Folklore and the Internet: Vernacular Expression in a Digital World

Blank, Trevor J., ed. Folklore and the Internet: Vernacular Expression in a Digital World. Logan, UT, Utah State University Press, 2009. p.272. $24.95pb or free .pdf at

Monica Foote
Indiana University

If folklore is a form of artistically heightened communication, then it must necessarily arise in the course of most forms of human interaction. How these interactions are mediated changes over time, and the most recent seismic shift in how we mediate our communicative world has been the shift towards interaction in the space of distant co-presence that has been created by the advent of the Internet. On message boards, in social media, in email attachments and on Wikipedia, folklore is everywhere. Online communities develop their own modes of communication and methods of producing knowledge, along with verbal and visual art, that mark them as a community and heighten the discourse and practices with which they engage.
Scholarly attention has only lately been turning towards this type of folkloric production, but offline forms of folklore that also occur online are becoming seen as legitimate expressions of culture rather than as pale copies of real cultural work going on elsewhere. Folklore that is ‘born-digital’, as one could say, is also being increasingly recognized. Folklore and the Internet: Vernacular Expression in a Digital World does the important work of discussing how folklorists have dealt with technological shifts in the past, and how we can thus accommodate this shift, establishing the Internet as a field site like any other.

All of the articles in this collection make points that illuminate the issues inherent in working with digitally mediated data, although some make their arguments more deftly than others. The volume opens with essays by Trevor J. Blank and Simon J. Bronner that sketch out how folklorists have historically reacted to the introduction of technology into their data. Both scholars reject the modernist binaries that would require us to see technology and tradition in opposition. While Blank establishes the focus of the book as being on the sociocultural and performative nature of the Internet, Bronner focuses on how Web 2.0 is participatory and consists of behaviors as well as of texts. These behaviors are shaped by the cultural expectations with which participants log on. For Bronner, especially, technology enables people to enact and alter tradition.

Gregory Hansen’s chapter on public folklore and the Internet aligns best with these two chapters, despite coming at the end of the book. Hansen gives a history of how public folklorists like himself have made use of computers as technology has evolved. He discusses how the Internet blends medium and message, and helps public folklorists, as culture brokers, to get people to interact with each other. His accompanying webography of public folklore resources is extensive and useful for seeing the scope of public folklore work in the U.S.

Some of the authors focus on how Internet mediation modifies behavior that people engage in offline as well. Russell Frank examines the forwarding of humorous emails like any other session of joke telling. He recognizes that this form of joke-telling challenges canonical ideas about the importance of performance and context as well as the roles of individual creativity and audience response in textual variation. He argues that the same pivot from hearing to telling operates online as off; forwarding a joke is a choice and thus a performance. Frank discusses a fair number of visual genres, however, and the article suffers from a lack of illustration. The Internet is an intensely visual space and the fact that this article encounters this problem constitutes a good argument for born-digital scholarship to accommodate the study of born-digital data. Elizabeth Tucker also looks at the circulation of folkloric forms on the Internet. Rather than jokes, she is interested in legends, specifically, focusing on stories of missing women. Tucker deftly analyzes how these narratives are treated in old media vs. new media in terms of the portrayals of the victims and how the narrative producers engage in and audiences react to the victim-shaming that is often a part of the narrative in either form of media. Both of these authors illustrate how the online medium affects the use of forms that do not necessarily depend on that medium.

In his article, Robert Glenn Howard examines how vernacular Christian fundamentalism is facilitated by online access to other people. He focuses on how the Internet enables dispersed members of a potential folk group to contact each other and create ideological enclaves in which types of evangelical behavior that would be clearly fringe in real life becomes reasonable and even devout. Howard is especially interested in how the echo chambers and anonymity created by the Internet give rise to certain forms of intolerance and gives those engaging in these behaviors a buffer to repercussions. Robert Dobler also examines how vernacular religion is enacted online, focusing on the memorialization of the deceased on social media platforms. The platform Dobler uses to illustrate this behavior is MySpace, which unfortunately makes the chapter already feel a little dated. Dobler gives an interesting discussion of the space that the people who leave these memorials presume the deceased to occupy and makes an interesting point about this kind of memorialization being a way of reclaiming death from the funeral industry. Yet, the article’s impact is undermined by the sheer number of similar studies that have appeared at folklore conferences in recent years and by the fact that Dobler’s point is not particularly unique or better stated than those of other scholars.

Lastly, William Westerman and Lynn S. McNeill offer the studies in this volume that are most deeply rooted in the Internet itself. Westerman is interested in Wikipedia’s system of knowledge production, particularly how members of the Wikipedia-editing community negotiate trust and belief in order to create reliability. His analysis is certainly applicable to offline spaces as well, but the issues that he discusses arise because of how the Internet decentralizes authority and systems of knowledge. Westerman argues that all knowledge is folk knowledge. He sees lay knowledge as a threat to professional authority and folklorists’ interest in lay knowledge as something that makes our field epistemologically radical. If one accepts his argument, it also makes folkloristics uniquely placed to study the decentralized lay knowledge of the Internet productively. Similarly, McNeill argues that the digital world is a culture unto itself and follows Marc Prensky in dividing that culture’s inhabitants into digital natives, immigrants, and settlers. She uses this model to examine these various users abilities to cope with the vastness of the Internet. While psychological and economic models tout the positive aspects of nearly infinite choice, the existence of memes like “the last page of the Internet” point out the limits of the appeal of such choices as users become more and more aware of what they cannot pursue. This meme expressed the anxieties of the late 1990s as non-native users watched the Internet expand, but has fallen out of use as more people have grown up as digital natives for whom there never were fewer options. Although this epistemological shift has come into existence because of technology, her analysis is also useful for thinking about other rapid changes that have come about in the same period, such as globalization and radical commercialization.

These last two articles are the gems of this collection. Both address issues that are firmly rooted in online communities and online behavior, while having implications that reach far beyond the Cloud. This entire volume is illuminating, and I hope that it will provide the basis for a great deal of further work on the expressive behavior in which people engage in their online lives.

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