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Mobiliteracy: applying Ong's psychodynamic characteristics to users of mobile communication technology.

A. Introduction

In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong outlines key characteristics of both oral and literate cultures. In doing so, Ong demonstrates the psychodynamics involved in the oral/literate shift and creates a set of working criteria for identifying behaviors and cognitive patterns in the distinct populations. While Ong does address electronic technology in his exploration of "secondary literacy" (1982, p. 120), the focus is still on the use of speech and aural communications vis-a-vis writing and print. Additionally, Ong briefly discusses the hybrid "verbomotor lifestyle" (p. 67) in which literate cultures maintain traits of orality. In light of media evolutions since Ong's writing, I believe that there is a yet another culture emerging--perhaps a subset of secondary orality--that requires definition and exploration; one that is primarily typographic yet exhibits many of the defining traits of oral culture.

This essay will utilize Ong's nine characteristics of orally based thought and expression to define a new hybridized culture that I will refer to as "mobiliterate." It is not my intent here to specifically address the impacts of technology on formal education or literacy as the ability for one to read and write. Rather, this essay will explore broader cultural and linguistic changes. Through technical and sociological research points, I will argue that the mobility and connectivity of new media are changing the psychodynamics of communication and dramatically impacting contemporary thought and expression.

B. Background and evolution of technology

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, mobile communication technology was rapidly making its way into popular consumer culture. In its infancy, the technology afforded users a minimal level of options. In recent years, however, mobile communication technology has exploded. In 1997, the wireless industry association CTIA reported that the average number of text messages sent each month was 1.2 million. By the end of 2012, an average of 171.3 billion text messages were sent each month (ctia, 2013) and recent reports indicate that more than 50% of Facebook's 901 million active monthly users access the social media site through a mobile device (socialbakers .com, 2012). Despite the rapid advances of smarter and more efficient devices, communication on a mobile device via text or sms remains time consuming, tedious, and cost prohibitive.

The limitations imposed by mobile devices force text message users to reimagine their messaging strategies, and subsequently, their actual language and syntax. Early multi-tap "keyboards" included only 12 keys and two or three "functional" keys for capitalization and special characters. In order to type the word "you" in a message, a user would have to tap eight times on three separate keys. Comparatively, pressing the number eight key just twice renders the letter "u." This function has led to using simple letters for phonemic representations of common words such as "you," "are," "be," and "see" (u, r, b, c). In this example, the technological limitations of text messaging led to the creation of a new codified language unique to mobile communication. The habit of character thrift, I believe, derived from the need to constrain a message to the still-present 140 or 160 character limit imposed by mobile service providers. Despite the incredible advances in technology since the first multi-tap keyboards, this dialect remains a common trend in mobile communications and is making its way into many other forms of digital and oral communication. While there is more to this evolution than simple technological determinism, it is apparent that more than three decades of technical limitations have played a part in shifting the constructs of communication and altered our literate minds as well as the roots of our orally based cognitive processes.

C. Additive and subordinative

In a literate culture, discourse is subject to grammatical constructs that help individuals communicate a message. Oral cultures, on the other hand, operate at "the convenience of the speaker" (Ong, 1982, p. 37), and somewhat independent of the formal rules of grammar. Oral discourse relies heavily on the shared context of the speaker and audience to impart meaning, and in this way, formal language construct becomes less important.

In a new mobiliterate culture, a similar grammar-independent, pragmatic style has been evolving in many forms of CMC and mobile media. As Baron (2005) points out, "Teens often use spoken language to express small-group identity. It is hardly surprising to find many of them experimenting with a new linguistic medium (such as IM) to complement the identity construction they achieve through speech, clothing, or hair style" (p. 30). This experimentation naturally extends from the constraints of the communication medium to the content of the message, leading to increased use of context specific idioms and reduced dependence on traditional grammar for understanding.

If this new style is abandoning formal syntactics in favor of individualized pragmatics, thought in digital-lingual culture must develop accommodations for learning and memory. Without a standard set of rules (grammar) with which to interpret messaging, how can societies expect to share knowledge, continue tradition, and construct cultural identity?

D. Conservative or traditionalist

In contrast to Ong's notions of orality preserving tradition, I believe that mobility is contributing to a dilution of conservative communication and an increase in more fluid, interpretive methods of accumulating and disseminating knowledge. Ong (1982) states that "By storing knowledge outside the mind, writing and even more, print, downgrade the ... repeaters of the past in favor of the younger discoverers of something new" (p. 41). Downgrades of traditional resources are a hallmark of the digital era. With any number of apps dedicated to highly specific niches, mobile users no longer need to consult volumes of encyclopedia to find something; they simply need the correct search terms. By culturally downgrading a centralized information source such as The Oxford English Dictionary, mobiliterates are forging ahead with learning new things from a variety of sources and challenging single-source knowledge acquisition models. Even though the advent of technology such as open wikis has democratized the perpetuation of knowledge, it remains difficult to publish from and tedious to read on mobile devices for an extended period of time.

