Preserving Folk Cultures of the Digital Age: An interview with Folklorist Trevor J. Blank, Pt. 2

Author Photo (2014-02-06)

Trevor J. Blank assistant professor of communication at the State University of New York at Potsdam

The following is a guest post from Julia Fernandez, this year’s NDIIPP Junior Fellow. Julia has a background in American studies and working with folklife institutions and is working on a range of projects leading up to CurateCamp Digital Culture in July. This is part of an ongoing series of interviews Julia is conducting to better understand the kinds of born-digital primary sources folklorists, and others interested in studying digital culture, are making use of for their scholarship.

Part One of this interview appeared on June 30, 2014.

In the first half of my interview with Trevor Blank, we learned about the kinds of Photoshopped memes and online interactions that make up the vernacular web of digital folklore. Today, in this continuation of our Insights Interview, I am excited to explore where the records of digital folklore are and what roles libraries, archives and museums might play in ensuring long term access to those records. Folklorist Trevor J. Blank is an assistant professor of communication at the State University of New York at Potsdam, where he researches the hybridization of folk culture in the digital age with a particular focus on emergent narrative genres and vernacular expression.

Julia: In a recent NPR interview, you point out that “you have to rely on institutions in order to express yourself in the digital medium”, and that people use those commercial institutions for folk expression.  You also recently asked on Twitter, “Can folk culture circumvent institutional constraints?” What do you think is the answer to that question? What role do institutions and individuals each play in creating a folk culture online?

Trevor: Great question! Fundamentally, we rely on institutions for a number of aspects of everyday life: we look to our government to protect us and keep us moving forward as a society; we expect children to learn something valuable when they go to school; we look for law enforcement to ensure that citizens play by the rules, just to name a few. Folk culture–the informal, unofficial expressive dynamics that constitute everyday life within a group–resides outside of these institutions yet it is inherently aware of and shaped by them. The two unavoidably intermingle in the context of modern American life. For instance, connecting to the Internet requires navigating through an institutional barrier, like a cable company or Internet service provider, before one can even begin to engage in vernacular expression online.

To follow that thread, dynamic folk discourse can take place in the comment sections of institutional websites like YouTube. Or, an individual can publish beautiful, original prose (essentially folk expression) on their blog, which may have been built from a template provided by WordPress (which is institutional). The point is that folk expression and institutions are not inherently antagonistic; in fact, they frequently play off one another or become hybridized in the process of generating folklore. A good, illustrative example can be found in the emerging digital tradition of crafting and publishing humorous, fake product reviews on Amazon.com (I have a forthcoming article in the Journal of American Folklore about this very phenomenon!).

Image of Three Wolf Moon t-shirt, which became an internet phenomena through its rating and reviews on Amazon. From user jimgroom on <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimgroom/7276655474/">Flickr</a>.

Image of Three Wolf Moon t-shirt, which became an internet phenomenon through its rating and reviews on Amazon. From user jimgroom on Flickr.

Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, is a huge corporation with significant institutional power and influence, and they partner with independent companies to make countless products available for purchase by consumers. One major, institutionally crafted feature of Amazon comes in the form of product reviews, which are meant to allow regular people (decidedly non-institutional folks) to provide their own feelings and opinions about a given product following a transaction. The idea behind the system is to make consumers feel as though they have a stake in the Amazon community, which is meant to feel outside the institutional boundaries of the site. In theory, by virtue of being  composed by individuals who are unaffiliated with Amazon, the reviews appear to benefit other customers more than they directly benefit Amazon; in practice, they invariably influence consumers to buy a given item through Amazon’s marketplace. Regardless, the popular “vernacular” review feature has become a ubiquitous part of purchasing something from the “institutional” site.

Some crafty individuals soon realized that they could use the familiar format to write incredibly vivid product reviews that ruthlessly mocked certain items for sale, building narrative repertoires through collaborative engagement. The expressive patterns emblazoned in many of these faux reviews arose from their widespread performance and vernacular deliberation online. So, this creative arena was essentially born out of folk culture circumventing the institutional constraints and participation expectations imposed by Amazon, using the site’s official structure to stake out a means for vernacular expression to come through. Amazon is only one example of this back-and-forth, of course, but I’d say it demonstrates that folklore–as it has always done before–will find a way to rise above institutional constraints in the digital age. Identifying how that is accomplished is a particularly compelling aspect of studying contemporary folklore.

Julia: In the same interview, you argue that the internet can be a means for preserving folklore. While born digital content may seem ephemeral, you note that “it is nevertheless able to be archived in a very vibrant way.” What makes a particular archive “vibrant”?

Trevor: I think the criteria is probably subjective from one individual to the next. Personally, I find the most vibrant archived folklore on (and from) the Internet to stem from vernacular discourse that proliferates in response to an event or phenomenon that has been widely covered in the mass media, such as natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and celebrity sex scandals, among others. In the digital age, practically every form of social media constantly beckons individuals to contribute new content based on their own thoughts about what’s going on in the world (both locally and globally). As you might suspect, many folks happily oblige, posting pictures, sharing news stories, uploading video clips, writing personal updates and perpetually commenting on their peers’ (and their own) offerings. Thus, when a news event attracts excessive media coverage, we start to see jokes, stories, rumors, rants, memes, conspiracy theories, etc. fly through the digital ether right away. Coming across archived discussion forums, virtual community deliberations, circulated image macros, old listservs or even long abandoned tweets reveal so much about a salient moment in time where people turned to one another to process the gravity of their living contexts.

