There are major differences between digital culture and oral culture, of course.
For one, you can’t index what people are saying in aural space (unless you’re using voice recognition software or audio recordings, etc.). Something you say in one place rarely escapes the physical constraints of sound; in digital culture, one sentence or image can go global rather quickly.
As well, print culture is still an important part of the dialogue, as it always has been, because digital technologies evolved from print technologies and share much of the same functionality. Digital culture has a permanence that’s as helpful for cultural heritage as it is for surveillance.
As law professor James Grimmelmann has written in response to some of my Tweets on this subject, this also has significant effects for the law:
Observers who expect that social media should have the dignity and gravity of the written word can feel affronted when others use social media more informally.
I see this slippage at work in Internet law all the time. The legal system repeatedly asks itself whether social media should be taken seriously.
In general, I find it more helpful, when looking at how people live and interact online, to take an oral culture orientation. We shouldn’t stop there, of course, because digital culture is not exactly oral culture, and it’s critical that we understand the implications of preservation and archiving when it comes to digital culture.
But with a better frame, we can then dive into the specifics of each practice to try to figure out what’s going on—and start to understand the implications in the realms of policy, law, translation, journalism and other fields.
So back to the selfie stick.
Today, I’m writing purely from a cultural-ethnographic perspective, and I want to address the kerfluffle around the selfie stick, which I see as an extension of previous kerfluffles, around lunch pics, selfies, cat photos and other social media practices. In general, as we see more people from different cultures coming online, my guess is that those with rich oral traditions are more likely to be early adopters of practices that might initially seem odd to the more writerly types.
Emoji, messenger stickers, walkie talkie text messages and selfie sticks all come to mind—there’s a reason these have tended to be more popular in Asia initially, where oral culture flourishes online (h/t selfie writer Alicia Eler). Especially when it comes to selfies and group photos, photos don’t end with the picture taking. Rather, everything about these photos — from taking them, sharing them and talking about them — is a vehicle for social bonding, storytelling, talking, etc.
The way we engage each other online—whether that’s words, images, music, GIFs, etc.—, is more of a conversation than a broadcast, more an act of sharing than of documentation. This will be especially true as more people speaking languages with no formal written form come online — and when we talk about the “next billion” to come online, it’s largely those folks. So we should expect more oral traditions in digital form in the coming years.
In other words, taking pictures in the context of digital culture and social media is much more of a communicative rather than purely documentary act (though obviously it’s a mix of both). And by conflating print and oral culture—and by extension digital culture—, we’re doing a disservice to what are quite often genuinely human and social gestures.
Okay, here’s one more reframing, and it’s about the beloved selfie stick:
Print culture: Selfie sticks help us extend our narcissism to new heights.
Oral culture: Selfie sticks help us tell better and more varied stories about what we’re up to. We can include a larger group of people. More of the background and scenery. The more detail, the better. Selfies allow us to take and frame the picture as a social experience with friends, making sure it comes from our own perspectives, not that of a stranger.
Oh, and they’re fun, to boot.
Written with thanks to the WSK crew in Manila for inspiring this line of thought. We had a great conversation about “tsismis” culture and how that translate online.
Итак, ты уверен, что врет моя статистика. Джабба рассмеялся. - Не кажется ли тебе, что это звучит как запоздалое эхо.