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13 January 2014

Learning to Read

Estimated reading time Time 2 to read

These are the first definitions of the verb “to read” which appear in the Royal Spanish Academy dictionary:

1. Pass one’s gaze over what is written or printed, understanding the significance of the characters used.
2. Understanding the meaning of any other type of graphic representation.

I am going to begin with the second definition. When, in 1895, the first viewers attended the projection of ‘Arrival of a train at the station’, by the Lumière brothers, they were frightened that the locomotive projected on that rudimentary screen might run them over.  In 2008, the rock band AC/DC kicked off its tour concerts using a real train, which burst on to the stage after an introductory film. Nobody was frightened about such an audio-visual deployment.

The conclusion is obvious. At the end of the nineteenth century, we could barely understand audio-visual language, but a century later the vast majority of the population now finds this language easy to read.

The new media, including Internet, offer us new narrative possibilities, new combinations of signs, sometimes without an apparent graphic representation, making them difficult to read for newly arrived readers. Anyone can still make an incorrect interpretation of what happens in social media, as even the experts among us lack training to adequately comprehend what a newly-born language is.

It is normal, even after so years of practice, for people to exaggerate the importance of certain conversations on Twitter or Facebook. It is also common to do the opposite, to underestimate certain messages which become essential to assess what is happening. This is the case because in these new media, messages do not only have a subject and a predicate. There is another type of information, integrated in each narrative unit, and which has an influence on the discourse. I am referring to the relevance of the issuer, its authority regarding the subject in question, the time when the message is issued, the hyperlinks it includes, the labels which classify it, the thread of the conversation in which it is included, etc. In a way, whether or not we are aware of it, all this added information influences user perceptions.

If we try to interpret words too strictly when we read social media, we run the risk of not really understanding much. In these media, the meta-information is relevant and provides essential traces to be able to correctly read the full story. What is more, there are no universal recipes for correctly understanding what we read, and we need to have a critical attitude which might help us to properly interpret each history, combining all the signs which affect the construction of each message.

Exaggeration, underestimating, and misunderstandings are now an important part of the new media, but only for the time being. The exercise for those of us who are over 16 years old is difficult, but possible – we need to learn to interpret the new language and we will manage to do so. This means that for some time we shall continue to see how certain media bring up irrelevant news items on their front pages “because they have been trending topics; people will be scared about certain critical conversations for years to come; and some people will have a contemptuous attitude and say things were better in the past.

The Lumière brothers used the newly discovered cinematographic medium in an effective way in their era. Now cinema is an art on which we all have an opinion

Txema Valenzuela

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