Legends on the Net: An Examination of Computer-Mediated Communication as a Locus of Oral Culture

Fernback, Jan. “Legends on the Net: An Examination of Computer-Mediated Communication as a Locus of Oral Culture.” New Media & Society 5 1 (2003): 29-45.

“The potential of the internet as an(sic) medium of orality is worth of scholarly reflection.” (pg. 30.).

This statement is unquestionably accurate. However, real-time textual chat modes–a medium the author selects as the data source for her scholarly reflection–do not constitute a form of orality. As I have argued a number of times, while such communication forms are highly conversational, they cannot be considered oral communication, since they are not oral. To claim such is to break with the structure that Walter Ong (who Fernback cites heavily in this article) put forth to explain the ways that orality and literacy interact and differ. I will acknowledge the root of her study, however, that the Internet is a place where cultural folklore can be passed on, a process that was traditionally transferred orally.

Fernback’s largely addresses the changes that can occur when a communication type traditionally delivered through one conversational mode is now remediated through a different communication mode. In discussing contemporary oral culture, the author writes,

“The development of new technologies does not demand, or even necessarily contribute, to the obsolescence of existing ones. Writing cannot supplant oral communication, although it has replaced it in certain communicative contexts and has even helped to create new ones. Similarly, the electronic media ‘are only substitutes for oral and written communication in certain contexts and are always dependent on them, just as writing is dependent on the oral use of language, which remains the primary means of human communication’ (Goody, 1992: 12).” (36-7).

While I have established the OVC as a new social phenomenon and genre, I am adamant about not putting forth the idea–nor remotely insinuating–that the OVC is some radically new communication form that uproots our thinking and methods of interaction. Rather, I see it as a new genre, formed of merging and modifying existing communication genres. This draws the question: [To what extent] Does the online video conversation (OVC) alter human thought and interaction? Again, I am very cautious to not make sweeping, ultimate statements about the changes in thought and practice that this brings. However, I do think it changes the way we think about how video can be used online as a communication method, particularly as a unique way to merge video, orality, and text to communicate asynchronously. It is also worth noting that, as oppose to studying any actual outcomes of the new communication form, I am researching the perceived differences: those that the participants sense through using it.

Perhaps online video is bringing this next phase. It is not supplanting any preceding communication practice, but rather is in addition too them and is dependent on orality and chirography within the electronic media realm. One aspect of the OVC and most online video, in general, is that it has often been noted (by Ong and others), that the printed word is permanent, whereas the oral performance is not. Clearly, video changes this dynamic, since an oral performance can be recorded in audio or video form. The additional factor is that with the OVC, it is not just that oral conversations can be recorded, that it is recorded is inherent to the elements that define it. There is no need to question the accuracy of an oral statement, as one does with a non-recorded conversation in which memory serves as the record. The OVC can also add a certain level of legitimacy, ethos, and often authority to the oral performance, since the speaker is verifiably there and the performance can be recalled. With the live performance, the content can be passed on and lose some accuracy.

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