Oral Traditions and Social Media

Recently I finished up reading the book Glut by Alex Wright. The book describes how man has dealt with growing information throughout history. The book takes a journey that visits taxonomies created by North American Zuni Indians, Inca messengers who used beads to record messages, development of the library systems up to the electronic world we live in today. You can view this books as a Information Architecture history book. I can recommend this book to anyone who works or designs for the internet. An interesting part of the book discusses Oral information techniques and its role in preliterate cultures. The book outlines the work of linguist Walter Ong and his book Orality and Literacy 1982. Ong introduces the idea of 'secondary orality' to describe the relation between electronic media and oral cultures. While electronic media does not exactly mimic the dynamics of the spoken word they have many of the same forms.  Ong suggests that the difference between oral and literate breaks down to a few core distinctions.

In some ways, we can view social media as a reemergence of of oral patterns in electronic form. If we look at the 'Secondary Oral' section in some details we can see that this fits very well into today's social media technologies. If we consider two popular social media sites - Twitter and Facebook - we can see that both of these fit Ong's criteria for oral media;

  • They acquire value additively and aggregatively.
  • They are empathetic  - usually written in first person (one can note here the limited success in automatic tweets and Messages)
  • They are participatory through their ability to invite commenting or re tweeting.

It is no surprise then, that people have taken to social media to the degree that they have.

If we look closely at how people use these modern electronic tools we can see that many bear resemblance to the spoken word. The conversational tone of emails, the shorthand and hashtags used on twitter and instant messaging seem to suggest the casual tone of speech. There is a natural tendency for people to use describe the web in 'publishing' terms but the reality is a web that enables both publishing and talking. I think as more people get online, this has less to do with their love to reading and writing, but more our deep seated desire to talk.

All of us are natural talkers, but a large part of the world still is illiterate.


Ong, W. J. 1977. Interfaces of the word: Studies in the evolution of consciousness and culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ong, W. J. 1982. Orality and literacy. New York: Routledge.