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Born Digital Folklore and the Vernacular Web: An Interview with Robert Glenn Howard

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Robert Glenn Howard

What do pet cloning websites, YouTube videos of fans playing AC/DC’s “Gone Shootin'”, and discussions of the end times on UseNet all have in common? Answer: Robert Glenn Howard has studied and written about all of them in his ongoing study of the vernacular web. Robert Glenn Howard is the Director of Digital Studies and a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He is also the editor of the journal Western Folklore. In this installment of Insights, the NDSA innovation working group’s interview series, I am excited to chat with Robert about his approach to studying the web as a folklorist.

Trevor: You come from a folklore background, you edit a folklore journal, but you study online communities. I imagine most folks would think that studying folklore is about studying the long past and that studying online communities would be basically the opposite of that. How did you come to bring a folklore perspective to studying the web and what do you think that perspective does?

Rob: First off, thanks so much for giving me the chance to talk to you about this stuff!

And that is a great question; I wish it weren’t true, but a lot of people imagine “folklore” as “old stuff.” But that just isn’t the case. When the word was invented, it meant the stuff people shared back then—so we think of old stories like Cinderella as being folklore.  And at that time there was this idea that true folklore was disappearing because of modernization—but now we know that folklore changes, but it doesn’t ever disappear because its really just any stuff (the “lore”) that people (the “folk”) share.  A better definition might be that folklore is the informally shared knowledge that we perceive as connecting us to each other.

Its true, some folklorists study “old” folklore in the sense of studying historical things–like archives of folk tales told in the 1800s for example—but, just like any subject really, there is “new” folklore too.  And probably more folklorists study folklore that is being actively shared today than archival stuff.

As far as the Internet goes—its not really an option; if you want to study the folklore we have right now, you have to study it where it is practiced—and, for better or worse, network communication is major place we find people sharing folklore now; since the mid-90s really when I started my career looking at this sort of stuff.  Just like maybe you got a 3×5 card that your grandma wrote a recipe in the 1980s, today she might type it into an email.  The medium of communication may have changed, but its still folklore:  the informal sharing of common knowledge.

A graph of relationships between terms related to Vaccination from Howard’s research

Trevor: A lot of your work is oriented around the notion of the vernacular web. Could you define the term and give us an example or two of the notion from your work?

Rob: Sure!  The idea of a “vernacular web” comes from the famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz.  Long before the Internet, he described humans as caught in “webs of signification” that we make for ourselves. His point was that we can’t just make up our own words or our own culture; both what we know and what we can say based on what we know emerges out on a huge web of interaction that has gone on before any of us got here and will go on after any one of us is gone. In the ‘90s, when I started studying the Internet, I was reading Geertz—and it seemed so obvious that the Internet was a real manifestation of that web he was imagining; a web of data sent across networks of communication.

The thing I am specifically interested in, though, is the power of everyday and informal communication.  “Vernacular” just means non-institutional; or outside of any formal or official channels: it’s the everyday stuff we say and do. That is where, in my mind, the real action of the human experience goes on:  in our day-to-day dealing with reality.  So the idea of the “vernacular web” is just that:  the vast interconnected web of everyday communication we enact together to create our shared sense of the world.

In the online environment, this web is really just more obvious:  we always have had vernacular webs, but online they are more concrete because they are directly observable through actual shared software-code. In a link from one website to another or in tweet about a YouTube video that links to blog, the vast zone of informal discourse online creates “vernacular webs” of interconnected digital media.  In these zones, people follow their friends’ posts and links and they pick up digital content, edit it, and then re-share it.  They can even take institutional content like a video clip from a TV show or movie and combine it with their own digital video and audio to create whole new hybrid media creations and share them with others in their vernacular web.

While there is, in a sense, one huge vernacular web of all the informal communication going on all the time—its really more useful to think of the different vernacular webs we each engage.  For example, I like to learn songs by AC/DC to play on the guitar.  I am not very good at that, but I can follow links from YouTube video comments to blogs to forums debating the correct way to play pretty obscure rock songs—and, in theory at least, get better at it!  That is one of my vernacular webs.  I enact another one when I go to a blog to read pros and cons about what vaccines to give my child; and then follow it to a forum full of parents discussing child-rearing tactics.  I am actually at least one connection between these two webs (AC/DC and child-rearing); but I tend to engage them at different times and for different reasons.

So really each of us is enacting our own vernacular web all the time.  I just focus my study the role the online sections of it are playing in our society today.

Trevor: I would also be interested in what ways of thinking about the web you see this as being compatible or incompatible with other approaches to theorizing the web. For example, I’ve seen you reference Henry Jenkins’s work on participatory culture, or Dan Perkel’s ethnographic research on DeviantArt. How your approach to studying the web as vernacular similar or different from approaches to studying participatory culture, and for that matter, any number of other ways of thinking about online interaction?

