture helps us understand some of the dynamics at play in social media, no one really knows what the move to "skywriting" means. We know what we're doing is different -- and that difference will generate different winners and losers from those who won the last few generations, but the specifics remain fuzzy. We won't return to an oral culture, but our literacy will never be the same. Bill Keller might not control the next iteration of media, but neither will the current generation of hashtaggers and funny fake accounts.

Image: Reuters.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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