• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Comparisons and Contrast

The following table demonstrates some fundamental similarities between the oAgora and the eAgora—between OT and IT (Internet Technology)—as well as their mutual differences from the tAgora.

Agora Correspondences and Differences
oAgora eAgora tAgora
realities virtual,
brick & mortar
units oWords eWords tWords
routes oPathways ePathways tPathways
authorship distributed distributed individual
audiences open open selective

Disparate realities

To start with our current cultural default (for the moment, at least), tAgora technology lives and functions not in a virtual but in a brick & mortar world. Books and pages provide tangible vehicles for word-transactions; ideas are inscribed in actual objects you can hold in your hand (or so goes the accepted fiction). Textual exchange then depends on swapping these objects, whether by purchasing, borrowing, photocopying, scanning, or some other means. tAgora reality is also directed, in that all of its rhetorical cues—ordered sequences of words, sentences, paragraphs, numbered pages, chapters, and so forth—serve as ready guides to decipherment. The organization of book contents is not merely an empty convention or ritual gesture; it amounts to a mandate for using those contents in a single-minded, carefully delimited fashion. The book and page don’t support detours because veering off-track would defeat the linear logic of the medium.

oAgora and eAgora technologies, on the other hand, live and function in virtual worlds. Neither OT nor IT has any use for brick & mortar reality. Oral performers surf their intangible traditions, drawing from a large, untextualizable constellation of potentials. Likewise, eNavigators surf the intangible web, creating, transmitting, and receiving knowledge, art, and ideas without recourse to physical objects. To put it plainly, the non-virtual reality of the tAgora is an inhospitable venue for OT and IT. Its environment is all wrong.

Correspondingly, the reality of the oAgora and eAgora is never predetermined, but always emerging. As performers or clickers work through their networks, they must commit to decisions at every turn. On the OT side, storytellers may need to make several important choices within the first few minutes of their performances: for example, whether to describe the opening scene briefly or in great detail, whether to include an anecdote or not, whether to spin a characterization this way or that. Similarly, net-surfers’ itineraries are always in-the-making, forever under construction until they quit their browsers. In both cases nothing is set in stone because neither kind of performance is a book. Both kinds of events keep on developing even as they're happening, with no closure available (or even possible) until the surfing sessions stop.

With these correspondences and differences in mind, let’s consider four fundamental aspects of the three agoras: units, routes, authorship, and audiences.


First, then, the deceptively simple matter of the unit or thought-byte employed in each agora. Oral performers and their audiences communicate in a language of oWords, acoustic signs that identify pathways leading to meaning. Naturally, these signs are voiced and heard rather than written and read, but their most salient qualities are their composite structure and highly idiomatic meaning. They just aren’t the same as “our words.”

In many oral traditions the most basic single “word” is at minimum an entire phrase—not one but a group of our textual words. For example, South Slavic epic singers, or guslari, speak of the smallest “word in a song” as a whole ten-syllable line, from two to five or six tWords in length1. Such oWords aren’t bounded by white spaces or enshrined in dictionaries; within OT they take the form of integral, indivisible units of utterance and meaning, no matter how large they get. They amount to atoms within the physics of OT communication, if you like.

Such oral performers identify everything from whole poetic lines to entire performances as single “words,” understanding them as the fundamental units that support the OT medium. Though it may seem counterintuitive to cultures that depend heavily on texts, these OT bytes are composite wholes that can’t be subdivided without destroying their meaning. To put it another way, oWords are typically made up of not one but many tWords, and dismembering oWords produces only nonsense oSyllables, component parts that can’t bear meaning by themselves.

eWords are parallel to oWords in a number of ways, perhaps most obviously at the level of web addresses, or URLs, which are also made up of several distinct parts joined together. URLs of course make sense only as wholes, and can’t be subdivided without destroying their functionality. Thus http://www.oraltradition.org consists of a protocol (http://) plus the worldwide web designator (www) plus the domain name (oraltradition.org) that itself includes a site label followed by a domain suffix. Each part plays a crucial role, but each one is by itself insufficient to access any ePathway. The composite address, construed as a single, indivisible “word,” is what makes the link work.