Rob:  You are right; there are a lot of ways of thinking about this stuff.  And “participatory culture” is one of them. But like Dan Perkel has said too, I think, its not like the Internet fundamentally changed us.  Its not like we all sat in silence and stared blankly at our TVs waiting for the Internet to show up. We have probably always had vernacular webs of communication.

At different moments in history, though, those webs have occupied different places in our society.  Before there were printed books, not too many people could read.  If you wanted to hear a story, you had to have some real person tell you one; and lots of people could do it.  Many of us still do that sometimes; to our kids or in informal conversations.  All that is pretty participatory.  The same goes for music:  people gather around a guitar or piano and even sing together; they might even hand the guitar around and trade tunes. With printed books and even more with commercially recorded media starting after World War II, an odd period in human history started in which we didn’t tell each other stories and make our own music quite as much; we paid media corporations to do a lot of that for us.  Now that people have a lot more control over the media they can access and share, things are starting to return to normal; what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory.”

But—in the big scope of things—our commercial media age has been a pretty short period in human history; it was maybe 50 years.  And besides we never really stopped telling each other stories; and now we are getting back to a more participatory culture because we have all these great tools that make it easy to create, modify, and share the kind of video and music that used to take a whole professional crew to produce.  Laurence Lessig’s idea of “remix” culture is, actually, I think a bit more interesting than “participatory culture”:  the idea that media participation in networks is a lot about taking some existing media object and remaking it with our own spin: you see tons of that on YouTube for example. Of course, that is a lot what folklorists have studied for over 200 years in terms of oral narrative and folk music:  individual performances of traditional stories or songs, like telling your own version of Cinderella to a child.  Today, we tend to play our own version of a Beatles song and put it up on YouTube, but it’s the same thing:  participation by remix! So we are coming back to a place we have been in mostly all along; it just seems strange to us because we all grew up at an odd moment in human history.  So we are less used to participating with our media-objects; for the next generation it will be back to a newly networked sort of digital-normal I think.

Jenkin’s idea is of course very well known—he is a PhD from my department at Wisconsin, Communication Arts actually—and it’s a fine idea; but it emphasizes a pretty basic way of thinking about media.  Perkel and others’ ethnographic approaches are more sophisticated and jibe better with my idea about the vernacular web because they understand all culture is participatory first, and its not really surprising that after a bit of distraction with TV and such, we are getting back to doing what humans do:  interact with each other.  Its just that now we are doing it with the technology of our day:  network communication.

Trevor: At this point you have been studying and publishing work on online communication since the mid 90s. I would be curious to hear a bit about how your approach and perspective have developed over time.

Rob:  Well, I have to admit I have followed a pretty classic trajectory on that! I started out in the early ‘90s being young and naive. I was thinking that the Internet world would vastly improve our world because it would give us all direct access to the information we need to make good choices.  Then—as I got older and crankier—and I saw that some people choose not to access good information; and some don’t necessarily make the best choices.

My first article back in 1997 was based on work I did in 1994.  In that piece I argue that the early Internet was making fundamentalist Christians online more tolerant that that sort of believer typically was.  But then in my 2011 book, Digital Jesus, I finished out my work on Christian fundamentalists online basically saying the opposite:  the control individuals have over their media consumption can lead them into digital enclaves that actually reduce the need to be tolerant. Basically, for some people, you can really limit your media intake to people and places that you already agree with.  In the extreme case I was looking at, things that seem absurd to most people don’t seem so absurd when a group of people have found each other from across the globe and formed an online community based on common beliefs that are pretty rare.

In my new work on parenting forums, its kind of the same sort of thing though, I am looking at how people’s access to each other has allowed them to elevate what I call “vernacular authority” over that of their doctors.  So I am interested in when people trust untrained people they find online instead of experts when making choices about their children’s healthcare.  That is a far trickery topic than any of my previous work because—frankly—the medical industry has not always behaved super well; but, on the other hand, the vast majority of treatments you will get from a North American doctor are going to be incredibly well studied and most-likely make you healthier faster that anything else you could do.

So—there are good and bad things; I used to think the freer the information the better for us all.  Now, I think its more fair to give people more information, but it also puts a lot of responsibly on people.  There is far too much information right here at our fingertips than any one person could hope to process in a lifetime. So people just won’t do it; or they won’t have the time to figure out how to do it. In the end, we all have to help each other out when trying to use the information that is out there because there is just so much. That requires more tolerance and paying closer attention to each other, but (for lots of reasons) people are not always able to do that.  Its funny; but I used to think people wouldn’t need to trust each other in a world where we can all get the data for ourselves.  Turns out, there is so much data out there now, that we need to help each other just to work through the different chunks of it we don’t have time to figure out!  We can’t all be experts in everything; humans have accumulated too much knowledge for that.

