Mason's study of computer-mediated communication suggests that there is such a thing as a virtual identity and also a virtual context in which the electronic environment becomes, in some ways, "real." (Mason 1998, 306). He considers here "how computer-mediated communication displays both oral and literate characteristics, thus exploding the reductionist arguments sometimes posited in ora/literate dichotomies" (Mason 1998, 307).
At issue is not whether written communication uses technology of some sort. Writing is a type of technology. The question is whether writing is correctly held in opposition to orality, and whether the distinctions are the same in the case of printing, telephone, radio, and now computerized technology (Mason 1998, 308). Mason, following Ong, sees that texts may have become so natural to our way of thinking that they are no longer clearly outside outselves. Electronic communication, then, may be moving in the same direction (Mason 1998, 309). Mason further notes that the advent of computerized communication is segmented by regional, educational, and income groups, as minorities and lower-income people are underrepresented on the Internet (Mason 1998, 310). We note with interest the fact that this article was published in 1998, at a time when use of the Internet was not very widespread.
Mason points out that the sharp distinction of ten made between oral and written traditions, with oral traditions having a great deal of context and written traditions having hardly any, is a distinction that proves not to be very useful (Mason 1998, 311). Studies of oral cultures which have distinctions between formal and ritual language and everyday communication strongly suggest that the situation is the primary determiner of the level of context needed. Rhetorical customs may appear to be literate, even if they are never written down (Mason 1998, 312). Genre and register may well be as important or more important than whether a text is written or spoken.
Based on this idea, Mason investigates communication using computerized media. Again, since this is in the relatively early days of the Internet, it would be interesting to see what might have developed in the last two decades, plus a little. Mason explains the difference between plain text email and web pages that use colors and have the possibility of graphic design (Mason 1998, 314). He describes studies that showed electronic communication to be socially deficient, and that users of computers have developed customs which assist in communicating emotion. This was a major development through the late 1980s and the 1990s (Mason 1998, 314-315). The use of different features of characters, essentially a form of typesetting, became important during the 1990s to increase the level of emotive communication in computerized text communication. Mason describes several of these efforts (Mason 1998, 316). Studies have also identified that in email communication there will be a mix of "literate" and "oral" characteristics. Realization of this feature of electronic communication strikes Mason as iinteresting and worthy of pursuit (Mason 1998, 317).
Mason analyzes Ong's 1982 Orality and Literacy, trying to apply some of the features of orality to computer-mediated communication. First, he observes that oral communication tends to be additive, with one idea simply tacked onto another. This is very common in electronic communication, with the cut and paste possibilities it provides (Mason 1998, 317). Additionally, the aggregative nature of oral communication bears investigation. Ong's suggestion that formulaic language is used to gather different concepts and characteristics of a subject may or may not appear in electronic communication (Mason 1998, 318). Mason does not find it as a common feature in e-mail, though some examples can be found. Oral cultures often use communication for verbal dueling. Mason finds this in abundance on the Internet (Mason 1998, 319).
Mason suggests that the reason for electronic communication to have many features of orality is because of the perception that it is evanescent (Mason 1998, 321). As with oral communication, in the early days of the Internet messages were kept for a brief period of time, often deleted by servers within a week or two. This reader adds that, although internet-based communications are much more permanent at the present time, it is certainly possible that the authors of the messages have an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude that contributes to a sense of evanescence.
Mason's conclusion is that literacy and the forms normally associated with literacy tends to be considered normative. In computer-mediated communication, the oral practices may eventually pass away, as users consider their electronic communications more in the nature of written communication (Mason 1998, 323). This would be expected to happen particularly because of a disposition held by many that illiteracy equals stupidity. At a distance of 22 years, this reader observes that electronic communication has not taken on more characteristics of literary work, but, rather the opposite, our electronic communication has been simplified, abbreviated, and become more like a casual form of oral communication. This transition can also be seen in other forms of written communication.