Oral cultures distinguish themselves, obviously, with an absence of the written word. Ong, in Orality and Literacy, describes this as 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” are empty, as they are visual metaphors, rooted in literacy and writing. Oral cultures center existence within sound – McLuhan’s “ear man.” Spoken language becomes a “mode of action,” bounded with magical qualities; words represent power. Oral cultures rely heavily on mnemonics and formulas to develop memory systems, as knowledge cannot be written down and persisted.
The focus on sound and memory, at the expense of the visual, creates a different kind of sensory configuration within an oral culture. Now, of course, this is not to suggest the tweets on Twitter exist outside of the realm of the visual. And our senses — long trained in the ways of literacy — are nothing like those of a non-literate culture.
But engaging Ong’s intriguing idea of “secondary orality,” how media has the potential to extend us outward (McCluhan’s “global village”), provides something of a theoretical space to consider the “orality” of social media. Ong has stated:
Oral communication is all immediate, in the present. Writing, chirographic or typed, on the other hand, comes out of the past. Even if you write a memo to yourself, when you refer to it, it’s a memo which you wrote a few minutes ago, or maybe two weeks ago. But on a computer network, the recipient can receive what is communicated with no such interval. Although it is not exactly the same as oral communication, the network message from one person to another or others is very rapid and can in effect be in the present. Computerized communication can thus suggest the immediate experience of direct sound. I believe that is why computerized verbalization has been assimilated to secondary ‘orality,’ even when it comes not in oral-aural format but through the eye, and thus is not directly oral at all. Here textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange. To handle [page break] such technologizing of the textualized word, I have tried occasionally to introduce the term ‘secondary literacy.’
Terminology aside, it’s clear Ong was formulating something that connects our communicative and technological present to our oral past. With Twitter, there is a parallel to the world of orality in both the ephemerality and the immediacy of the words spoken from user to user.
Unlike a blog, where every blog post and comment is persisted in a database, tweets, for the most part, come and go. There is no long-term storage of posts in Twitter — services such as Tweet Scan can tease out a couple weeks worth of tweets (see here for my most recent), but something I “said” last year? Not there. The words spoken on Twitter are, by nature of the service itself, ephemeral.
And, of course, that’s not the intention behind Twitter. It’s something more like chat — real-time, less permanent…the immediacy of the technologized word.
This, then, is the orality of Twitter — like the spoken word, fleeting, ephemeral, lingering only in our memory.