The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Social Media and Oral Culture

Until recently, many critiques of social media have come from the perspective of written culture, but the better framework is oral culture.

— an xiao mina (@anxiaostudio) January 3, 2015

A written culture assumption: selfies are the height of vanity. An oral culture reframing: selfies are a way to convey emotion and stories.

— an xiao mina (@anxiaostudio) January 3, 2015

These tweets capture something I’ve also observed in law. For centuries, the Anglo-American legal system has dealt with a world in which written expression was both more fixed and more formal than oral expression. Many legal rules therefore take writings more seriously than the spoken word:

  • Copyright only arises once a work is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”
  • Many contracts, and all wills, must be in writing.
  • Written defamation (libel) was taken more seriously than spoken defamation (slander).

These rules are based on fixity: a written contract gives more reliable intentions of what the parties wanted than the their later uncertain and competing recollections. But they are also based on formality: requiring a written contract is a “device for inducing the circumspective frame of mind appropriate in one pledging his future,” as Lon Fuller put it.

Social media, however, combine the fixity of the written tradition with the fluidity, immediacy, and interdependence of the oral tradition. As a result, people use them in ways that resemble casual conversations more than carefully crafted compositions–but unlike with the spoken word, the results are preserved and made visible. As Zeynep Tufekci puts it, “Twitter is not a broadcast medium but a medium of conversation.” Misunderstanding results. 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. For example, the section of my casebook on online speech asks whether Amanda Bonnen’s infamous tweet was legally actionable:

@JessB123 You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay.

The black-letter doctrinal answer is that of course it was, ssuming the apartment was in fact mold-free. But it’s uncomfortable. Horizon would never have found out about the statement had it come up in a conversation between Amanda and Jess B.; even if it had, a lawsuit would have been extremely unlikely. I regularly get students who moot the idea that maybe Twitter shouldn’t “count” for defamation purposes. They’re grasping at this idea of orality, but they don’t have good doctrinal hooks on which to hang the intuition.

For another example, Steven Salaita’s defenders have argued both that it was inappropriate for the University of Illinois to examine his tweets and that tweets shouldn’t be held to the same standards of rigor and decorum as academic writings. Rephrase those as claims about the orality of Twitter and it’s easier to see the division between them and his critics. Something similar is afoot in copyright’s increasingly tenuous distinction between reproductions and performances; we may be witnessing the demise of the “copy” as the core unit of copy-right. And some of the arguments about social media privacy may hinge on the idea that people use them conversationally.

Seeing a tweet that unlocks an idea for me, as these did, is a happy experience. It reminds me how much I enjoy participating in oral culture–and in written culture too.

Update (January 12, 2015)

An Xiao Mina has posted a Medium essay, “Digital Culture is Like Oral Culture Written Down,” that articulates and extends her points from Twitter. Consider it a must-read.