Visual Orality

In 2010, Soffer wrote that “digital orality constitutes the relatively new and diachronically last era [of orality]… … in which orality is entirely written.” He was building on Ong’s 1982 influential paper where he states that the first four stages of orality were all influenced by advances in technology (writing, the printing press, radio and television). In this paper, Soffer argues that this fifth, digital era is different than those that came before, though still heavily influenced by the technology (though I would argue that the combination of technology and human culture influences the change rather than just the technology). This is the first time that orality has been written (rather than writing made oral) and the written word is influencing how we write. Soffer wrote this before instagram, before snapchat, and right as memes were starting to become ‘a thing.’

I would like to propose here that we are at the very beginning of another era, or at least sub era, of a “graphic orality.” Rather than communicating using text, youth (an age that will remain undefined) are communicating visually. As evidenced by the overwhelming popularity of snapchat (which allows a user to send an image that self destructs in 10 seconds or less), instagram, photosharing, memes and emojis, this is a legitimate form of communication. Often these images are left to speak for themselves, or tagged with a short line of informal text. So much so that it may constitute a communication form that is visually, but not linguistically dependent.

This is less of a new phenomenon than it may appear at first. Humans have been communicating with images for as long as there have been cave walls. These images mean something, just like the style of graffiti tag means something. I have no comment on cave art, it’s not a genre I’m familiar with, but would like to draw the parallel with graffiti. In 1980’s New York, a graffiti artist’s tag identified where in the city he was from, what gang he was affiliated with, and who he was. All of this information is highly culturally situated. To read these tags, one had to either be a member of the graffiti culture, or have been enculturated into it by someone who was. There was a reading of the image that had its own structure and meaning (or syntax and semantics).

Today, groups of people (from 2 to millions) can send images and convey a whole set of feelings, thoughts, ideas, and connotations. What digital tools have done is domesticated this practice. Now, it’s not just visual artists who make these highly meaning laden images, but everyone with a smart phone. Image creation is in the hands of the populace, and these images carry meaning within a [speech] community. This shift parallels the development of the printing press to bring writing into everyone’s home, and era Ong terms “print culture,” which fundamentally changed how people relate to print. What we are witnessing now is another shift – where images can be read in a way parallel to the word.