Apple Watch, Snapchat, and Other Harbingers of the End of Written Culture

A couple days ago, my wife sent me a text, which I answered from my watch by selecting one of a few standard replies. (I think I went with “Ok.”) This is pretty convenient, so I’ll be pretty disappointed if it’s a harbinger of the end of written language.

If it is, it’s not the only one. As the Internet is subsuming offline interaction, it’s becoming less of a written medium and more of an oral medium expressed through text. Optimistically, this is because people have some baseline desire to spend a certain amount of their time reading and writing, and a larger amount of time chatting, and the reading-and-writing time went online first.

But behavior doesn’t necessarily stay constant in response to new technology, and some sites provide an unprecedented environment for the evolution of written-but-not-literate memes. This is probably not something worth preventing, but it’s something worth avoiding.

What’s a written-but-not-literate meme? There’s a giant cultural gap between them, but two great examples are LOLCats and character-epithets from The Odyssey. In The Odyssey, Homer constantly repeats himself—the man of craft; the wine-dark sea; the flexible, wily king; Dawn with her rose-red fingers; etc. One theory is that these catchphrases are a way for the singer to mark his place in the story; if you can’t write anything down, you need to keep track of your mental flashcards somehow.

These lines are repetitive, but they serve a purpose for a writer who can’t just flip back a page for context. We don’t see them in purely written works because a writer can remind himself of what he just wrote, or refer to notes. (Writing itself is pretty repetitive, in that it uses the same 26 symbols over and over and over, but that repetition fades into the background.)

The Internet is reliving this evolution, only backwards. Blogs are, by default, permanent: post once, and the piece can be read (and linked) forever. Social media is harder to search, and harder to share broadly. So instead of explicitly linking to a piece they want to reference, social media users tend to make a broadly-understandable reference to the concept. Those references, and snowclones thereof, form the vocabulary of memes.

On any given day on Facebook, I’ll see a couple references to feels guy or doge.

And it has to be every day.

Because the advantage of memes is that they give everyone a vocabulary to respond to nearly anything, but the disadvantage is that they’re easy to forget. You can write a blog post and cite it a couple times a year, when it’s really relevant; a meme that only gets used a couple times a year is just nonsense.

That’s why deliberately ephemeral sites incubate so many memes. They go through an artificially accelerated evolution—there’s not really a concept of linking to an old 4chan thread or Snapchat joke, so most of those die; but the ones that live on are insanely catchy, and once they escape the ‘chans or ‘chat they spread fast. Most memes are selected for memorability, but these are selected almost entirely for repeatability.

And that’s not necessarily bad! The entire curriculum of every school is a list of facts and ideas compelling enough to repeat. But there’s a finite amount of time in the world, and that time is easy to fill—especially when there’s a population of time-sinks that have gone through a Darwinian process that roots out all but the most provocative thoughts, regardless of truth value.

That’s not a disaster. It might even be a steady state. But the next time I’m talking to someone online and I’m tempted to pick a response from a menu of options—the day’s memes, autocorrect suggestions, just the right emoji—I’d rather say something new or say nothing at all.

| August 13th, 2015 | Posted in internet culture |

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