Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction

Edited by Trevor J. Blank. 2012. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. 280 pages. ISBN: 978-1-87421-889-3 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Emily Burke, Indiana University

[Review length: 988 words • Review posted on April 10, 2013]

Trevor J. Blank’s edited volume Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction takes on various topics pertaining to digitally mediated or created vernacular expression. The text aims to document the burgeoning sites of cultural formation and the production of folkloric expression that new digital technologies have made possible. Additionally, Blank writes, the volume is intended to illuminate the ways that media technologies engage with and facilitate folk processes.

In the text’s introduction, Blank makes the argument that, as people are responsible for almost all of the “symbolic interaction” that occurs via media technology, there is an inherent folk presence in cyberspace. Building on this view of technology as a mediator for vernacular expression, he highlights the ways in which folk and mass media cultures interact and influence one another. Blank argues that there are many overlaps in the behavior and structure of folklore online and off as well as new technology-specific forms. He uses the Occupy movement’s use of media technologies to organize in-person events and to gain widespread support to illustrate the hybridity of social interactions in a digital age. Throughout the introduction Blank calls for new research to be done on vernacular expression in digital contexts in order to add to our understanding of vernacular expression as a whole and to provide new insight into research that has come before.

The essays in this volume are presented without organizational headings, but there is a general move in the work from essays dealing with aspects of vernacular expression through technology that integrate more face-to-face contact, to essays that focus on vernacular expression that is more virtual in nature. Chapter 1, “How Counterculture Helped Put the ‘Vernacular’ in Vernacular Webs,” provides fascinating insight into the connection between the vernacular and the institutional aspects of computer technology through a discussion of works such as Computer Lib and the Homebrew Computer Club newsletter. Published in the 1970s, these texts were created by members of the counterculture who believed that computers could and should be used by people outside of the institution and whose work ultimately contributed to the creation and popularization of the home computer.

The spirit of revolution found in the subject of chapter 1 is also in evidence in chapter 2, as Tok Thompson’s essay, “Netizens, Revolutionaries, and the Inalienable Right to the Internet,” delves more deeply into digital technology’s role in protest movements through his discussion of the mass protests in Egypt. Here a minor critique might be made, as this discussion makes insightful observations about how media technologies were used to create in-person events, but the article lacks reference to the events that occurred. For example, in The Instigators, David Wolman describes extensive in-person planning sessions and instances where marches gained their large numbers because protestors called to people in their houses to join the protest. However, Thompson’s discussion regarding the implications of the public response to the government shutting down the Internet is thought-provoking.

Chapter 3 changes direction slightly, moving into a discussion of how performance theory can and should be applied to digital folklore performances in Anthony Bak Buccitelli’s “Performance 2.0: Observations Toward a Theory of the Digital Performance of Folklore.” Using examples from forums, YouTube videos, and Facebook status updates, Buccitelli explores how the interaction between performer and audience is in part shaped by media technology. Lynne S. McNeill uses flash mobs, alternate reality games, and “small world” activities like the website “Where’s George?” to discuss the use of digital technologies as tools for creating in-person events in chapter 4, “Real Virtuality: Enhancing Locality by Enacting the Small World Theory.” McNeill also offers insight into how perception of place is now becoming delocalized and multilocalized.

Chapter 5, “Jokes on the Internet: Listing toward Lists” by Elliott Oring, discusses the presence of a tradition for Internet-list jokes and discusses how their performance and transmission presents significant similarities to and differences from orally told jokes. In chapter 6, Simon J. Bronner also takes up the topic of jokes on the Internet in his essay “The Jewish Joke Online: Framing and Symbolizing Humor in Analog and Digital Culture.” Bronner discusses Jewish jokes online and how they construct a sense of community for those who relate to the humor as insiders, or contrastingly, are used by non-Jewish individuals to express their own anxieties about the modern world. This is followed in chapter 7, “From Oral Tradition to Cyberspace: Tapeworm Diet Rumors and Legends,” by Elizabeth Tucker’s analysis of how tapeworm diet rumors have been circulated over time and made their way onto the Internet. This essay shares some characteristics with Bronner’s, as both connect their topics to larger societal anxieties.

Bill Ellis reorients the conversation towards communities in chapter 8, “Love and War and Anime Art: An Ethnographic Look at a Virtual Community of Collectors.” Ellis draws on years of fieldwork with a virtual community for anime art collectors to discuss how members maintain unity when the interest that brings them together is competitive in nature. The final essay in this text is “Face-to-Face with the Digital Folk: The Ethics of Fieldwork on Facebook” by Montana Miller. Miller uses her own fieldwork on Facebook to illustrate the need for fieldwork methods that take into account some of the ambiguities that come with studying people’s online lives. This essay complements Blank’s call at the beginning of the book for folklorists to delve further into digital folklore as a topic because it suggests the method a researcher might use in order to do so.

Folk Culture in the Digital Age is an excellent resource for scholars interested in how vernacular expression and new media technologies interact and shape one another. Each chapter in this text offers unique insight into how people express themselves through digital means. Together the essays presented offer a rich taste of the myriad ways in which digital folklore occurs, and offers theoretical and methodological models for examining it.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.