Laugh-Out-Loud Cats #1299. Image CC BY-NC-SA Ape Lad.

Digital Culture is Like Oral Culture Written Down

Calling selfie sticks and lunch pics narcissistic reflects a written culture perspective. There’s another way to think about them.

Having grown up around a number of oral cultures, digital culture has always struck me as oral culture written down. Indeed, many basic critiques of how people live online stem from the assumption that people online ought to follow the norms and conventions of written culture.

Can this help us understand the kerfluffle around the meaning of the selfie stick, pictures of food, and other seemingly odd aspects of digital culture? Yes, I would argue, and where some see narcissism and self obsession, I tend to see the conflation of print culture with oral culture.

Writing in 2011, Zeynep Tufekci noted that much of Western, English-speaking culture comes from a literate culture tradition. This leads to misunderstandings with how the web operates. And how does the web operate? Well, it looks more like an oral conversation than a written one.

The oral world is ephemeral, exists only suspended in time, supported primarily through interpersonal connections, survives only on memory, and rather than building final, cumulative works, it is aimed at conversation and remembering knowledge by rendering it memorable, which can often mean snarky, witty, rhythmic and rhyming. (Think poet slams rather than essays).
In oral psychodynamics, the conversational, formulaic styling dominates (which aides memory) as well as back-and-forth, redundancy, an emphasis on being less analytic and more aggregative, being more additive rather than developing complex and subordinate clauses (classic example is the Genesis which, like Homer’s Odyssey, is indeed an oral work which was later written down). Oral pschodynamics also tend to be more antogonistic, interpersonal and participatory.

I think it’s worth acknowledging how much the conversation has changed since 2011. In previous years, print culture was the dominant mode of understanding how the social web works, but it seems to me like much of the conversation is starting to shift to an oral culture framework.

We’re recognizing, for instance, how social media can facilitate the spread of rumors and misinformation. We’re acknowledging that verbal cyberbullying and online harassment can be deeply painful. Activist hashtagging continues in the tradition of call and response of chants and slogans. Conversation is a key principle in the new Cluetrain Manifesto: “The Net is not a medium any more than a conversation is a medium.”

All these discussions point to how social media has more of an oral, rather than literate, culture. By focusing just on what people post, we’re missing the point: social context, relationships and nonverbal gestures matter as much as the words and images themselves.

In other words, a selfie is never just a selfie. It exists in a broader social context, and just because some people take them narcissistically doesn’t mean that all, or even most, do.

Oral Culture/Print Culture

Shift the framework from print culture to oral culture, and much of the way we use social media sounds a little less crazy and little more, well, human. The Out of Eden Walk project is fond of calling its online community a digital campfire. I like that image; like idle chichat and storytelling around a campfire, the conversations we have on social media often resemble oral conversations written down.

In that vein, here are a few general complaints against social media that I often hear (do they sound familiar?), and a potential way to reframe them (though to be honest, they’re each worthy of an essay). Because I look at images as much as words on the web, I prefer to use the term print culture, by which I hope to encompass both image- and word-based communications before the internet:

Print culture: People waste time posting pictures of their pets.
Oral culture:
People tell silly stories about their pets all the time. Photos make those stories easier.

Print culture: Who cares what you’re having for lunch?
Oral culture:
Eating food together, preparing food and talking about said food is one of the most fundamentally social things human beings do.

Print culture: Selfies are the height of vanity and narcissism.
Oral culture: Selfies help express emotion and tell stories. The written word lacks all the nuance of the human face, and selfies help fill that gap.

Print culture: There are literally thousands of people documenting this event with their cameras. Why do you need to take a picture too?
Oral culture: I’m taking this photo to share it with friends. It has to come from me, from my perspective, because I’m the storyteller.

