Secondary Orality in Microblogging

Orality versus literacy in the history of human consciousness

In the book “Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the World”, Walter Ong compares orality and literacy, as defining features of oral cultures (cultures which do not have a system of writing), and “chirographic” cultures respectively (the ones who use alphabetic writing systems). He analyzes the implications of these two types of cultures on human consciousness, mentality, and identity.

Although one automatically links humanity with the literacy capacity in this era, the overwhelming majority of time that humans have been in existence (between 30 000 and 50 000 years), was dominated by oral culture. The first signs of literacy date only 6 000 years ago.

While the narrative structure of oral discoursive forms would focus on highlighting and enhancing the memorability of a discourse, according to Ong, through a series of features which will be analyzed later in this article, the shift to literacy changes the functions of discourse and brings new implications on human consciousness. Although in the beginning the sole purpose of script was to support orality, gradually the written discourse distances and weakens communication between author and audience, changes the emphasis of the sensorial world from hearing to sight, resulting in an interiorization of thought and closure of the discoursive form, which allow precision, detail, and extensive development of a topic. Script, further emphasized by printing technology, therefore encouraged individualization, distance, objectivity, abstractization and analytical thought, as both Ong and McLuhan acknowledge.

The shift to literacy also has consequences on human perception of space and time, as “print suggests that words are things”[1], and allows them to be visualized and arranged in indexes, tables of content, lists, etc., and to be preserved across time.

Electronic (new) media and secondary orality

According to Walter Ong, the development of electronic technologies and electronic media have brought humanity in an age of secondary orality. Secondary orality is the re-emergence of an oral type of discourse within literate cultures; it is a mixture of literate, oral, and electronic cultures in contemporary discourse. Secondary orality resembles primary oral culture through its “participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas”[2], but it is more “prudent” and self-conscious in its expression, due to the use of a less ephemeral medium, the textual one: “Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, a true audience, just as reading written or printed texts turns individuals in on themselves. But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture – McLuhan’s ‘global village.’ Moreover, before writing, oral folk were group-minded because no feasible alternative had presented itself. In our age of secondary orality, we are group-minded self-consciously and programmatically.”[3]

Although what primary and secondary orality share is a strong sense of being part of a group, the difference between them results from the stage of development that human consciousness reached through literacy. With literacy the human evolution has moved towards an accentuated self-consciousness articulated distantly from the community structures. For Ong writing “intensifies the sense of self and fosters more conscious interaction between persons.”[4]. Secondary orality, which “depends on writing and print for its existence”[5], has thus emerged as the deliberate re-integration of humans in groups in a state of self-counsciousness, with the purpose of the re-mediation of the self, phenomana known as re-tribalization.

Microblogging, Twitter and secondary orality

The secondary oral culture today has reached the highest level of development in cyberspace from all electronic media, and went beyond Ong’s description, where the audience plays no role, is absent or unseen, to the audience playing an active role in the definition of the self.

Microblogging is the newest phenomena that develops on features of secondary orality. Accoding to Wikipedia, microblogging is “a form of blogging that allows users to write brief text updates (usually 140 characters) and publish them, either to be viewed by anyone or by a restricted group which can be chosen by the user. These messages can be submitted by a variety of means, including text messaging, instant messaging, email, MP3 or the web.”

The most used microblogging service today is Twitter. The Twitter philosophy is similar to the one of social network sites, playing an important role in the re-mediation and defining of self online, as discussed by danah boyd. The textual norms and behaviours are the ones that set Twitter apart and set it as an relevant example of secondary orality. Twitter allows the posting of short messages (max. 140 characters) with personal informational character by answering the question “What are you doing now?”, in a conversational tone rather than a written exchange, allows real-time writing and rapid communication with large groups of people in a speed that would resemble oral storytelling, without having to share the same physical space with your audience. Unlike postings in a blog, tweets come and go, are ephemeral and only kept in a database for a short period of time.

The main features of oral communication: subjective, grounded in observable and everyday, close to the human life and world, shared knowledge, aggregative, in the sense that it collectively builds consensus through dialogue and debate, situational (valuing direct experience over theory), are technologically enhanced to transform into secondary orality, recognisable through: potential for both subjective and objective, transcending barriers of time and space, grounded in everyday life, collaborative knowledge but possible to archive, “chunked” text but possible to aggregate and link, allowing both situational and abstract, analytical topics. All these features of secondary orality are recognisable in the Twitter world. Although conceived as a simulation of face-to-face communication, Twitter fragments the communication process and keeps focus on transmitter, who integrates his folowers’ input (tweets, profile) as part of his identity, a reminiscence of the written discourse, because Twitter’s interface is a textual one.


In the era of electronic media it is difficult to keep the distinction between oral culture and literate culture, since there are more and more hybrid forms of culture that spread on the internet. The secondary orality character of applications like Twitter is a manifestation, a consequence of humans’ desire to group, not out of a survival instinct but as a deliberate, rational act of re-integration, as statement of self-consciousness and declaration of identity within neo-tribal cultures.

The painting “Twittering machine” (Paul Klee, 1922) can be a good visualization of an online social network like Twitter, since it suggestively depicts a fusion of natural and artificial, which in the case of Twitter can be: primary orality and tribal culture, and deformation of natural through technology, resulting in secondary orality and re-tribalization through online social networking.

[1] Ong, Walter, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the World, Methuen, London & New York, 1982, p. 118

[2] Ibid., p. 136

[3] Ibidem

[4] Ibid, p. 179

[5] Ibid, p. 3

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