Emerging data suggests that mobile technologies will soon eclipse traditional personal computers as the go-to devices for gathering information. A Pew Internet study suggests that more than 30% of Americans now own a tablet device, up from 3% in May of 2010 (Zickuhr, 2013). With its affordances of immediate access to information from multiple sources, mobility puts the user in charge of his or her experience. When the individual is in charge of the acquisition of knowledge, the process is undoubtedly rooted in the individual's frame of reference and reflects interests in close alignment with the user's situation. As in oral culture, knowledge acquisition for mobiliterates is greatly aided if the information is presented in context.

E. Aggregative and analytic

Thought in primarily oral cultures is tied closely to the ability to remember facts and content. In order to create memorable stories, for example, oral communicators embed "parallel terms ... antithetical terms or phrases ... epithets" (Ong, 1982, p 38). These terms add up to give oral communication high "formulary baggage" and "aggregative weight" (Ong, 1977, pp. 188-212).

In a similar sense, then, mobiliterate communication has created a style filled with formulary baggage. Because of the vast amount of data available and the expected speed of access to that data, mobiliterates have developed systems of indexing, optimizing, and cataloging information. What we might call "meta data" has made its way into the messaging itself and adds incredible formulary baggage to information. It often has little to do with the actual content of the communication but rather implies meaning through social contexts. A contemporary example of embedded (often antithetical) terms is the use of hash tags on the popular social media sites, Twitter and Facebook.

According to Twitter's online documentation, "The number sign or pound sign (#), often called a hashtag, is used to mark metadata keywords or topics in a Tweet. It was created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorize messages" (, 2013). In March 2012, Twitter's corporate blog boasted, "today we see 340 million Tweets a day. That's more than one billion every three days" (, 2012). Just as in oral cultures, the challenge of processing that amount of information would be nearly impossible without adding some aggregative weight. The addition of metadata is crucial for Twitter users to gain easy access to the information they need later. Mobile technology has created a unique situation in which communication is instant and transactional, yet requires aggregative supplements (hash tags and metadata) to assist users with more efficient recall and to communicate layers of implied interpretive meaning. While this information is readily available, mobile interfaces tend to focus on real-time data and less on comprehensive search and archiving tools. This trend may provide a background for the emergence of another key attribute of orality: repetition.

F. Redundant and copious

Despite the amount of data (and metadata) available to mobiliterates, text messages, tweets, and Facebook posts are often quite redundant, and certainly copious. As an example, Mueller (2012), a popular social media blogger, admits to his readers, "I'll tweet my latest blog post out about three or four times during the day." His justification is directly in line with the common practice of repetition in more traditional media. From a marketing, and further, a personal relationship standpoint, increased numbers of messaging touches create "a reduction in the uncertainty and conflict initially induced by a novel stimulus" (Putnam & Sternthal, 1990). Reduction in uncertainty creates "positive habituation" (p. 345). I believe that this insistence upon repetition and mundane copiousness illustrates a shift to highly individualized and often narcissistic attitudes that are becoming common in mobiliterates. Mobile communication, specifically text messaging and microblogging, is about the poster and often has little to do with the perpetuation of "formal" knowledge. In this sense, mobiliterates understand that traditional written knowledge is there when needed, but mobility is more efficient for immediate communication needs.

G. Close to the human lifeworld and situational rather than abstract

Due to the technological constraints of mobile devices, much of the messaging through these channels is transactional, situational, and often extremely close to the human experience. A surprising example of the intimacy of mobility is the rise in "sexting" on mobile devices. The data are widely varied, but some studies indicate that as many as 27% of teenage users have sent some form of sexually explicit message, photo, or video from their mobile device (Fleschler Peskin, 2013). Further research is needed to fully understand the impacts of mobility on human sexuality and the associated shifting social norms; however, the early numbers are an indication that mobile communication is shaping a new human lifeworld, brining us closer as individuals, and yet, lowering our inhibitions by increasing our feelings of anonymity.

From a broader social perspective, the affordances of mobility have allowed distant individuals to communicate in almost real time. A 2011 Pew Research Center study indicated "Cell owners between the ages of 18 and 24 exchange an average of 109.5 messages on a normal day" (Smith, 2011). In an average day, that means sending or receiving a message every nine minutes. This frequency, combined with the limitations of mobile messaging tools, puts mobile communication firmly in a situational and transactional category. In the context of Ong's definitions, mobile communication, like orality, is rarely concerned with "facts divorced from human or quasi-human activity" (Ong. 1982, p. 43). Mobile communication is almost entirely concerned with what is happening right now, to the user, in the context of the relationship with the audience.

Ong spends a significant amount of time addressing the impacts of situational thought on cognition and provides some insightful real-world examples in the text. The underlying concept of situational thinking, according to Ong is that "Oral folk assess intelligence not as extrapolated from contrived textbook quizzes, but as situated in operational contexts" (p. 55). Communicators in oral tradition disseminate information that is practical and applicable to the listener and further, form their very concepts of reality around what can be seen and touched rather than what has been laboriously cataloged in print. In mobility, most communication is firmly rooted in situational and operational contexts such as making plans, "checking in" to places, or even placing orders for lunch. Given Ong's deep exploration of situational thinking, further analysis should be given to fully assess the impacts of mobile communication on mobiliterate cognition.

