As emerging Web technologies fuel the rise of so-called social media (think YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter), the practice of interaction design is evolving from its roots in human-computer interfaces to address a broader range of human-to-human activities. Designers who once trafficked in task analysis and usability heuristics now frequently grapple with subtler, “squishier” modes of interaction: negotiating social relationships, building communities, working with issues of trust and identity. From the proliferation of blogs to social networking and “crowdsourcing” applications, modern software design seems less predicated on how people interact with computers, and increasingly focused on how people interact with each other.
Some pundits have suggested that the emergence of social media heralds the fruition of the Web’s great promise: an age of technological liberation, in which old institutional hierarchies will give way to an unstoppable wave of individual expression and bottom-up social organization. But the rise of social media may not be such a futuristic development as we might suppose; it may also signal the resurgence of ancient patterns of interaction rooted deep in our human prehistory.
The linguist Walter J. Ong argued that electronic communications often bear more resemblance to the cadences of age-old oral cultures than to the deliberate writing style of comparatively newer literate cultures. Ong’s theory seems amply born out on the Web, with its panoply of blogs, comments, user reviews, tags, and other forms of user-generated content that often seem more like talking than writing. Ong coined the term “secondary orality” to describe this pattern (“secondary” because while electronic communications may resemble oral patterns of interaction, they are also filtered through the medium of writing) . Table.
Today oral culture remains little studied and poorly understood, largely due to our deep-seated cultural bias toward literacy. But without a clear understanding of how oral culture really works, we are left with a flawed and limited perspective on the social changes now taking shape online. By deepening our understanding of oral culture, we can make better choices about how to design in the world of social media. First, we have to recognize the crucial distinctions between oral and literate modes of thought. Oral culture is, according to Ong, “additive rather than subordinative” and “aggregative rather than analytic.” That is to say, orality fosters a collective, highly social way of understanding by building consensus over timethrough iterative dialogue and, at times, fostering antagonistic viewsas opposed to the more studious, individualistic style of traditional literary writing. Oral cultures are “participatory rather than objective” and “situational rather than abstract”; they value direct experience over theory. Finally, oral cultures are “empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced.” In other words, whereas literate cultures strive toward idealized notions of “truth” or correctitude, oral cultures turn largely on human emotion.
If we contemplate the present-day Web through the filter of Ong’s theory, we can find numerous examples of oral and literate cultures colliding. For example, on Amazon.com, most books include two kinds of reviews: editorial reviews supplied by ostensibly authoritative sources like Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal, sitting alongside customer reviews contributed by visitors to the site. The two types of reviews may occupy the same Web page, but they never intermingle. Editorial reviews seem to meet Ong’s criteria for literate culture: They are analytic, objective (at least in principle), and typically written in the third person. Customer reviews, by contrast, seem to map exactly to Ong’s definition of “oral” culture: They are additive and aggregative (insofar as customer reviews are aggregated to give measures like average ratings); they are often situationalwritten in the first personand completely participatory, open to anyone.
For a similar example, we can turn to Wikipedia, where published articles at least aspire to the virtues of literacystriving toward analytical objectivity and authoritativeness (albeit with mixed results). Yet each article is always accompanied by a discussion page, often hosting a free-wheeling and vigorous debate in which readers try to reach a collective agreement about topics under dispute. Again, oral and literate cultures may coexist, but they never quite converge.
The same distinction plays itself out across the Webin the world of blog postings and comments, or in the numerous cases of companies grappling for ways to engage their customers in public forums. At The New York Times, where I work, we also spend a lot of time pondering this questionhow to invite readers into a dialogue while maintaining the company’s bedrock journalistic values, which inevitably turn on a certain kind of literate, editorial exclusivity. We are constantly exploring ways to renegotiate our relationship with the increasingly outspoken people formerly known as “readers.”
It should come as no surprise that people are so naturally inclined to “talk” online. As Steven Pinker points out, most people learn to read and write only with great difficulty, after years of grueling education. But we are born babblers, the “talking ape.” The resurgence of oral culture online is simply a natural manifestation of this deep-seated human instinct .
Our ancient human impulses manifest in other ways online as well, particularly in the use of certain kinds of iconography and other visual symbols to negotiate social relationships. In preliterate times, people relied on symbolic objects to forge bonds of trust with each other: trading bone knives, jewelry and other items, or using cave paintings as rallying points to achieve group consensus about a shared objective. As people started living together in closer quarters, they started to produce more and more of these symbolic objectsas a way of mediating relationships in a growing community. Thus, visual symbols allowed people to free themselves from the bounds of social proximity. Here too, we can find parallels in the world of social media, in the way people seem to use visual symbols as a basis for creating relationships with people they otherwise do not know. Consider the iconography of Ebay’s trusted-seller ratings, Amazon’s reviewer ratings, or the elaborate symbolic status hierarchies of virtual worlds like Second Life. While one wants to be careful of making sweeping claims about the long and complex history of visual culture, the use of certain markers of trust and identity do seem to harken back to deep-seated, tribal patterns of communication. People may be hardwired to rely on certain visual symbols as emblems of social status, and to invoke them as emotional proxies in forging connections with people they would otherwise consider strangers.
In an age when billions of human beings now possess the technologies of literacyarmed with powerful computers and unprecedented possibilities for individual expressionit seems no small irony that in our post-industrial era of technological progress we should rediscover our most ancient impulses: building social networks through symbolic communication, forging bonds of trust with people we don’t know, and, above all, “talking.”
By understanding and appreciating these primal modes of interactionthe resurgence of “oral” culture and the use of visual symbols as totems of trust and identityperhaps designers can broaden their perspective on modern software design and begin to appreciate the deeper human instincts now shaping the digital world. We may now be working at the cusp of a historical paradox, propelling ourselves forward into the past.
The New York Times
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Wright is the author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. He has led user experience design initiatives for The New York Times, Yahoo!, Microsoft, IBM, Harvard University and the Long Now Foundation, among others. His writing has appeared in Salon.com, The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Magazine, and other publications. Alex writes regularly about technology and design at http://www.alexwright.org.
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