The New Literacy


The dominance of television as our dominant form of public discourse has been seen by many media theorists as ushering in a second-wave of oral culture. The evolution is often described as Orality-Literacy and then Second Orality (or Post-Literacy).

The internet (I’ll be using this here as an umbrella term that covers the majority of the internet’s communications technologies, primarily driven by the web, but also including email) is often lumped in as an extension of television because screens are generally what we use to access it and because you can play games, watch videos and look at pictures.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what we do when we communicate online. If television represents a shift to a new kind of Oral culture, the internet represents a new kind of Literacy.

Sure, there’s video. Sure, there are games. Sure, there’s flickr. But at it’s root, the web is a text-based medium. How do you wind up at video clips and pictures? Words give us the context.

Of course, this is a New Literacy, and the words on the screen have learned new tricks that alter their behaviour and how we relate to them. Hyperlinks are like footnotes on steroids, allowing us to grab the reference and read it instantly. We can embed visual and interactive examples and models, search for terminology, copy and paste and respond to authors at speeds that are truly remarkable.

This has ramifications for other media too. When print rose to dominance, speeches turned into reasoned prose and when television took its place, emotion began to rule the day. And now, as the New Literacy takes root, we’re starting to see something else entirely. And if you’re a professional communicator, it’s time to take note.

If you want an idea of what this New Literacy has in store for us, take a look at the blog as a format. It is the fundamentally natural form of communication for the web. The principles that make for a good blog are becoming the principles that make for good communication in the interactive age.

Some see online discourse as shallow, brief snippets of thoughts strung together with links that constantly take you to other brief snippets of thoughts. Paragraphs hyperlinked to other paragraphs from topic to topic to topic.

But what if you take all those hyperlinks and look at them sideways? I don’t see something shallow at all. I see a new kind of depth.

Posted in The Interactive Age.


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