I rant from time-to-time about the use of secondary (or tertiary) orality to written forms of online communication because they represent misunderstandings of Walter Ong’s scholarship. This is not to say that there aren’t oral-like qualities to written online discourse any more than there are oral-like qualities to many kinds of written discourse. (See, for instance, Ong’s use of the term “residual orality.) At its basic level, the error is in trying to define written discourse as oral. While Ong’s “residual orality” works as a term because it refers directly to the carry over of oral features within written texts, he is (mostly) referring to features within written texts that are different from the oral features people find within online written texts.

Lance Strate, in his essay, “On the Binding Biases of Time,”1 gets at the heart of this. While Ong saw a reemphasis on oral communication with the rise of radio and television, Strate notes, Ong referred to it as “secondary orality” because it was not the orality of primary oral cultures. Likewise, Strate continues, while McLuhan argued electronic media were retrieving acoustic space and retribalizing us, these were not returns to the way things had been but new practices and new forms of existence (381). What I like most from this section of the essay, which is really an essay on the concept of time as an intersection of general semantics and media ecology, is the following passage:

We have found a new kind of interactivity made possible by computer-mediated communication, social networking, and social media, and this does seem to provide us with a form of communication that resembles orality in certain respects. But are a series of updates and comments on Facebook, MySapce, and Twitter the equivalent of oral dialogue? Does blogging take the place of epic poetry and public address? Can online groups and bulletin boards replace communities where individuals must cooperate out of necessity, in response to the requirements of material reality? Does the ephemeral nature of electronic communications, with Web sites and people’s profiles vanishing overnight, provide us with the continuity that we so desperately need? (381)

Rooting his questions in social use and practice, the answers to each is so clearly no, and that is the point. Just because two things have similarities does not mean that they have equivalency let alone that they are one and the same. And that, again, is before we set aside the fundamental issue that orality is rooted in acoustic space, that it is oral/aural, and that literacy is rooted in visual space, that it is visual and tactile. And just as important as the issues of medium and sensory perception is the issue of social use and practice. Fundamental to orality-literacy studies and media ecology is the notion that communication technologies exist within social frameworks. They help shape, and their uses are shaped by, the cultures in which they exist.

  1. ETC:  A Review of General Semantics 67.4 (2010): 360-388 []