H. Agnostically toned

When we come to understand digital communication as primarily situational, we can begin to see overlapping characteristics of both orality and literacy emerge. Writing, as Ong (1982) points out, "fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another" (p. 43). While the content of mobile communication may be primarily situational, texting and email, for example, allow the audience to respond outside of real time. Unlike oral discourse where exchanges are instantaneous, mobility enables users to hide behind the technology, distancing themselves from the exchange, and perhaps reducing any conflict inherent in the messaging.

At the same time, however, ignorance of context in mobile communication can lead to increased personal hostilities and "personal tensions" (p. 44). As Ong outlines in this section of the text, orality's agnostic programming "situates knowledge within a context of struggle" (p. 44). Mobile communication, then, absent of universally knowable reality for the users, is likely to continue along an agnostic trajectory. In this sense, mobile communication echoes the abstraction of literate thinking while drawing the communicators into heightened ambiguity from the lack of contextual knowledge. With the blurring of the knowable realities created in mobile cultures and collapse of context present in CMC, individuals must become more objective in their participation in the creation and perpetuation of culture.

I. Objectively participatory

Ong clearly separates the ideas of empathy and participation from objectivity and personal distance. I believe that mobiliterates have erased this line completely and established a culture of objective participation in knowledge acquisition and reality. As we have seen, mobile technology affords users the opportunity to carefully analyze communication while still closely participating in the exchange. Mobility allows for objectivity.

As Ong continues, he demonstrates that objectivity in oral culture is subject to a "communal reaction" or "communal soul" (p. 44-45). Mobility and connectivity have deepened our sense of community and made us keenly aware of the close link between communicator, message, and audience. For mobile communicators, participation in knowing and shaping reality is subject to an increase in both personal transparency and distanced anonymity. This unique blend of characteristics of mobiliterate culture has changed our understanding of conflict and shifted our approaches to harmonious living.

J. Homeostatic

The constructs of orality (and mobility) tend to limit the depth and abstraction of discourse and focus instead on framing the communication in such a way as to make the most impact. "[O]rality fosters personality structures that in certain ways are more communal and externalized, and less introspective than those common among literates. Oral communication unites people in groups" (Ong, 1982, p. 69). In oral and mobile communication, words must be chosen carefully. As previously discussed, mobile communication often lacks shared context and its technological limitations prevent deep, extended discourse. In the purest sense, then, one-to-one mobile discourse remains close to orality in its ability to maintain contact and subsequently relationships among individuals.

Weisskirch (2011) explored impacts of mobile communication on parent-child relationships and demonstrated several scenarios where relationships were altered through cell and mobile contact. The immediacy of mobility allows for instant gratification for both the parent and child. Weisskirch demonstrates that "Adolescents who call their parents seeking support or guidance report better relationships" and "parents feel better about themselves when adolescents call to ask and confer and when the parents call to track schoolwork" (p. 450). It can be inferred then, that real time communication with family and close support networks can enhance homeostasis among networks. It should be noted that Weisskirch also demonstrated negative impacts of the mobile tether when communication was authoritarian or overly disciplinary in motivation. He concludes, in part, that "although the technology affords the ability to easily call, parents may create greater conflict by calling for these typical parenting activities" (p. 450). Like oral communication, then, effective mobile messaging requires a reflexive understanding of context and a more artistic, rhetorical approach to communication.

K. Conclusion

Mobiliteracy blends psychodynamics of orality and literacy to create a unique framework for communication, behavior, and acquisition of knowledge. Mobile communication is simultaneously additive and subordinative and operates somewhat independent of formal language constructs. Metadata and formulary baggage such as hashtags, coupled with systematized access to data makes mobility both aggregative and analytic in nature. Mobiliterate communication demonstrates redundancy, yet in a way that is individually liberal as opposed to traditionalist oral thought. Because mobile devices are ubiquitous in today's culture, their use is becoming increasingly close to our deepest human experiences. As a result, mobiliterates may demonstrate agnostic and situational thinking. Finally, in an effort to maintain homeostasis in a collapsing social context, mobiliterates have learned to be objectively participatory in the exchange of information and acquisition of knowledge.

Mobile technology is an extremely fast-growing technology with implications that are just beginning to be understood. This essay has attempted to outline the shift in cognition and communication among the mobiliterates, and I believe we will see further evolutions as mobile technology gains deeper adoption across socioeconomic groups. Further research will demonstrate how exactly mobility is changing our culture and cognition, but I believe that contemplating the unique traits of orality, literacy, and mobiliteracy will be important in addressing why these changes are taking place. By understanding the psychodynamics of mobiliterates, I believe we can begin to address the technology's impacts on important aspects of society such as education and public service.


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Putnam, A., & Sternthal, B. (1990). Ease of message processing as a moderator of repetition effects in advertising. Journal of Marketing Research, 27(3), 345-353.

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James Jarc
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Title Annotation:Walter Ong
Author:Jarc, James
Publication:Communication Research Trends
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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