Print culture: Punctuation marks help disambiguate meaning, words, and sentences. Be sparing with exclamation marks and semicolons.
Oral culture:
Punctuation marks indicate emphasis. And tone… And emotion! And confusion‽‽‽ And. Every. Mode. Of. Expression. Under. The. Sun. ;)

Print culture: Ur spelling iz awful. Write proper English.
Oral culture:
Variants of standardized language are probably as old as words themselves.

Print culture: Use hashtags to express topicality.
Oral culture: Use hashtags to #chant, to have a #metaconversation. Or #justbecause. #somanywaystousehashtags

Print culture: Think carefully about how you arrange words to convey exactly what you mean to say.
Oral culture:
I has the feels. Here’s a GIF. Because GIFs fill the gap where nonverbal expression exists.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Terrie Schweitzer.

There are major differences between digital culture and oral culture, of course.

For one, you can’t index what people are saying in aural space (unless you’re using voice recognition software or audio recordings, etc.). Something you say in one place rarely escapes the physical constraints of sound; in digital culture, one sentence or image can go global rather quickly.

As well, print culture is still an important part of the dialogue, as it always has been, because digital technologies evolved from print technologies and share much of the same functionality. Digital culture has a permanence that’s as helpful for cultural heritage as it is for surveillance.

As law professor James Grimmelmann has written in response to some of my Tweets on this subject, this also has significant effects for the law:

Observers who expect that social media should have the dignity and gravity of the written word can feel affronted when others use social media more informally.
I see this slippage at work in Internet law all the time. The legal system repeatedly asks itself whether social media should be taken seriously.

In general, I find it more helpful, when looking at how people live and interact online, to take an oral culture orientation. We shouldn’t stop there, of course, because digital culture is not exactly oral culture, and it’s critical that we understand the implications of preservation and archiving when it comes to digital culture.

But with a better frame, we can then dive into the specifics of each practice to try to figure out what’s going on—and start to understand the implications in the realms of policy, law, translation, journalism and other fields.

Image CC BY-NC Hey Tiffany!

So back to the selfie stick.

Today, I’m writing purely from a cultural-ethnographic perspective, and I want to address the kerfluffle around the selfie stick, which I see as an extension of previous kerfluffles, around lunch pics, selfies, cat photos and other social media practices. In general, as we see more people from different cultures coming online, my guess is that those with rich oral traditions are more likely to be early adopters of practices that might initially seem odd to the more writerly types.

Emoji, messenger stickers, walkie talkie text messages and selfie sticks all come to mind—there’s a reason these have tended to be more popular in Asia initially, where oral culture flourishes online (h/t selfie writer Alicia Eler). Especially when it comes to selfies and group photos, photos don’t end with the picture taking. Rather, everything about these photos — from taking them, sharing them and talking about them — is a vehicle for social bonding, storytelling, talking, etc.

The way we engage each other online—whether that’s words, images, music, GIFs, etc.—, is more of a conversation than a broadcast, more an act of sharing than of documentation. This will be especially true as more people speaking languages with no formal written form come online — and when we talk about the “next billion” to come online, it’s largely those folks. So we should expect more oral traditions in digital form in the coming years.

In other words, taking pictures in the context of digital culture and social media is much more of a communicative rather than purely documentary act (though obviously it’s a mix of both). And by conflating print and oral culture—and by extension digital culture—, we’re doing a disservice to what are quite often genuinely human and social gestures.

Okay, here’s one more reframing, and it’s about the beloved selfie stick:

Print culture: Selfie sticks help us extend our narcissism to new heights.
Oral culture: Selfie sticks help us tell better and more varied stories about what we’re up to. We can include a larger group of people. More of the background and scenery. The more detail, the better. Selfies allow us to take and frame the picture as a social experience with friends, making sure it comes from our own perspectives, not that of a stranger.

Oh, and they’re fun, to boot.

Image CC BY Travis Wise

Written with thanks to the WSK crew in Manila for inspiring this line of thought. We had a great conversation about “tsismis” culture and how that translate online.

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