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SBVC English Friending Ancient or Otherwise Comparison Essay

SBVC English Friending Ancient or Otherwise Comparison Essay


Link to the Essay…  in case you are having problem opening the essay here is the actual essay 

Friending, Ancient or Otherwise

By Alex Wright
THE growing popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Second Life has thrust
many of us into a new world where we make “friends” with people we barely know, scrawl messages on
each other’s walls and project our identities using totem-like visual symbols.
We’re making up the rules as we go. But is this world as new as it seems?
Academic researchers are starting to examine that question by taking an unusual tack: exploring the
parallels between online social networks and tribal societies. In the collective patter of profile-surfing,
messaging and “friending,” they see the resurgence of ancient patterns of oral communication.
“Orality is the base of all human experience,” says Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham
University and devoted MySpace user. He says he is convinced that the popularity of social networks
stems from their appeal to deep-seated, prehistoric patterns of human communication. “We evolved
with speech,” he says. “We didn’t evolve with writing.”
The growth of social networks — and the Internet as a whole — stems largely from an outpouring of
expression that often feels more like “talking” than writing: blog posts, comments, homemade videos
and, lately, an outpouring of epigrammatic one-liners broadcast using services like Twitter and Facebook
status updates (usually proving Gertrude Stein’s maxim that “literature is not remarks”).
“If you examine the Web through the lens of orality, you can’t help but see it everywhere,” says Irwin
Chen, a design instructor at Parsons who is developing a new course to explore the emergence of oral
culture online. “Orality is participatory, interactive, communal and focused on the present. The Web is
all of these things.”
An early student of electronic orality was the Rev. Walter J. Ong, a professor at St. Louis University and
student of Marshall McLuhan who coined the term “secondary orality” in 1982 to describe the tendency
of electronic media to echo the cadences of earlier oral cultures. The work of Father Ong, who died in
2003, seems especially prescient in light of the social-networking phenomenon. “Oral communication,”
as he put it, “unites people in groups.”
In other words, oral culture means more than just talking. There are subtler —and perhaps more
important — social dynamics at work.
Michael Wesch, who teaches cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, spent two years living
with a tribe in Papua New Guinea, studying how people forge social relationships in a purely oral
culture. Now he applies the same ethnographic research methods to the rites and rituals of Facebook
“In tribal cultures, your identity is completely wrapped up in the question of how people know you,” he
says. “When you look at Facebook, you can see the same pattern at work: people projecting their
identities by demonstrating their relationships to each other. You define yourself in terms of who your
friends are.”

In tribal societies, people routinely give each other jewelry, weapons and ritual objects to cement their
social ties. On Facebook, people accomplish the same thing by trading symbolic sock monkeys, disco
balls and hula girls.
“It’s reminiscent of how people exchange gifts in tribal cultures,” says Dr. Strate, whose MySpace page
lists his 1,335 “friends” along with his academic credentials and his predilection for “Battlestar
As intriguing as these parallels may be, they only stretch so far. There are big differences between real
oral cultures and the virtual kind. In tribal societies, forging social bonds is a matter of survival; on the
Internet, far less so. There is presumably no tribal antecedent for popular Facebook rituals like “poking,”
virtual sheep-tossing or drunk-dialing your friends.
Then there’s the question of who really counts as a “friend.” In tribal societies, people develop bonds
through direct, ongoing face-to-face contact. The Web eliminates that need for physical proximity,
enabling people to declare friendships on the basis of otherwise flimsy connections.
“With social networks, there’s a fascination with intimacy because it simulates face-to-face
communication,” Dr. Wesch says. “But there’s also this fundamental distance. That distance makes it
safe for people to connect through weak ties where they can have the appearance of a connection
because it’s safe.”
And while tribal cultures typically engage in highly formalized rituals, social networks seem to encourage
a level of casualness and familiarity that would be unthinkable in traditional oral cultures. “Secondary
orality has a leveling effect,” Dr. Strate says. “In a primary oral culture, you would probably refer to me
as ‘Dr. Strate,’ but on MySpace, everyone calls me ‘Lance.’ ”
As more of us shepherd our social relationships online, will this leveling effect begin to shape the way
we relate to each other in the offline world as well? Dr. Wesch, for one, says he worries that the rise of
secondary orality may have a paradoxical consequence: “It may be gobbling up what’s left of our real
oral culture.”
The more time we spend “talking” online, the less time we spend, well, talking. And as we stretch the
definition of a friend to encompass people we may never actually meet, will the strength of our real-
world friendships grow diluted as we immerse ourselves in a lattice of hyperlinked “friends”?
Still, the sheer popularity of social networking seems to suggest that for many, these environments
strike a deep, perhaps even primal chord. “They fulfill our need to be recognized as human beings, and
as members of a community,” Dr. Strate says. “We all want to be told: You exist.


  • What “points for comparison” does the author use?
  • How does the author go beyond the obvious similarities and differences to surface interesting ideas and insights?  
  •  answer the following questions:
    • List what you consider to be the three most important “points for comparison” Wright uses in his essay. Let your peers know how Wright thinks these particular points are important, and what he says about them.
    • Wright goes beyond simply comparing similarities and differences on a number of points of comparison. Explain to your peers when you think the author goes beyond the obvious similarities and differences to surface interesting ideas and insights.

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