At first, humans just had speech. If you wanted to say "Ugh" to someone, you had to say it out loud. Sure, you could whisper or shout, add facial expressions and gestures, but your main communication option was speaking. In person.
A few thousand years later, the clever folks of Ur developed cuneiform writing. Then people had two options: either say “Ugh” or write “Ugh.” You said it if the person was standing there, and you wrote it if the person wasn’t. The choice was clear.
Now, after another few thousand years, the choices are anything but clear. A modern person can say “Ugh” in person or by phone or via voice mail, can email “Ugh” or IM it or text it or blog it or microblog it.… People nowadays even network “Ugh.” Take a look at Facebook. It’s a million pages of “Ugh,” combining words, pictures, audios, videos, links, games, and clubs.
These are the “new literacies”—all the communication options available to modern people who want to get their “Ughs” across. All modern communicators need help deciding the best medium for each message.
Imagine that a young guy named Jason wants to break up with his girlfriend, Staci. How should he deliver his “Ugh?” In a private, face-to-face conversation? Well, that’s a little scary. Jason’s tempted instead to call her cell—you know, say it outside of punching range. But is it right to break up with a girlfriend over the phone? Maybe he should email her? Or write the rejection in a blog posting? Or maybe act it out and post it on YouTube?
And what about the fact that Jason and Staci’s relationship has been fully documented on Facebook? All 1,138 friends of Staci and 85 friends of Jason know the two are an item. How does Jason break the news to them? How soon after leaving a voice-mail message for Staci can he change her FaceBook status to the broken heart? What if Staci sees the Facebook page before hearing the voice-mail message? What if he doesn’t change her FaceBook status and she goes gonzo on his wall?
Wow! That’s a lot to think about.
To effectively use the new literacies, we must think about each unique communication situation. Here are the parts of the situation along with questions we need to answer before we are ready to choose a medium.
Me: Who am I? (Jason) What’s my role? (I’m the boyfriend.)
You: Who are you? (Staci) What’s your role? (You’re the soon-to-be ex-girlfriend.)
Subject: What’s this message about? (Our relationship)
Purpose: What about our relationship? (I’m ending it.)
Context: Why? (We’ve been going out for two months, but we don’t have a lot in common, and there’s a new girl in second hour.)
Only by considering the communication situation can Jason really see that the only appropriate medium is a private, face-to-face conversation. Of course, if we change just one variable in the communication situation, the choice of medium changes.
Context: Why? (After you stole my last paycheck and set my house on fire, Staci, I’m less attracted to you.)
Aha. Now the best medium is not a private, face-to-face conversation but a restraining order. As Mitch Hedberg once said, “I don’t have a girlfriend. I just know a girl who would be very angry to hear me say that.”
Or imagine changing the subject of the situation.
Subject: What is this message about? (My afternoon workout)
Okay, so now Jason’s telling Staci he’s ending his afternoon workout. Suddenly, the communication options are wide open. (Of course, if he really needs to work out, maybe Staci will have to prepare her own break-up message.)
The upshot is that instead of trying to teach students how to use new literacies (a subject that many of them understand much better than we do), we should be teaching them how to use a very old literacy—rhetoric. By analyzing the rhetorical situation, students can learn to select the form of communication that best fits themselves, their audience, their subject, and their purpose. It’s the best way to keep things from turning “Ugh”ly.