Mobile phones increasing importance of text?

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An interesting question raised by Wired Magazine’s Gadget Lab (Via Textuality): “Is Text Messaging Making Subtitles Popular?”

According to Actress Kristin Scott Thomas, the ubiquity of text messaging means that subtitled movies could gain acceptance. Granted, this is an extrapolation of one throwaway comment in a New York Times interview, but it does make an interesting point.

People will now go to films with subtitles, you know. They’re not afraid of them. It’s one of the upsides of text-messaging and e-mail. Maybe the only good thing to come of it.

People read a lot of on-screen text. You’re doing it now. I read thousands of words a day to bring these posts to you. We all read messages on tiny telephone screens. So our brains are trained for it. But does this translate to subtitles?

An interesting thought about the way mobile phones influence literacy. Often referring to Walter Ong’s work, a recurring question has been whether the mobile phone should be understood as supporting oral or literate culture. It has been claimed that mobile phones are closer to ‘oral culture’, even ushering in an age of ‘seconday orality‘. Voice calls of course increase the importance of speech in communication and information transfer, while text messaging is ‘oral’ since it takes on the characteristics of spoken language. SMS language is seen as a kind of ‘written speech’ with its colloquialisms and slang, lack of interpunction, abbreviations, lack of temporal permanence, etc. (See e.g. the work of Naomi S. Baron about linguistic aspects of the mobile phone).

However small the evidence of this example, it suggests that mobile phones cannot be easily classified purely as a technology of oral culture. Even if the argument about mobile phones and secondary orality could be made with force, literacy may increase in other domains. This ‘seeping through’ of mobile phone literacy into other media domains is visible in Indonesia where I did fieldwork. Bart Barendregt has written about the way SMS language is incorporated into Malaysian-style pantun poetry. And I have noticed a strong literary interest in Indonesia with many new books being published targeted at young people. Not ‘old fashioned’ literature but a new kind of ‘teenage novels’ published by new players such as Gagas Media. These books are very cheap and very accessible because the language is playful and connects to the lives of urban young people. There are many crossovers in media. Gagas Media has tried doing songlit: creating soundtracks from literature and popularizing this via sinetron (hugely popular Indonesian soap series). According to an article in Indonesian newspaper Kompas (Aug 6 2007 p. 39) dedicated to this phenomenon, some readers (mostly female) have even started “groupie weblogs” about this new type of literature, like one with the motto “fun to write and read”.

In Indonesia at least I think there is a crossover between old and new media and genres, with the playfulness of SMS language being adopted in the literary style of books. I’m not sure the notions of either orality or literacy suffice to understand these convergences.

== Update: Stephan Barmentloo at the Masters of Media weblog says micro-blogging (e.g. Twitter) should be seen as a kind of secondary literacy, and raises the question about the possible detrimental influence this could have on our ability to read and have ‘deeper thoughts’ for critical thinking. This is an example – I would reply – of the kind of one-sided argument you get when you solely look at at new media as devoid of cultural context or embeddedness in a broader configuration of media (both ‘old’ and ‘new’).