Recently I read (but can no longer find!) an article discussing the rise of social media in terms of its relationship to orality. The writer made the point that much of what we read on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites is conversational, deeply inflected by the conventions of speech and oral culture (with more and more emojis offering substitutes for emphasis, tone, etc.). I’ve written before about Walter Ong’s notion of secondary orality and its influence in our hyper-mediated society, and I’ve described what we might call “secondary literacy,” which is literacy infused with orality—as we see today on social media. It’s writing, all right, but writing that aims to be very much like speech.
Like many other teachers of writing, I’m pondering what such shifts mean for our classrooms, for what we teach and how we teach it. In a course on the history of writing, I always began with the struggle for the vernacular in medieval Europe . . . tracing the eventual downfall of Latin and Greek and the rise of indigenous languages/vernaculars. Think of early writers of vernacular languages (Chaucer, e.g.) and you will think of some of the world’s great literature. So hooray for vernaculars!
But it’s seemed to me for some time that social media brings a new sense of “vernacular,” or everyday speech, and its rise has been swift and pervasive. Challenging traditional notions of decorum or civility as well as conventional norms of all kinds, social media writing crests like a huge wave over us, bringing with it experimental uses of language that seem downright magical and innovative as well as threatening (hate-based messages especially).
I have only begun to scratch the surface of this issue, to which I hope to return soon. But right now, I am concerned that in our writing classes we look closely at this “return of the oral” and its implications for how we lead our lives, especially online. Bakhtin writes of “the ability to respond” or “respondability” being key to discourse exchange, and I agree: all of what we write and speak responds in some way to what others have written and said. And we need to take advantage of this ability to respond, to get our voices out there with the messages we care most deeply about. But we also need to talk with our students about responsibility, the ability to be accountable for what we write and speak, to present credible and detailed evidence in support, and to accept consequences attendant upon our words, whether spoken or written.
In a time when very powerful people want to “shut down” parts of the Internet, to move away from “net neutrality” and otherwise police the Net, and when very powerful others want absolutely no curbs on what is posted, then we badly need writing teachers and students everywhere to search for some middle ground that will encourage and reward personal responsibility and to put that responsibility to work in social media writing.