On Homer, the oral tradition and social media



An item on paidContent a few weeks ago pulled some disparate threads together and got me thinking – no small task after completing a semester-long entrepreneurial project and a 2000-word business story — to say nothing of the attendant celebrations, of which nothing, indeed, will be said. What if, the piece posited, the era of mass communications was in fact an historical anomaly – a mere interlude in which new communications technology temporarily supplanted the one-to-one and small-network communication modes which had been civilization’s default state, and to which it has at least in part returned via the Web and social media?

This is hardly a new idea, of course. The work of Cornell media researcher Lee Humphrey on diary-keeping and that of Tom Standage on historical precursors to social media have both explored it in great depth and fascinating ways. Their point in part is that the disruption of mass media by digital is merely returning us to an earlier and more time-tested mode of communication. But what really got me thinking about it was a piece in the Wall Street Journal that a friend sent a while back about writer-scholar-war hero-classicist-Graecophile and, it so happens, proud Irishman Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote a book called Mani about his life and travels in Greece.

At the start of the book, Fermor lists at several pages’ length the elements of the Greek diaspora throughout Europe and the United States in an obvious and humorous homage to Homer’s famous “catalogue of ships” in Book II of The Iliad, in which the blind poet lists the Greek forces and commanders laying siege to Troy.  Though the stories that comprise The Iliad later were collected and printed by the millions of copies, the poem itself was a product of a pre-mass-media -– pre-literate, in fact – culture, in which the stories were passed along by bards who memorized them for performance.

And that’s when it struck me: How could some illiterate bard recite from memory something as lengthy as the catalogue of ships—29 battle contingents under 46 commanders along with a word or two about each one — when I can’t even remember my seven-digit phone number half the time?

But seriously, folks, My point – and I do have one – is that different modes of communication inevitably draw upon – and perhaps even draw out — different skills and talents. No one, presumably, is born knowing how to recite hundreds of lines of Homeric verse from memory. And this forms the basis of my answer to those who worry aloud about the weakening of newsgathering and reporting standards in an era when media gatekeepers have been deposed by citizens wielding smartphones and social media instead of pitchforks.

The argument that we need mass media institutions to preserve standards is no less spurious than the assertion that we need the mass media for its expertise in rooting out, assessing and interpreting facts – see Jay Rosen’s penetrating meditation on the networked beat for more on this – or for its ability to moderate the national conversation. Last time I checked, the national conversation was more vibrant and contentious than ever even as journalists continued to lengthen unemployment lines here in New York and elsewhere.

Assertions such as these are the last gasp of a formerly privileged institution desperate to find some purpose in a world that is learning to live without it. Ironically, some elements of big media put the lie to those assertions themselves during the marathon bombing investigation, dispensing with their vaunted standards and making major errors in in their haste to compete with social media.

But I digress.  How is the ability to recite hundreds of lines of Homer from memory like news judgment? Simple: No one is born with either one. Just as the bards learned their Homer, so, too, can citizen journalists learn news judgment.. Yes, I know good news judgment is a mix of both knowledge and experience — but that isn’t an argument for not providing the knowledge.

And this is where education comes in. For decades there has been a campaign – sadly more honored in the breech than in the observance, to butcher Shakespeare – to teach media literacy in the schools. You have to wonder why, in our news-and opinion-saturated times, that is perceived as less important than, say, driver’s ed or gym, and whether it is an idea whose time, at long last, has come.

12 thoughts on “On Homer, the oral tradition and social media

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