Oral Culture 2.0

On: October 21, 2008
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About Stephan Barmentloo
My name is Stephan Barmentloo. I hold bachelor degree in Business Information Systems and a BA degree in Media and Culture. I'm a student of the New Media MA at the University of Amsterdam.


Micro-blogging is a minimalistic form of blogging which has been integrated in most of the popular social network sites. It allows users to write and post short messages. This has important implications for the content of a message. Usually these messages only consist of text, but in some cases users can include pictures as well. Most of the time these message are about what the user is doing or about to do at the particular moment of posting the message. Some social network sites even allow users to post messages through their mobile phone. Because of the popularity of these services it is interesting to investigate the effects of these services on its users and on society at large.

Twitter and the concept of secondary orality
The best place to start when talking about the effects that technologies can have on people and on society are the theories of Marshall McLuhan. In one of his most influential works, The Medium Is the Message, he argues that ‘the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.’ (McLuhan 1964, p. 7) As a result of this it lead McLuhan to believe that the use of technologies such as the printing press transformed society from an oral culture into a visual culture. New electronic media – at the time of writing television in particular – were thought of to reunite us with oral culture, thus shaping society along the lines of tribalism and at the same time also as a collective.

As a student of McLuhan, it was Walter J. Ong who introduced the concept of secondary orality. New electronic media introduced us to computer mediated communication. He argues that the immediacy that one experiences with this form of communication is similar to the immediacy experienced in oral culture. Secondly, this form of communication is also able to unite people in groups, another process that can be traced back to oral culture. Therefore, Ong refers to this relation between computer mediated communication and oral communication as secondary orality. Based on this concept of secondary orality, I will try to outline the affordances and possible detrimental consequences of micro-blogging services such as Twitter. This research might give an insight to the effects of micro-blogging on individuals and on society at large.

Twitter and its affordances
Several researchers have studied micro-blogging, and in particular Twitter, with the theory above as basis for their investigation. For instance new media researcher Carlo Scannella who has written on the orality of Twitter and argued in a paper that blogs become a technological prosthetic for its users. Blogs can be seen as an extension of human memory, a shared memory system. All communication in such a system accumulates to knowledge, reputation, trust and ultimately it shapes and represents identities. Therefore, Scannella argues that blogs can be seen as an extension of man, a cyborg memory.

According to Lance Strate secondary orality, such as micro-blogging, can have a leveling effect on people. Computer mediated communication that is made possible through the technologies of chat rooms, instant messaging and micro-blogging are more of an informal nature than communication in a primary oral culture. People are usually addressed by their first name or nickname. We can argue that this leveling effect goes even further in that it gives everyone the idea that their opinion matters. Because you blog, you exist.

Twitter and the possible detrimental consequences
Micro-blogging has a strong connection with technologies such as instant messaging and text messaging over mobile phones. Especially the latter of these two technologies imposes a restriction on the length of a message. The length of a single text message is usually restricted by most service providers to a maximum of 160 characters. We can also argue that the length of a message is influenced by the input method, the keypad of the mobile phone. The combination of these constraints has resulted in the use of all kinds of acronyms in writing these short messages. People abbreviate words to avoid exceeding the character limit and they also reduce the time spend on writing these messages. The adoption of acronyms in writing messages is not entirely new, they are also used in chat rooms that have been around for a couple of decades. Therefore, the use of these acronyms is commonly referred to as chat room slang. The widespread use of these communication technologies involving chat room slang in contemporary culture raises questions about the impact on our literary capabilities, that is our reading and writing performance, and our ability of critical thinking.

As mentioned before, the theories of McLuhan were written with the technology of television in mind. Although McLuhan argues that the change from a visual culture to a more hybrid oral and visual culture with the rise of television can be understood as something positive, he is also aware of the more pessimistic consequences it can impose on people. By arguing that ‘electronic technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement’ (McLuhan 1967, p. 8-9), it also implies that people who use these electronic technologies will neglect information that threatens this process of unification and involvement. In other words, people tend to ignore information that challenges their perspectives, avoid critical debate and will resort to so-called ‘fast’ information. This is probably also the case with micro-blogging services such as Twitter. People can read all kinds of short messages written by others, but most people will probably never reply to these messages. If they disagree with a particular message, they will just ignore it and move onto the next one, similar to ‘zapping’ between television channels.

Caleb Crain also addresses the implications of this tendency to resort to fast information in his article Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?. In this article he draws upon the research of Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research and Professor of Child Development at Tufts University. Wolf suggests that ‘the secret at the heart of reading is the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before’. Experience can improve our literary reading skills. When progressing from an illiterate child to a literate adult, our brain activity changes as well. As we improve our literary reading skills, at the same time we reserve brainpower for other activities, for example the proliferation of critical thinking.

A study on the effects of watching television performed by Herbert Krugman in 1969 indicate that while watching television our brain waves shift from beta waves to alpha waves within thirty seconds. Alpha waves indicate a state of mind that is unfocused and lacking cognitive attention. When switching from watching television to the activity of reading, we can see a reversal of this change in brain wave activity. In other words, beta brain waves that proliferate when reading exemplify a logical and analytical process, whereas alpha brain waves that proliferate when watching television exemplify an uncritical and dreamlike process.

The question now is how do the above observations relate to micro-blogging. Because both television and micro-blogging can be explained according to the concept of secondary orality, does this also mean that the effects of micro-blogging, such as reading and writing short messages on Twitter for instance, are similar to the effects of watching television? Can we argue that micro-blogging is detrimental to our reading skills and therefore our ability of critical thinking and engaging in debates? Does micro-blogging lead to the same kind of unification or groupthink as television does? Probably the answers to these questions can be found in neurobiological research.

Cohen, Noam. ‘The Global Sympathetic Audience’ from New York Times. 4 November 2007.

Crain, Caleb. ‘Twilight of the Books: A Critic at Large’ from The New Yorker. 24 December 2007.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.

McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam Books, 1967.

Scannella, Carlo. The Orality of Twitter. 9 April 2008.

Scannella, Carlo. Virtual Memory: The Blog as Technological Prosthetic.

Wright, Alex. ‘Friending, Ancient or Otherwise’ from New York Times, 2 December 2007.

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