The Clubhouse App and the Rise of Oral Psychodynamics

It's written/print culture that's the recent historical anomaly, and still a minority of the world

There has been a lot of brouhaha about “Clubhouse” lately—a drop-in audio chat app that’s exactly what it sounds like. Right now, it’s invite only, so it’s not very large. Basically, there are rooms where “speakers” chat, and listeners can raise their hand to participate. Depending on the size of the room and the organization of it, it can feel like watching a conference from the bleacher seats, or just a large coffee house group chatting.

But there’s something important going on here, besides the latest app. It’s the latest encroachment of oral culture back into the public sphere. And it’s not just because it’s spoken, rather than written. For example Twitter, despite being written, has been primarily dominated by oral psychodynamics, especially early on. (More on what that means in just a minute). Clubhouse opens the door to a lot more oral culture by its design, though it easily veers into the podcast model (two speakers/large audience) that is, despite being spoken, is actually written or print culture.

Not so coincidentally, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clubhouse is also dominated in its early days by the tech crowd (new app, so it will be them) and also disproportionately African-American communities—similar to the way they were disproportionately among Twitter’s early users exactly because it’s one community in the United States that has remained close/closer to oral culture because of its particular historic experience).

I will write more about this in the near future, but as an intro, I’m going to quote somewhat at length from a post I wrote about 10 years ago (yikes) in response to Bill Keller, then the executive editor of the New York Times, who was quite irritated by Twitter.

Here’s a few excerpts from what Bill Keller wrote about the “Twitter Trap” as he called it: (I mixed the order to highlight the point):

My mistrust of social media is intensified by the ephemeral nature of these communications. They are the epitome of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which was my mother’s trope for a failure to connect.

Eavesdrop on a conversation as it surges through the digital crowd, and more often than not it is reductive and redundant. Following an argument among the Twits is like listening to preschoolers quarreling: You did! Did not! Did too! Did not!

In an actual discussion, the marshaling of information is cumulative, complication is acknowledged, sometimes persuasion occurs. In a Twitter discussion, opinions and our tolerance for others’ opinions are stunted. Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid.

The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering. The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet — complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy — are things that matter.

… Then along came the Mark Zuckerberg of his day, Johannes Gutenberg. As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse.

So Keller appears to be making the usual complaints but actually, he’s mixing up history and what he’s complaining about. “We don’t remember things anymore” is a lament about the rise of literacy—which did not make remembering less useful, but made remembering in a particular way less useful. (If that were the case, there would be no reason for the massive rise in schooling since print culture: now there is more to remember, not less).

It’s that without writing, we used particular techniques to remember and pass knowledge, which in turn, greatly affected what we could know, learn and advance. The shift from orality—the basic human condition—to literacy changed everything about our epistemology and our culture.

The printing press, in other words, isn’t just a handy way to put down words. It’s a way to transform everything which depends on words, and even many things that don’t.

Here’s what I wrote back then (re-emphasizing a few points in bold):

The key to understanding this is that while writing did displace the value of memory, the vast abundance of printed material it did something else also, something less remarked upon, both to the shape of our public sphere and also to our psychodynamics. It replaced the natural, visceral human oral psychodynamics with those of literate and written ones. Most of us are so awash in this new form that we notice it as much as fish notice water; however, writing is but a blip and the printed from a flash in human history. Orality, on the other hand, is perhaps the most human of our characteristics, and ironically, the comeback of which into the public sphere is the one Keller is lamenting while worrying about losing our human characteristics. What he seems to actually mean is that, with the advent of writing and printing, we acquired these new cognitive tools and novel psychodynamic [and I should note that they never took that much root in most recesses of culture and thus remain fragile] and they are threatened by social media which re-introduces older forms which, of course, never died out but receded from public importance.

Here I am going to be drawing upon scholarship of Walter Ong and others who distinguish the characteristics of oral societies with those which are dominated by writing—and Europe and the United states are thoroughly dominated by the written culture even though oral culture is still with us because orality is deeply and intrinsically human; all human societies are also oral cultures. (This is true even for Deaf communities; the only difference is their orality is visual, not spoken). Primary orality refers to cultures which are untouched by writing whereas residual orality is cultures like ours where writing dominates even our speaking.

So what’s the key difference? One important one is ways of knowing from which flows power. (I’m primarily drawing upon the scholarship of Walter Ong and other scholars who study the post printing-press world through this lens).

The oral world is ephemeral, exists only suspended in time, supported primarily through interpersonal connections, survives only on memory, and rather than building final, cumulative works, it is aimed at conversation and remembering knowledge by rendering it memorable, which can often mean snarky, witty, rhythmic and rhyming. (Think poet slams rather than essays).

