Online Oral Psychodynamics

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Excerpted from Zeynep Tufekci:

" Keller is actually trying to complain about the reemergence of oral psychodynamics in the public sphere rather than about memory falling out of favor. If the latter were the case, his ire would be more about Google; instead, most of his frustration is directed against social media, and mostly Twitter, the most conversational, and thus most oral of these mediums.

The key to understanding this is that while writing did displace the value of memory, the vast abundance of printed material it did something else also, something less remarked upon, both to the shape of our public sphere and also to our psychodynamics. It replaced the natural, visceral human oral psychodynamics with those of literate and written ones. Most of us are so awash in this new form that we notice it as much as fish notice water; however, writing is but a blip and the printed from a flash in human history. Orality, on the other hand, is perhaps the most human of our characteristics, and ironically, the comeback of which into the public sphere is the one Keller is lamenting while worrying about losing our human characteristics. What he seems to actually mean is that, with the advent of writing and printing, we *acquired* these new cognitive tools and novel psychodynamic [and I should note that they never took that much root in most recesses of culture and thus remain fragile] and they are threatened by social media which re-introduces older forms which, of course, never died out but receded from public importance.

Here I am going to be drawing upon scholarship of Walter Ong and others who distinguish the characteristics of oral societies with those which are dominated by writing—and Europe and the United states are thoroughly dominated by the written culture even though oral culture is still with us because orality is deeply and intrinsically human; all human societies are also oral cultures. (This is true even for Deaf communities; the only difference is their orality is visual, not spoken). Primary orality refers to cultures which are untouched by writing whereas residual orality is cultures like ours where writing dominates even our speaking.

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. (Wikipedia does a pretty good job of summarizing these arguments but I strongly advise reading Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word for a more thorough treatment—though I have some issues with Ong’s arguments I think they are well worth taking seriously).

Sounds a lot like social media, does it not? In fact, Andy Carvin often refers to his Twitter reporting as part preserving oral history, and I think he is spot on. This distinction is probably a bit harder to observe in the English Twitter-verse since English is so thoroughly colonized by writing. Whenever I dive into the Turkish Twitter, I notice tweets employing many forms of Turkish which are solely found in oral Turkish and almost never written down in literate culture. I think this distinction may be more visible in other societies where oral culture was not as decisively beaten back as in the English speaking world — this makes it harder to explain the issue in English. (Although I think the so-called “black-tags” fit very well into oral culture traditions and is likely reflective of the fact that African-Americans are more steeped in oral culture due to their history in this country. Farhad Manjoo once examined this issue concluding that these witty, snarky, back-and-forth became trending topics because African-Americans on Twitter tend to be in denser, interconnected networks (small world networks, so to speak). However, that explains the how, not the why. The strong phatic nature of these “black-tags” points to oral culture as their root.

The difference between oral language and written language is also why bad scripts in movies sounds so stilted and written transcripts often look so funny. Those bad script writers are stuck in literate English rather than the spoken word. Oral/spoken language is related to but different from written language, and not just in phrases and grammar but also in mood, effect and rhythms.

What we are seeing with social media is the public sphere, hitherto dominated by written culture, has been more opened up to oral psychodynamics. And this is particularly difficult to deal with for intellectuals who rely on their competence with, and dominance of, the written form as hallmark of their place in society.


So, should we be concerned? Does this raise problems? Yes and no.


I do believe those Twitter-like environments are not well-suited to certain kinds of complex argument development and closure. It’s not solely because they are social but that is part of the picture.

The pressure to provide the memorable quote (so that one gets retweeted, the Twitter equivalent of the oral psychodynamic of striving to be remembered); the ephemerality of the conversations and the difficulty of making sense of those which one did not participate in (just like spoken ones); the length limit (just like the oral world since it is hard to have a conversation paragraphs or pages at a time), the visceral, interpersonal nature of the discussion do mean that a world in which Twitter became the sole means of discussing important public issues would indeed be a poorer one. There is great need to preserve and expand the long form through not just newspapers but through blogs and other forms.

However, Twitter and other such tools also present a great opportunity to bring into the public sphere, and into important conversations, greater number of people who would otherwise be excluded. Rather than seeing this as a turf war in which the literate classes must defend their turf against the barbarians at the gate, the questions should be how we can preserve the better aspects of the ideal of the reasoned, complex and rational public sphere without descending into elitism. (I say the ideal because, as Dave Parry often points out, usually on Twitter, the Habermassian ideal of the public sphere, well, never really was).

I see the recent interest in “storify” and other curation and preservation tools as an important step in this direction of integrating oral social media with the rest of the public sphere. I think there should be an effort to preserve longer-form blogging and not abandon it in favor of the quick exchange of Twitter (as Anil Dash said, it [almost] does not exist if you did not blog it). I think rather than dismissing Keller’s concerns, the digiterati should dig into this unease shared by many members of the literate classes and take apart the various issues.

And Bill Keller should understand that, at its best, Twitter is not a broadcast medium but a medium of conversation. What he has done so far on Twitter is the equivalent of walking into a party and saying a provocative sentence, followed by sitting at the corner sipping his cocktail – as in “#twittermakesyoustupid. Discuss.” Social encounters are satisfying and worth mostly to the degree that one participates in conversations, rather than announces witticisms and withdraws. Yes, I am a professor but I do not walk into random rooms and expect people to quietly take notes on what I am saying while I launch into a speech, projecting my voice to the back of the room. Keller cannot understand this medium if he treats it as something different than what it is, and to understand requires participation in its indigenous form, conversation.

I thus urge the Literati to come join the social media conversation with the understanding that some of their strengths will not be as valued, that they will need to relearn certain skills, and some parts of the experience will be annoying – but just like some good literature, it sometimes take some effort to grasp the value of a new form. I think the literate should accept that this is now an inseparable part of the public sphere and increasing numbers of people who were otherwise excluded can now be heard; yes, they don’t always think or say what I wish people thought or said but what else is new? Given the complexities of the issues facing humanity, engaging this expanded public sphere is of crucial importance to anyone concerned about how we, as humans, will continue to live our lives, socially, economically and politically.

And I urge the Digerati not to always dismiss these anxieties as signs of “get of my lawn” malady. Certainly, I occasionally get that sense that as well, but this is an opportunity have significant discussions on the ongoing reshaping of global networked public spheres. This debate needs to happen based more on substance rather than sides and turfs and their defense." (