Again like oWords, eWords are also densely coded and highly idiomatic. Just as the oWord “green fear” in Homer’s Iliad stands for “supernatural fear” in the specialized language of oral epic tradition, so http://www.43things.com prescribes the route to a social networking site in the specialized language of the web. And notice the special semantics of these mega-words: in neither case does the unit or thought-byte transparently describe what it means. Neither of the two constituent elements of “green fear” has any dictionary-supported connection to supernatural agency, and the “43 things” URL will dependably leave the uninitiated scratching their heads. But both the oWord and the eWord function very effectively once their idiomatic force comes into play, with the designated composite signs standing by convention for more-than-literal meanings.

tWords, on the other hand, are units defined by white space on either side and certified by inclusion in dictionaries. As the lowest common denominators of textual communication, they can theoretically be combined in myriad ways to produce meaning. The sky’s the limit.

But then the process of textualization, the defining activity of the tAgora, enters the scene. Sequencing and fossilizing tWords in particular paragraphs, across particular pages and chapters, and along the one-of-a-kind linear landscape of the book severely limits their inherent possibilities even as it creates a unique and directed communication. tWords now serve not only their singular meanings but also the particular combinatory arrangement in which they are fixed—a pathway-less text. It’s easy to see which of these two masters holds the upper, and determining, hand. Text-making requires the sacrifice of multiple options for the greater (and singular) expressive good.

Mapped tWords are rooted in place. For that reason they can’t recur in coded, idiomatic combinations without repeating, and repetition produces only the tired, empty language of clichés. Not so with recurrent oWords and eWords, which stand as living, emergent signs that OT and IT surfers can click on or not, as they choose. In the oAgora and eAgora, navigating pathways is always an unfolding process that happens in the moment, decision by decision. There’s always and continuously more than a single way to proceed, more than a single reality to engage.

By contrast, tWords do their tAgora work by productively limiting options, by foreclosing on potentials in favor of a prescribed order and sequence. tWords are items for thing-based exchange, not pathways for virtual navigation.


Within the oAgora and eAgora, words are surfing signals. oWords provide route-markers for oPathways, and eWords for ePathways.

In the arena of oral performance, storytellers proceed by clicking on oWords like “Once upon a time” and navigating along oPathways through the story-web of a Grimm Brothers fairytale. Because they’re surfing through a flexible network of potentials rather than trekking along a sequence-ordered page, their itinerary is anything but fixed. On the contrary, the route they happen to choose remains fluid and ever-evolving, taking shape in present time under the interactive influence of factors like individual creativity, audience reaction, the time and place of the event, and so forth. At its core, the act and art of storytelling is the process of choosing among options, of navigating through narrative hyperlinks. oPathways keep the performer’s options generatively open, allowing the story to emerge as it’s (re-)made.

ePathways work similarly, as any given day’s experience with the Internet attests over and over again. In the arena of the web we open our browser to a designated start-up page (which we may of course change) by deploying an embedded eWord, the equivalent of invoking an oWord like “Once upon a time.” From that point on, every decision we make immediately reconfigures our options, shifts our frame of reference, and presents us with new options. We can of course choose to “read” the web like a book—plodding along precisely the same sequence of ePathways again and again, day in and day out, flattening the multidimensional network into the equivalent of a printed, unnetworked page. But to do so is to limit eAgora commerce to what can be transacted in the tAgora—although without the dedicated book-and-page medium appropriate for tAgora transactions. To get the most out of each communications technology, we need to recognize what each agora can support and use each set of tools to its greatest advantage2.