But beyond archived vernacular discourse, I’m also very interested in tracing the evolution of vernacular expression in online settings in order to demonstrate the traditionality of emergent forms and patterns. So, for example, I see special value in looking back at how something like visual parodies made in response to the 9/11 Tourist Guy hoax seem to be thematically present in the creative manipulations of the famous Obama Situation Room photo in an effort to get a better sense of how people use folk knowledge about popular culture and existing digital parody traditions to artfully rebrand how a powerful image is subsequently perceived in the present.

Julia: If librarians, archivists and curators wanted to learn more about approaches like yours what examples of other scholars’ work would you suggest?

Trevor: I’m glad to say that there are a number of folklore scholars out there who are doing really great work in studying folklore and folk culture in the digital age. Robert Glenn Howard, of course, has been prolific. Anthony Buccitelli is another scholar who is heavily invested in the study of folklore and new media. Ever the renaissance men, Simon Bronner and Bill Ellis have each contributed provocative and important research in this and numerous other areas as well. I’ve never read anything by Lynne S. McNeill that I didn’t absolutely love. Andrea Kitta has also introduced really insightful scholarship on risk perception and public health concerns with an eye towards the influence of technologically-mediated communication. Merrill Kaplan recently authored a fantastic essay about the curation of tradition online for Tradition in the Twenty-First Century: Locating the Role of the Past in the Present, which Robert Glenn Howard and I edited. Tok Thompson and Elizabeth Tucker have each published several excellent think pieces. Russell Frank certainly shares my interest in documenting the relationship between digital folklore and mass media institutions. Outside of folklore studies, I’d say that the work of Nancy Baym matches up well with my approaches and interests. The open access e-journal New Directions in Folklore is another source that has published a number of thoughtful articles emphasizing digital culture in recent years.

Julia: Could you tell us a bit about the kinds of digital primary sources folklorists are using to study culture on the web? Do you have a sense of how they are likely collecting and organizing these materials? I ask, in part, because many folklife collections in archives are built around acquiring “ethnographic field collections” and I am curious to learn a bit about what the born digital equivalents of those might be in contemporary study of the web.

Trevor: Folklorists use a variety of sources to study the Internet, but I’d say most approach finding and engaging primary sources the same way they would with face-to-face communication settings. That is, they gravitate towards communities (from those centered around fandom to Christian fundamentalists who congregate to passionately discuss shared and contrasting religious beliefs) and other major intersections of vernacular expression, including narrative-based wikis; hoaxes, rumors, and legends spread by email and social media; and even the comments posted in response to articles and videos (not to mention their own newsfeeds on Facebook).

Ethnographic methods are often generously utilized. Those of us who primarily specialize in the study of Internet folklore often use each other as sounding boards for interesting texts and websites we come across. Two websites that I (and several other folklorists) frequently visit are Snopes.com, the urban legends reference page, and KnowYourMeme since they are both such excellent databases for comparing and contextualizing new and recycled narratives and visual folklore circulating online. I also really like examining Twitter feeds and public posts on Facebook to gather general (and occasionally specific) ideas of the major themes and impressions individuals choose to performatively share with peers.

Julia: I realize collecting and preserving content isn’t your area, but from your perspective as a folklorist, what kinds of online content do you think is the most critical for cultural heritage organizations to preserve for folklorists of the future to study this moment in history? It’s a really broad question, so feel free to take it in any number of directions. Are there particular kinds of digital content you think need to be focused on? Are there particular sub cultures or movements that aren’t getting enough attention?

Trevor: I think that the first major hurdle has already been passed just by simply getting the majority of folklorists to accept the study of folklore and technologically-mediated communication as a valuable area of inquiry. There is also no longer any controversy over whether the Internet should be conceived as a “field” in which legitimate fieldwork can take place. In this context, it’s easier for folklorists to meaningfully contribute to the preservation of cultural heritage as it manifests online. As you pointed out, ethnographic field collections are always sought after when organizing folkloric material for curation. Folklorists are collectors, and I am hopeful that the growing interest in chronicling the changing dynamics of vernacular expression in the digital age will yield a greater collective commitment to the process of preserving cultural heritage.

What that will entail remains to be seen, although it’s clear that things like memes, virtual communities (broadly conceived), creative narrative text genres and the websites/ threads that host them likely present the richest possibilities for expansive collection and annotation. Then again, remembering the overarching aesthetic trends that graced the web domains of yesteryear shouldn’t be neglected either (the Internet Archive Wayback Machine helps on that front). There’s always a chance that subcultures and movements may slip through the cracks, especially against such an everchanging, hybridized backdrop. The real challenge for folklorists will be to keep up and stay motivated, allowing individuals and communities to guide their scholarly gazes to the emically important dimensions of contemporary folk culture.

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