In oral psychodynamics, the conversational, formulaic styling dominates (which aides memory) as well as back-and-forth, redundancy, an emphasis on being less analytic and more aggregative, being more additive rather than developing complex and subordinate clauses (classic example is the Genesis which, like Homer’s Odyssey, is indeed an oral work which was later written down). Oral pschodynamics also tend to be more antagonistic, interpersonal and participatory. (Wikipedia does a pretty good job of summarizing these arguments but I strongly advise reading Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word for a more thorough treatment—though I have some issues with Ong’s arguments I think they are well worth taking seriously).

Sounds a lot like social media, does it not? In fact, Andy Carvin often refers to his Twitter reporting as part preserving oral history, and I think he is spot on. This distinction is probably a bit harder to observe in the English Twitter-verse since English is so thoroughly colonized by writing. Whenever I dive into the Turkish Twitter, I notice tweets employing many forms of Turkish which are solely found in oral Turkish and almost never written down in literate culture. I think this distinction may be more visible in other societies where oral culture was not as decisively beaten back as in the English speaking world — this makes it harder to explain the issue in English. (Although I think the so-called “black-tags” fit very well into oral culture traditions and is likely reflective of the fact that African-Americans are more steeped in oral culture due to their history in this country. Farhad Manjoo once examined this issue concluding that these witty, snarky, back-and-forth became trending topics because African-Americans on Twitter tend to be in denser, interconnected networks (small world networks, so to speak). However, that explains the how, not the why. The strong phatic nature of these “black-tags” points to oral culture as their root.

This below from the same 2011 article, by the way, is why I objected to the 2016 wave of journalists making fun of Trump based on transcripts of this talks. Transcripts do not allow for understanding oral culture or its pyschodynamics. (Instead, I attended his rallies and wrote why he was a viable candidate in March, 2016 when so many were still making fun of him.)

The difference between oral language and written language is also why bad scripts in movies sound so stilted and written transcripts often look so funny. Those bad script writers are stuck in literate English rather than the spoken word. Oral/spoken language is related to but different from written language, and not just in phrases and grammar but also in mood, effect and rhythms.

What we are seeing with social media is the public sphere, hitherto dominated by written culture, has been more opened up to oral psychodynamics. And this is particularly difficult to deal with for intellectuals who rely on their competence with, and dominance of, the written form as hallmark of their place in society. (As I will argue, there are reasons to be concerned but it is important to separate these issues). Also, television, too, is secondary literacy in that television acts in a way which assumes and implies writing. (I am not going to go into this at length here but there is a lot of work on this topic, starting with Ong).

This is a difficult point to understand, usually, for people deeply steeped in print and written culture—as most of our chattering classes, academics and journalists are. It’s our water, and we are the fish. Print culture is a way of thinking and knowing and holding power. It’s not just about spoken versus written, though, of course, oral culture depends on the physical characteristics of orality (ephemerality, interpersonal nature) which we can and do change with technology.

In contrast, some spoken forms (like news anchors) are actually products of print culture: they speak in a way nobody speaks. What most TV anchors are doing is reading writing out loud. That’s print psychodynamics, not orality. Similarly, a lot of what gets called “black Twitter” is oral culture: they are writing what is spoken. It is often dismissed and looked down upon because that is partially how power operates in our society: but whatever else it is, it is certainly not illiterate. Just the opposite. It is a deep form of knowledge and culture, just not a written one.

So is there some turf wars going on here between the literate classes that hold power in pretty much every society in the world and the rest of humanity? Yes, no, of course. But of course, it’s more than that, too.

Here’s more of what I wrote then:

Writing, especially writing at length is a different modality of thought than talking and it also allows a different kind of exchange and discourse. (I refer specially to the scholarship of Neil Postman and Walter Ong.) As Postman argues, writing and the spread of the printed word through literacy and the printing press created a culture in which it is possible to debate ideas at length and produce analytic thought which can be produced, advanced, discussed, refuted, rejected, improved and otherwise churned through the public sphere. As Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death: “almost all of the characteristics we associate with the mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; and abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.” (p.63).

In other words, oral culture is not suited to certain kinds of knowledge accumulation and legibility of the world, some of which is necessary to hold our institutions together. And this underappreciated transition is certainly one big reason for the current tension in this historic transition: because of technology, oral psychodynamics have broken through at scale, and we are trying to manage them with institutions that operate solely through an within print/written culture. And that cannot, will not, hold without adjustment.

This is supposed to be where I put the “solutions” paragraph, but obviously, there is no “solution” that can fit an article, let alone a paragraph. But starting to talk more precisely about this transition—something on the order of the printing press and its aftermath—is certainly one necessary step.