O Brave New World, that has such people in it

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.

3 Replies to “O Brave New World, that has such people in it”

  1. This post really got me thinking about how people choose methodologies of self-definition in relation to folklife. I recall in particular the craze when “Sex and the City” was at the height of its popularity for women saying, “I’m such a Miranda” or “I’m just going through my Samantha phase”. Women of my acquaintance – obviously I can’t speak to anyone else’s – went out of their way to put themselves and their best friends into someone else’s predefined boxes. At the same time, there’s the Census, which is a vital system of putting ourselves into little boxes because it helps distribute aid and define representation. And then actuarial tables that tally up your life and tell you what you’re worth, which, like the Census, are often vilified for pointing out the inadequacies in the way we live now. And I come back around to “folk”-activities (taking “folk” very broadly), like Sex and the City launching a discussion of the double standard of sexual morality or my aunt teaching Swedish nursery rhymes to my nieces and it blows my mind that “folk” could be such a dangerous term. But as you point out, the baggage associated with it, much like that associated with actuarial tables, is ever present.

  2. “the form of a site can drastically change how people interact with it”

    This was something that struck me throughout the readings. For example, in Owens’ Flickr article, we see how the sorting algorithm can determine what becomes popular – “While anyone can participate, only those whose participation is favored by the algorithm become networked and highly trafficked.” Another example is deviantART, which also has a sorting algorithm to sort galleries by “popularity.” I think examples like these serve to reiterate the fact that we need to provide context for the platform in addition to what’s served on the platform. Because if we preserve the first “100” popular works on Flickr at a certain time, we need to consider the fact that Flickr itself is helping determine what those “popular” works are.

    On the other end of the spectrum you have people who recognize these constraints and use the structure against itself, like the example of the $74 whole milk for sale on Amazon. So even for examples like these, it is important to know the protocols/conventions of Amazon (like the inclusion of reviews) in order to understand the sarcasm behind it.

  3. More so than providing context on what a folk internet culture is like, what I think is interesting about the archivist as facilitator and community centric perspective is who ultimately makes decisions. By minimizing the role of creators and switching the decision making power to a community in general, there is now a much larger number of people that have the ability to make their opinion heard. Who makes the ultimate decision on what is worth saving? What if someone within the community disagrees? What if a part of the community wants to actively erase some of the creations? These are issues with regular community archives but scale up when you have large distributed internet communities. Ultimately, I think a community centered approach to digital folk culture is important but that there will definitely be some growing pains as we work all of this out.

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