Trevor: Right now you have the benefit of directly looking for source material for your work on the open web. Given your perspective, 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?

Rob:  Wow.  That is a great question; and a really hard one for me.  Its funny, but back in the ‘90s most people weren’t really thinking “How can we archive this Internet stuff?” It seemed like it would always be there; but its clear now that as much as stuff stays online for a long time, it also so rapidly changes that our Internet of today looks completely different from the Internet of 1999.  I am really happy I saved hundreds and hundreds of full websites I was doing work on way back then.  I still get editors complaining that a website I have cited in an article or something no longer works.  Well—yes!  It’s the Internet!  It changes!  That’s why its cool! So there are certainly lots of great digital art pieces out there; and that should be saved—and it probably will be.  But what of the everyday art? Like so much folklore of the past, its not so much what we save—but how richly we save it, I think.  While its great to have hundreds of photoshops, to have a collection of all the top memes, to collect chain emails, archive that classic ASCII art, but what makes archives from the past most valuable, is the fully contextualized examples we have:  not just everybody’s tweets (Though that is a fantastic thing!), but groups of people tweeting together, their biographies, their feelings about each other, the things they do other than tweet—those contextual details are what make particular archives stand out; and those are the things that will be hardest to recover.  We will have lots of examples of video mashups from YouTube in 2013, but how many will we have with fully contextualized comments, interviews with participants, and documentation of which Facebook profiles posted which videos on their walls, and so on?  That richness is what I think is hardest and most valuable.

Trevor: If librarians, archivists and curators wanted to learn more about approaches like yours what examples of other scholars work would you suggest? It would be great if you could mention a few other scholars work and explain what you think is particularly interesting about their approaches.

Rob: Well, there so many good people out there—lots of up-and-coming researchers in folklore and beyond.  Its tough to really choose.  A lot of people are doing really good on the political side of things, an established scholar like Zizi Papacharissi does great stuff on the digital public sphere, her book A Private Sphere is great.  Mary Gray is another communication scholar doing top-notch ethnographic would among LGBT kids using networks, Out in the Country is her most recent book.  In folklore studies, you have a core group of scholars emerging as the group that really focus on the Internet.  Trevor Blank is kind of leading that group with his series of anthologies on the topic; and his book on Internet jokes should be coming out soon.  That is one to look for.  Anthony Buccitelli is another newer scholar.  He has a great piece that you will see coming out in Western Folklore very soon on Internet stuff.  Of course Russell Frank’s Newslore is proving to be pretty important.  And, though its about belief more broadly, Andre Kitta’s new book Vaccinations and Public Concern in History has a really great ethnographic engagement of vaccine rumors as they spread online.  She is another scholar to really watch.

A lot of researchers just finishing up their PhDs are really doing some of the best work right now, I think.  Its taken a while, but studying the Internet is really just getting up to speed, and now a new crop of researchers is really going to do some innovative stuff.  Two PhD candidates in my department, for example, are really doing great work.  Ashley Hinck is studying how online fan communities are able to encourage kids to get engaged in there local real-world communities, and Andrew Peck is documenting emerging forms of digital folklore of all sorts; my favorite being the “Slenderman”:  a sort of digitally altered photo that he has captured from its first inception as a hoax to what is a fully evolved legend matrix complete with competing backstories and scores of amateur “photohops” or digitally altered photos of the monster.  Those two young scholars are both people to look for in the future. I have a co-edited book coming out in May as well; we have some really great pieces in there on Internet stuff:  Tradition in the 21st Century.  Trevor Blank and I are co-editing that one, and I am really happy with it:  it really goes after this idea you started with, that folklore isn’t old  . . . so, of course, its online!  But in that book we really get some super smart scholars to think pretty critically about what “tradition” really means in the digital age.

Comments (2)

  1. When I saw the term “pet cloning” I thought it would talk about the vernacular used by online pokemon traders. I was wrong and now I am disappoint.

  2. As an early internet adopter, I’m thrilled to see this perspective represented and closely studied and think it’s an accurate framing of the way the internet has been used by people for informal and expressive communication. From the earliest days of BBSs and usenet, the content people shared and discussed closely mirrored that traded in “Xeroxlore” and informal networks. I look forward to hearing more about how access to information may be complicating learning and decisionmaking, but I’ve always found that theories of the web as a total revolution tended to treat it as though there were no precedents in human communication – when precedent is abundant. Thanks for this great post.

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