The blurring line between speech and text

We all say things we regret, and now we all write things we regret.

As we watch the sordid cavalcade of media gaffes — from Anthony Weiner’s Twitter photos to Chrysler’s “slip of the tongue” (someone tweeting on behalf of the car maker mistakenly thought they were using their personal account when they declared that Detroit was full of terrible drivers) — we are seeing a society that is coming to terms with the blurring line between text and speech. That is, the ephemeral nature of all speech is being given the permanence of text.

We will spend the next generation coming to terms with the consequences.

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Once something is said it cannot be unsaid. True. But historically it couldn’t be shared to a wider circle of listeners. Speech is not permanent. Speech gives way to time and passes into the fog of memory. Therefore the social norms governing speech are more forgiving. We are expected, allowed even, to say things we without due consideration, in close company, knowing that we will regret some portion of what we say. We are able to use the full context of a conversation (who is there, what has been said before etc.) to nuance our speech and say things that wouldn’t look good when reduced to text. And yet on social networks we speechify, we talk and we are saying plenty of things we might regret. Such speech isn’t meant to be a permanent record. But it is. As Meghan Garber writes in a Nieman Lab post:

As a culture… we tend to insist on categorizing our communication, drawing thick lines between words that are spoken and words that are written. So libel is, legally, a different offense than slander; the written word, we assume, carries the heft of both deliberation and proliferation and therefore a moral weight that the spoken word does not. Text, we figure, is: conclusive, in that its words are the deliberate products of discourse; inclusive, in that it is available equally to anyone who happens to read it; exclusive, in that it filters those words selectively; archival, in that it preserves information for posterity; and static, in that, once published, its words are final.

We are hurtling toward a world of total information capture where email, texting, instant message and mobile video are documenting our everyday speech and action — in effect rendering all speech as text. There will be few places to “talk” without that talk being given weight and permanence.

We are then faced with two options: Either give up the liberties that speech allows — thinking “out loud,” using the context of the conversation to add meaning to a comment and so on — or become more lenient with speech that happens to become text. In the case of Weiner, his behavior is unacceptable in any context. As a society we understand his transgression and he is being punished for it. Fair enough. In the case of Chrysler, a mistake was punished through Chrysler firing both the Tweeter and the entire social media agency that person worked for. I hope in the future we are able to see the distinction and dole out our punishments accordingly. We all say things we regret. Now we all write things we regret. Perhaps as a result of this shared reality we will learn a bit more forgiveness for each other.

Joshua-Michéle Ross will discuss social media architecture at Web 2.0 Expo New York 2011, being held Oct. 10-13 in New York City.

Save 20% on registration with code WEBNY11RAD


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