The work of medium theorists, such as Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan, has helped awaken us, or, rather, reacquaint us, with our oral past. It is a past that is elusive to those steeped in literacy – Ong, in Orality and Literacy (1982), describes the difficulty trying to “imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything” (p. 31). For oral cultures, phrases such as “look up” or “take a note” or “read through,” phrases which are commonplace and taken for granted today, are empty, as they are visual metaphors, rooted in literacy and writing. Yet the history of oral cultures is rich and extensive, as Ong notes only a fraction of the languages spoken have a literature, and even now, “hundreds of languages in active use are never written at all: no one has worked out an effective way to write them” (p. 7). For oral cultures, speech and sound are primary – this is McLuhan’s “ear man.” In these societies, spoken language becomes a “mode of action,” bounded with magical qualities; words represent power.
Today, even with literacy rates relatively high within American culture, there is a still a lingering oral component within language:
But, in all the wonderful worlds that writing opens, the spoken word still resides and lives. Written texts all have to be related somehow, directly or indirectly, to the world of sound, the natural habitat of language, to yield their meanings. ‘Reading’ a text means converting it to sound, aloud or in the imagination, syllable-by-syllable in slow reading or sketchily in the rapid reading common to high-technology cultures. Writing can never dispense with orality. (Ong, 1982, p. 8)
Similarly, McLuhan (1962) notes for a phonetic alphabet culture, “…there is constant pressure from the subliminal fact that written code carries for the reader the experience of the ‘content’ which is speech” (p. 72). This legacy of our oral past is retained, for example, in culturally significant events, as an officiant who performs a wedding ceremony, a juror who proclaims a defendant’s innocence or guilt, or a President who declares war on another country. Words today are more than simply textual representations of thought; they have preserved the sense of magic and power that was integral to the age of primary orality.
This, then, is the starting point for an examination of the orality of blogging. For the blog is not simply a print medium, not simply textual, but a medium of speech, a collection of conversations (or, in blogger terminology, “comments”) in cyberspace. The words on a blog are more than words; they have power. They represent social acts and practices, and, in this manner, blur the boundaries between the written and oral media spaces within which blogs are situated.
The orality of blogging also creates community. Unlike Putnam’s (1995) bowling metaphor, there is no “blogging alone,” as bloggers, through their conversations, create social bonds in cyberspace. In a similar vein, medium theorists studying oral cultures find that words bring people closer together. Ong (1982) notes the “interiority” of sound, as the spoken word “manifests human beings to one another as conscious interiors, as person, the spoken word forms human being into close-knit groups” (p. 74). For McLuhan (1964), oral man lived in a “seamless web of kinship and interdependence” (p. 50). The world of orality is rooted in sounds, in language, and words that invite participation and community, illustrated here with a post by a Daily Kos blogger:
It turned out that even though I was Wicked Smart, there were others here not only just as smart and aware as I, but some even smarter and more aware than I! I had one convo that went roughly like this. Paraphrased of course…
Me: Well, I disagree!!! I have studied extensively, as an avocation, the way the human brain works.
Other Guy: I am a Neuro-Surgeon
But I also found PLENTY of folks who were ready and willing to help me…to overlook my ignorance and newness and point me in the right direction to become a productive member of the community. I learned to be a little humble and to listen to those who had been here longer and knew the ropes. Eventually the community accepted me wholeheartedly and gradually I reclaimed my imperious arrogance…..but now molded and modeled to community standards. (buhdydharma, “New Users Guide To DKos”)
If we think of blogging, and perhaps social media in general, in this light, as something more than a textual medium, something closer to our oral past, this opens up many possibilities. If we think of what we do online in terms of “conversations,” then it’s easier to see the social side of these media. Just as, in the real world, what we say and do makes us who we are, what we post, and blog, and create in the virtual world is part of us. While our online interactions are “virtual,” they are real – people are using social media to bond, to explore their identity, to advocate their politics. We’ve even seen the all-too-real downside of social media, with news media reports of cyberbullying, and the sometimes-tragic results.
This idea of orality, and the connection it creates between our non-literate past and our technology-mediated present, helps explain much of why we find social media so very compelling.