Featured image is from jameson9101322’s DeviantArt page.
In You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto virtual reality forefather Jaron Lanier rails against recent Web 2.0 developments, specifically the ways in which social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn make individuals place themselves into boxes, and how this is so different from forums on the internet.
It’s the people who make the forum, not the software. Without the software, the experience would not exist at all, so I celebrate that software, as flawed as it is. But it’s not as if the forum would really get much better if the software improved.
Looking past his value judgments, the contrast Lanier draws between forums and social media sites is worth noting because it draws our attention to how the form of a site can drastically change how people interact with it. This is an issue that is worth considering as we consider how best to deal with digital folklore.
In fact, many of our readings raised similar issues: how those looking to preserve the “vernacular web” as presented by R.G. Howard might look at the internet and the cultures that exist (at least at some level) therein, and some of the complications that exist when working with such materials.
Scale and Insider Knowledge
The issue of scale is one raised by Dragan Espenschied in his interview with Trevor Owens, but it’s one dealt with by our case studies this week as well– how wide do we need to go, and how deep?
As a researcher, it’s easy to say to do both, as much as possible. A paper given by ethnomusicologist Eliot Bates at the Society for Ethnomusicology’s national meeting this past year (his paper begins at 2:36:42) calls for ethnomusicologists to spend significant time in website with user-generated content to gain closer to insider knowledge about how they tick, what the idioms are, and how people behave when on them. This works for researchers, but it’s not practical for archivists in most cases.
Because of this, I like Espenschied’s take on this, where the archivist is not the one making decisions:
I see my personal role as ultimately developing methods and practices for communities to take care of their own history.
Assuming that an archivist wants to work with the materials themselves, gathering information from insiders would still be crucial for any project where the scale needs to be limited. If materials are going to be excluded/included, shouldn’t it be at the discretion of someone who knows an online community well?
Little Boxes, All the Same?
Lanier’s book, in some aspects, seems to me to be a reaction against mass culture, as defined by John Fiske and described by Trevor Owens in his article on zombies in Flickr photos. Lanier’s sentiment is not a new one; associating shifts in technology with dehumanization has been part of popular culture for a while. (I should say, though, it doesn’t make it untrue).
Fiske and Owens presents us with an alternative message: maybe as we engage with mass culture, we create new things with it. We take our “boxes” (Facebook, Twitter) and fill them with all sorts of personalized items, and within the boxes we find on the internet, we create new ways of using them and fiddling with them that were beyond the intentions of the creators (much like we read in Bogost and Montfort).
This means that the work of an archivist is even more multilayered in these cases. Sure, one could collect all of the tweets that have ever gone out on Twitter, and they could document how Twitter, as a whole, was used. But that does not explain a number of phenomena that have popped up on Twitter: bots (as highlighted by Megan and Amy’s projects this semester), particular communities, satire accounts, and many other cultural groups that are not just basic twitter users.
Who Are the Folk?
Sometimes, I’m hesitant to use the word “folk” (scare quotes time), because it has some scholarly baggage associated with seeing the people ethnomusicologists and folklorists study as being “lesser than” the people studying them. However, it seems that folk and folklore here is being used by most of these scholars to discuss how Web 2.0 has put power back into the hands of all internet users, rather than a select few– a great democratization of content creation, and thus one that gives us a lot to consider when attempting to collect and save their work.
Espenschied discussed the level of narrative that becomes available with deeper studies. I think also something that becomes available is a more humanizing approach, one that can break down the image of a digital world as a dehumanizing one. Daniel Perkel’s dissertation is a work that does this; he looks at DeviantART from an ethnographic standpoint, giving information on individual users’ experiences. While not all digital folklore collections need to behave this way, giving human data in a world full of little boxes might have more significant ramifications than we realize.