From the 1960s to the 1980s, cultural historian Walter J. Ong explored how the transition from orality to literacy affected human consciousness. Whereas oral culture relies upon a host of devices for preserving information across the generations—proverbs, idioms and epithets; a shared mythology of heroes; and a vocabulary tied to the shared and concrete world—the introduction of writing allowed us to communicate with more abstraction, individuality, and complexity. Writing, Ong claims, effected a shift of emphasis in human thought from the world of sound to the world of sight: “Without writing, words as such have no visual presence… They are occurrences, events.”
Looking toward the modern age, Ong theorized that radio and television ushered in an age of “secondary orality”—a sort of post-literacy period that resembles oral or pre-literate cultures in that it is largely spoken and retains a “participatory mystique,” and at the same time preserves the deliberateness and precision of the written forms on which it is based. Insofar as we return to the group or audience mentality of oral culture, we do so self-consciously.
Following upon Ong’s train of thought, recent theorists have posited that the digital age—characterized above all by texting, messaging, and online reading—has brought about a period of “secondary literacy.” With the internet and smartphones, we’re back to the written word. And yet unlike earlier writers, we now write with the instantaneousness and colloquiality of speech.
As media theorist Liliana Bounegru writes, Twitter affords the posting of short messages “in a conversational tone,” and “allows real-time writing and rapid communication with large groups of people in a speed that would resemble oral storytelling, without having to share the same physical space with your audience.” On the other hand, writes Robinson Meyer for The Atlantic, “Twitter lets users read the same words at different times, which is a key aspect of literacy.”
With secondary literacy, in other words, there’s a conflation of speech-like thinking and print-like materiality. And it can be problematic. Though we communicate via text and social media with all the casualness of speech, the traces are by no means ephemeral. Off-the-cuff remarks are taken as founding principles. Messages, shared with and read by whomever, suffer from context collapse.
Drawing upon the work of Bonnie Stewart, Meyer echoes her concern that online communities devolve into partisan fighting precisely because of the disjunct between spoken and written mentalities: “‘Tweets are taken up as magnum opi to be leapt upon and eviscerated, not only by ideological opponents or threatened employers but by in-network peers.’”