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Understanding Folk Culture in the Digital Age: An interview with Folklorist Trevor J. Blank, Pt. 1

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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 the first of a 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.

When most people think of “folklore,” they tend to think of fairy tales and urban legends. Trevor Blank thinks of photoshopped memes and dark humor. 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. In this installment of the Insights Interview series, I talk with Trevor about his approach to studying folklore on the internet. Tomorrow, in part two of this interview, I talk with Trevor about the implications of this line of thinking for institutions working to collect and preserve records of folk culture in the digital age.

Julia: Why does it make sense to approach the web and communication on the web as a folklorist? What do we gain from this approach that we wouldn’t get from other humanities or social science perspectives? Trevor Owens previously interviewed Robert Glenn Howard about his work on the “vernacular web”; do you see your work as being largely in the same vein as Robert’s? Or are there significant differences?

Trevor: Let me begin by expressing my gratitude for the opportunity to chat with you about all of this!

Contrary to popular belief, folklore is just as much, if not more, of an agent of the present as it is of the past. As a folklorist, I am interested in vernacular expression; understanding how people forge traditions, share knowledge, and make meaning in everyday life is central to my work. For me, that centrally involves working with new media technologies and observing the ways in which they’re implemented by individuals and groups in everyday life.

It is critical to document the myriad ways in which folk culture adapts, influences, rejects and responds to changing cultural tides, especially amid the exponential growth of computer-mediated communication technologies. Folklorists are uniquely positioned to comment on emergent forms of communicative expression, noting traditionality and innovation in seemingly new material while contextualizing and interpreting the forms and meanings behind its deployment. Whereas other humanities and social science fields may favor statistical analysis, data mining and text collection/comparison, folklorists employ interdisciplinary approaches, often using ethnographic methods, that strive for a more holistic representation of research subjects. At the end of the day, the emphasis remains on individuals and groups– even if they’re united in an online venue.

Now, not all folklorists have always been keen on studying Internet folklore, preferring instead to focus their energies on oral traditions and expressive culture observed in face-to-face communication. For that reason, Robert Glenn Howard’s work on the vernacular web was a revelation to me, and continues to greatly influence my thinking on approaching my own research on folk culture in the digital age. His work on electronic hybridity also directly informed and prompted my own research on the subject. Like Howard, I’m interested in underscoring everyday communication and interaction by analyzing the interconnected webs of meaning and participatory actions that comprise it. Our individual interests have led us to different research projects (and sometimes different conclusions), but I’d say that my work definitely operates in conversation with the framework he has so masterfully crafted over the years.

Julia: At this point you have been studying folklore and the internet since 2007. How has your approach and perspective developed over time? What (if any) changes have you observed in how folk culture objects are created and disseminated online?

Trevor:  I was initially drawn to studying folklore and the Internet as a graduate student, precisely because it seemed that only a small handful of folklorists were deeply invested in this area of inquiry at the time (Robert Glenn Howard being one of them). To my eager eyes, it seemed that there was a lot of expressive content and cultural phenomena that had been inadequately chronicled by folklorists to that point. Indeed, many folklore scholars were skeptical of the value of folklore collected in online settings, as I mentioned. Of course, this was nothing new; there was similar angst over the study of photocopylore, or “Xeroxlore,” before the Internet was commercially available. In any case, I saw an opportunity to contribute something new to the folklore discipline, or at least a chance to invite greater attention to this rich yet neglected area of study. Ultimately, that resulted in my editing of the anthology Folklore and the Internet: Vernacular Expression in a Digital World, which came out in 2009 and featured essays written by a number of tremendous folklore scholars.

Whether it was the book or the passage of time, the study of folklore in the digital age–in all of its iterations–has since come to enjoy a far warmer reception among folklorists, and now many more scholars are contributing new and exciting perspectives on the everchanging digital landscape. Back then, my standard approach and perspective was to carefully explain why digital folklore was every bit as legitimate as its face-to-face correlates and passionately advocate for its further study to anyone who would listen. As a result, most of my early publications end with a rant about the need for folklorists to jump into the digital fray! Fortunately, that is no longer necessary these days, which is a big deal. I now focus my energies on developing new anthologies, special issues of peer-reviewed journals and my own independent cases studies and theoretical research aimed at broadening the scholarly literature on folklore in the digital age as well as its profile.

Example of a Demotivational poster. Adversity by user cadsonline on <a href="">Flickr</a>.
Example of a Demotivational poster. Adversity by user cadsonline on Flickr.