Part of that recognition means coming to grips with the arena of the text, and with the fact that “tPathways” don’t, and can’t, exist. Texts prescribe one-way routes according to a singular, well-developed plan. They depend on sequences of tWords, pages with numbers, chapters, and so on. Much can be gained by guiding readers in this way, and it would be categorically wrong to diminish the value of texts, which support the tAgora so well. But the one-way highway, for all of its obvious and demonstrated advantages, is distinctly different from the option-driven technologies native to the oAgora and eAgora.


European literature from the ancient world onward has always assumed individual authorship. We celebrate the achievements of Homer, Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare, happy to be able to affix their names to great works like The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, and Hamlet. But there’s more to this unexamined assumption than first meets the eye.

The ideological pressure to identify verbal art as always and everywhere a tAgora phenomenon is extremely strong, so strong that we’ve often created pseudo-authors where no believable evidence exists. Thus the exalted place of Homer at the fountainhead of Western literature, even though “Homer” seems to be an anthropomorphic legend, a mythic figure who never existed (at least in the form we’ve imagined him). Thus the prominence of the shadowy figures of Caedmon and Cynewulf in discussions of the earliest English poetry. Never mind that Caedmon the cowherd-poet is almost certainly legendary, or that the only evidence for the otherwise unknown Cynewulf is a group of poorly matched runic signatures that could have been inserted by anyone3. As tAgora citizens we feel compelled to appoint individual authors for all verbal art, no matter what its true origins.

Not so in the marketplaces we’ve called the oAgora and eAgora, where distributed authorship is the empowering rule. OTs, which at their root consist of performance-instances that naturally vary from one to another over time and different performers, just can’t be traced to single authors. Like language itself (as distinct from texts, which are scripts for language), no one person is wholly responsible for their invention or maintenance. And IT creations evolve in cognate ways—open-source software, for example, actively depends upon multiple, distributed authorship for its continuing utility. It simply can’t live and develop in any other way.

If we’re willing to peer behind our comfortable but unexamined assumptions, we’ll soon recognize that even in the tAgora individual authorship is to some extent an ideological conviction rather than a fact. Even verifiably individual authors respond to prior and contemporary authors, creating texts that owe a significant debt to other people and other texts. But in the oAgora and eAgora the picture is much clearer and more categorical: OT and IT are by their very nature collective, distributed enterprises. They represent community activity, the joint work of many hands.


Everything else being equal, OT and IT support far more democratic marketplaces than do texts. The oAgora and eAgora involve and engage relatively open audiences, while the tAgora is more selective.

The reasons for this contrast are straightforward. The oAgora places performer and audience on a fundamentally democratic footing, setting them up as interactive partners in an evolving process. In many cases anyone can attend an oral performance, and, given enough time and energy, anyone can learn to navigate the tradition and perform (some more fluently than others; talent does matter). Of course, certain OT genres restrict their audiences and/or potential performers by gender, age, ethnicity, the time or place of the event, or some other factor. But even in the most exclusive scenarios the very ongoingness of tradition—the reality that OTs continue to live and prosper by being shared within a community over time—assures an audience that is open and participatory to a significant degree.

The eAgora operates similarly, by promoting the root dynamic of sharing and thus opening its resources to all surfers. As with OT, IT can constrain that basic democracy in a number of ways—via proprietary software, password-protected sites, and other strategies that diminish universal access for the sake of privacy or of financial or political gain. Nonetheless, the ability to browse through an unprecedented array of interactive resources—far more extensive than any conventional library holdings—represents a media-democracy more radical than any we have known outside the open-access, “online” experience of the oAgora.

The tAgora, on the other hand, selects its audience by configuring its substantial assets in an exclusive, protected environment. At the macro level, books cost money and are controlled by distribution networks. On the micro level, the rhetoric of the page is as restrictive as it is powerful.

