Aphoristic message (overload?) by a CMC world

On: October 8, 2009
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About Sander Leegwater
Hi, I'm Alexander (or Sander for friends) Leegwater – a Multimedia Designer, Bachelor in the Interactive Media at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam – and currently working on my Masters of (New) Media at the 'Universiteit van Amsterdam'. Besides schooling, I'm working as a part-time 'front-end' web-developer at www.digital4u.nl.


Communication is as old as humans (or humanoids) itself, from a grunt, a shout to a simple gesture – we have always had the ability to convey messages to others around us – whether we’re correctly understood is a whole other matter. ‘Aphorisms’ (the ability to make short, powerful and easy to remember messages) “have been around for thousands of years. Predating the written word, they allowed regular folk to carry around accumulated wisdom in their heads. As Erasmus put it, ‘An idea launched like a javelin in proverbial form strikes with sharper point on the hearer’s mind and leaves implanted barbs for meditation [1].’” Aphorism became an literary ‘art’ form, it became a specialism to craft a message that was short but still conveyed enough meaning to stimulate someone to a realization or even action.


Hippocrates (engraving by Peter Paul Rubens, 1638)

The term ‘aphorism’ itself was first introduced in Ancient Greek in the work ‘Aphorisms of Hippocrates‘ and has been applied since then to other sententious statements in science, philosophy and literature. Examples of well-known aphorists include names as Confucius, Einstein, McLuhan, Voltaire, Tolstoy and the Dutch Erasmus of Rotterdam who was the first to ‘publish’ a collection of aphorisms under the name ‘Adagia’ around 1500. But as we came out of the 18th century, mass-illiteracy slowly but surely became something of the past in western-europe, and ‘short’ message writing became mainstream. First with the invention of the telegram – which became very popular during the 19th century – and gained serious competition, in 1876 with the introduction of the telephone, by Alexander Graham Bell. Eventually the telegram lost its position and even became absolute with the coming of the text message or SMS (Short Message Service/Silent Messaging Service) in the 1990s.

Still aphoristic messaging was never abandoned, it was merely in obscurity until it was ‘rediscovered’ by the public at large with the coming of mobile technology – or to use a well-known aphorism from Marshall McLuhan; ‘The content of any medium is an older medium’ [2] – even “Samuel Johnson said that eventually we would all write ‘aphoristically’. Consider how we often write today: email, text messaging, blogs, emoticons. These require little to no preparation and, all too often for the grammarians among us, usually eschew the finer points of grammar, including spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure [1].” More and more forms of communication have been introduced – with these developments people had the possibility to choose the medium appropriate for their message – for example, short ones with an SMS (although, today we can send multiple pages in a single SMS) and longer ones through email. With the coming of the online-application Twitter it was decided, that (somewhat like text messages) there had to be a maximum amount of characters (140 to be precise) that a person could use, forcing them to be short and preferably aphoristic.

The problem with this trend of dispersing the communication channels is that there are so many of them, how do we keep track of them all? Or maybe even more interesting, do we keep track of them all or just a few? Which channels are preferred by the public in general? Danah Boyd describes why she sometimes feels like a ‘bitch’ on her blog: “The problem with Web2.0 technologies is that each one wants to replace the INBOX (or at least be an additional channel). For example, there are private messages and comments on social network sites, direct messages and @replies on Twitter. [..] For me, it’s too much. Too much I tell you. And we haven’t even gotten to voicemail, text messages. Let alone all that’s coming [3].” As her metaphor might already imply, she puts the computer mediated communication (CMC) of email first, although I do suspect that if you have her number and giver her a call she might just be able pick-up. But the point she’s trying to make is that she suffers from ‘information-overload’ and that she has to make choices based on her personal preferences, as all of us have to do from the complex multiplicity of communication channels. “And there are huge issues here – should someone be flexible to others’ preferences or demand that others work around them? And here’s where I feel like a bitch. I’m asking people to work around me. Because I can’t cope with the alternative. And that makes me feel guilty and selfish. And I don’t know what to do about this [3].”

Personally, I somewhat feel the same as Danah Boyd, computers where supposed to make life easier but in certain instances, as with CMC it seems as if communicating is only more chaotic and dispersed. I’m not a very big fan for example of twitter, I do have an account and check every now and then but feel its a bit unnecessary and invasive. Besides that, I’m not very short in general (as you might have noticed), I have a lot of trouble making my messages short and to the point. Still, I do see how this skill could be useful, so maybe I should try to ‘tweet’ more and learn to be ‘aphoristic’.

[1] John M. formy-Duval. ‘The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism
by James Geary’, http://contemporarylit.about.com/od/wordsandlanguage/fr/worldInPhrase.htm.
[2] Marshall Soules, 2007. ‘McLuhan Light and Dark’, Malaspina University-College. http://www.media-studies.ca/articles/mcluhan.htm.
[3] Dana Boyd, 2009. ‘sometimes I feel like a bitch’, http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/09/12/sometimes_i_fee.html.

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