This contradiction hints at a basic tension of the platform. From my perspective, as a single Twitter user, the online horde is always going on about something. So if I tweet about that something, it’s not a big deal. I’m only thinking aloud, goofing off, and harmlessly chatting with my friends and readers. But if 50 other people tweet about the same thing—especially if it’s frivolous and especially if they all have, like I do, an account with more than 1,000 or so followers—then they’re making that topic even more popular, amplifying it, and reinforcing the media’s toxic fixation on meaningless chaff. My tweets—well, not my tweets, but you get it—are conversational and informal, and they matter relatively little. But taken collectively, everyone else’s tweets are informational and declamatory. They carry weight.
This instability—between the individual and the mass, the high and the low—is also what makes Twitter fun. The site’s worst users are those who monotonously, humorlessly post about the same thing over and over again. But in trying to avoid that fate—and in trying, generally, to act like a regular person online—users push the conversation toward conflict and superficiality.
Read: How Twitter fuels anxiety
Ong would have understood. Writing down a language, he realized, is not just a mere shuffling of papers; it forever changes how the language works. Consider the differences between speech and text. For oral cultures, words are primarily vibrations in the air, Ong argued. Words must therefore be memorable, few in number, and tied to the concrete reality of day-to-day life. But after the advent of writing, words become more than invisible sounds. They become permanent symbols that exist outside their utterance and can be read long after the speaker has died. Words can also divorce from the physical world and start to reference ideas, concepts, and abstract states. And instead of words needing to aid memory, as they do in oral cultures (by using a repeated epithet, such as Homer’s “wine-dark sea”), written words can suddenly act as a form of memory themselves.
Before Ong died in 2003, he was asked about a special kind of writing that people do online, a genre of communication familiar to any Slack or AIM user or group-chat texter. It’s a mode that delivers words live and at the speed of speech—in which, as Ong put it, “textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange.” (This is apparently how a Jesuit talks about sliding into one’s DMs.) Ong called this new fusion “secondary literacy,” but today we just call it texting. Whatever its name, it reigned during Twitter’s early days. As I once wrote: “Twitter lets users read the same words at different times, which is a key aspect of literacy. Tweets are chatty, fusing word and action like orality; and also declarative, severable, preservable, and analyzable like literacy.”