Consider the implications. Only if you can afford to join the book-conversation, only if the text-exchange actually includes you, and only if you’ve managed to internalize the operative textual conventions can you hope to succeed in the marketplace of the tAgora. Granted, it’s a very efficient system in its own right, but it’s accessible only if you’ve met the demanding (and for some individuals or even whole cultures, quite impossible) admissions requirements. In short, the tAgora has a double edge: in applying highly selective criteria for membership, it also disenfranchises a whole host of potential users.

Transacting business in the “wrong” agora

It’s proverbial that being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or for the wrong purpose, can lead to serious trouble. Nowhere does this adage prove truer than in the three verbal marketplaces we’ve been describing, where agoraphobia is only too prevalent. OT can’t live and prosper in the tAgora because it can’t be flattened onto a page without changing its fundamental nature, without reducing it to a faint shadow of itself and making it something it isn’t. Nor does IT do well in the tAgora, since its ePathways simply can’t be translated to brick-and-mortar representation. The nimble non-textuality of Wikipedia, or even the ever-increasing uselessness of hard-copy software manuals, provides evidence enough of this non-fit.

Or think about one of the most celebrated media-related issues of our time: unauthorized file-sharing of musical and video works of art. Ironically, perhaps, this kind of “illicit” traffic reflects the typical and natural flow within the oAgora and eAgora, where sharing constitutes nothing less than each medium’s lifeblood. After all, what’s the modus operandi, even the core ethics, of OT and IT? To transfer freely, to distribute ownership, to treat knowledge, ideas, and art as open-source creations whose value stems in part from community access and the culture of remixing.

That’s the way it always has been and always will be in the oAgora. Subject to specific cultural guidelines, OTs pass unencumbered from one person, group, place, and era to another. They work not like possessable texts but like a common language that can’t be owned, protected, or denied to prospective users. OT traffic closely resembles IT traffic in that respect.

But when precious copyrighted items, such as top 40 hits or blockbuster films, are suddenly thrust into the open-access environment of the eAgora as manipulable digital entities, something cataclysmic happens. Their history as individually authored, legally protected objects is in effect rewritten; their status utterly changes. For better or worse, the rules of the tAgora are suspended and “the work” is exchanged under a new set of rules. Just like OT, it’s now eligible for (or at least vulnerable to) sharing, sampling, and remixing.

It’s now a tAgora product living in an eAgora world4.


1 For interviews with oral epic singers on the nature of their “words,” see Foley 2002: 11-21. The same concept of “word” has been explicitly cited in oral traditions in ancient Greek (the term epos), Old English, Mongolian (called a “mouth-word”), Finnish, Estonian, and Sardinian, although the practice is certainly much more widespread.

2 The incongruities that naturally arise from trying to conduct purely textual exchange electronically may explain why readers of eBooks and similar utilities so often complain that they have trouble scrolling through long documents on a computer display (whether Amazon’s Kindle and other such devices help resolve such incongruities remains to be seen). The eAgora supports interactive, participatory, emergent exploration extremely well, but it doesn’t handle textual exchange nearly as well as do texts. As Corey Doctorow put it in a 2004 talk, “New media don’t succeed because they’re like the old media, only better: they succeed because they’re worse than the old media at the stuff the old media are good at, and better at the stuff the old media are bad at.”

3 Caedmon is described by the seventh-century historian Bede as owing his ability to create OT poetry to an angel’s visit, while the “identity” of Cynewulf is based on non-matching coded signatures within four Anglo-Saxon poems: The Fates of the Apostles, Juliana, Elene, and Christ II.

4 Digital rights management (DRM) protocols, which represent a response to some of these problems, can only be successful to the degree that they address eAgora realities with eAgora (not tAgora) solutions. Witness the inefficacy of copy-protection software, often no more than an invitation to hacking—where such hacking amounts for some to assertion of eAgora “rights.” On the other hand, the Creative Commons initiative represents an eAgora solution to an eAgora problem. On the cultural and historical implications of eAgora realities, see especially Lessig 2004, 2006; and Tapscott and Williams 2006.