Since 2007, I’ve noticed definite shifts in how folklore and various elements of folk culture are created and transmitted online. For one, there has been a greater shift towards “visuality,” meaning that a greater part of the folkloric content we find in circulation online tends to have some kind of eye-catching component that renders it traditional in the context of vernacular expression. Image macros (what most folks simply conceptualize as “memes”), humorous Facebook posts, de-motivational posters, etc. all utilize the online medium’s increasingly proficient ability to host and share visual data quickly and effectively.

By the same token, Vine and Snapchat have also spawned new expressive modes– something that wouldn’t have been feasible a short time ago (even in the YouTube era). What we see now are people adapting to the new expressive tools they have at their disposal. These new tools haven’t displaced older ones necessarily, but they have undoubtedly drawn greater attention to a burgeoning trajectory in the dynamics of technologically-mediated communication. Another example of a popular and developing genre of Internet folklore comes from “creepypastas,” or short horror stories, often paired with a corroborating image or two, that are shared with the intent of gleefully creeping out readers. Here again, many of the stories and visuals echo expressive genres and patterns found in oral traditions, only this time they’ve made it to the digital realm. I think this powerfully speaks to the medium’s adaptive capabilities when it comes to contemporary folklore.

Julia: In your most recent book The Last Laugh: Folk Humor, Celebrity Culture, and Mass-Mediated Disasters in the Digital Age, you focus on the concept of “hybridization.” You define hybridization as “the blending of analog and digital forms in the course of their dissemination and enactment,” which you argue helps people “adapt to the progressing culture by merging the old and familiar with the emergent capabilities of a new medium.” Can you expand a bit more on hybridization in a folklore context? Why is it such an important concept for you?

Snapchat silliness by user jessycat_techie on <a href="">Flickr</a>.
“Snapchat silliness” by user jessycat_techie on Flickr.

Trevor: Sure! Folklore thrives through the process of repetition and variation, meaning that certain expressive patterns or traits continuously and consistently “repeat” over time (demonstrating/establishing traditionality) and they will also “vary” or undergo some adaptive modification in the course of their dissemination, usually to suit a new context. This is how and why so many people can recall legends or ghost stories that share many similar motifs yet contain components that render them distinct from other versions.

Take the legend of “Bloody Mary,” for example: most versions of the narrative also entice listeners, usually children and adolescents, to carry out a ritual involving a mirror, though the consequences of completing the task range from a friendly apparition appearing to being disemboweled by said apparition. While the themes are related, the specific details of the story change from teller to teller, context to context. My point in mentioning this tale is to draw attention the adaptive capabilities of folklore. As communicative beings, we tailor our repertoires to befit a particular context and look for opportunities to maximize our abilities to convey information effectively.

In the context of vernacular expression on the Internet, individuals rely on their oral/face-to-face/analog conceptualizations of language and communication to inform their corresponding actions in the digital realm. No matter how hard you stare at an abstract body of text online, you won’t always be able to see if the words were infused with the hint of a smile, a sarcastic crack, or genuine anger. As a remedy, people started incorporating emoticons or initialisms like “LOL” to convey laughing out loud or a lighthearted chuckle in online settings. Then, curiously, some folks started exclaiming “LOL” (phonetically as one word, not L-O-L) or “lulz” out loud, in face-to-face communication settings, to convey mild amusement among peers.

These kinds of happenings, which are quite common, reveal the hybridization of folk culture. Because technologically-mediated communication is so ubiquitously and integrally rooted into everyday life (for most individuals), the cognitive boundaries between the corporeal and virtual have been blurred. When we send text messages to a friend or family member, we typically think “I’m sending this text” instead of “these glowing dots of phosphorous are being converted into tiny signals and beamed across several cell towers before being decoded and received on a peer’s phone.” The message is perceived as an authentic extension of our communicative selves without much thought over the medium in which it was sent.

On a more nuanced level there are obvious differences between oral and electronic transmission, but both formats are often equally relied upon and valued for everyday communication while simultaneously shaping each other’s forms. This hybridization is incredibly important because it entails the reciprocal amalgamation of tradition, innovation and adaptation of folk culture across face-to-face and digital venues. As technology continues to improve at exponential rates and more sophisticated opportunities for electronic transmission and digital expression become available, this boundary blurring hybridization will become increasingly pronounced and will continue to complicate existing notions of face-to-face communication and folk culture. This isn’t automatically a bad thing, but it does stress the need for continued monitoring in order to more accurately capture the bustling dynamics of contemporary folklore.

Part two of this interview appeared on July 1, 2014.

Comments (3)

  1. So happy to hear about this guy’s work, thanks for publishing the interviews!

  2. Great work as usual, Julia! Remind me to tell you about the correspondence that Trevor and I had about the Chewbacca Roar Contest!

  3. Its wonderful insights

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