This one is a deep dive into folklore theory.
If you haven’t heard of had the chance to listen to the Digital Folklore podcast, you should. I’ve never come across a podcast quite like it, a playful audio production which has both an emergent narrative that either balances or punctuates a series of interviews in which both the guests and hosts try to think more clearly about the nature and status of online culture, especially the kinds of cultural artifacts that have been called and still might be called folklore.
As I listen to the first season, I was drawn to think about online communities. We use the term community rather freely in the current moment, but I think it might be helpful to remember the first communities scholars studied (or imagined they studied) and how the differences and similarites might help us think about online communities. Along the way we will get to follow a German sociologist hanging out with American Baptists in 1904 and two Hungarian folklorists coining the term fake news … in 1974.
Communities and Associations
When scholars first studied communites, or imagined communities, they were focused on peasant villages. Guided by Romantic Nationalism’s idea that people most tied to the land — who spoke the same language, told the same stories, ate the same food, sang the same songs — were the better foundation for a state — a nation state! — scholars set out to spend time in villages, collecting linguistic artifacts, stories, food, and songs. Like a lot of people not from a place, they tended to imagine villagers as being much the same. Perhaps that is where community began to develop the sense of sameness.
Then along came Max Weber, who was fascinated with protestantism and how ideas that bubbled out of it helped lead to the rise of capitalism. For our purposes here, the important thing that happened is that Weber eventually found himself in North Carolina visiting relatives and encountering a form of ascetic protestantism practiced among Primitive Baptists. Weber was fascinated by the strong elective affinity formed by congregation members, and he explored the nature of association within this context.
Association becomes a key player in our larger story, because, like the old saying, you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. For our purposes here, bringing back our villagers, who, in effect could choose neither, we have a productive tension between a community, where we can’t choose with whom we associate, and associations, where we do. These two forms of membership are ideals of course, with most of our relationships somewhere on the spectrum.
For a great many of us, our neighborhoods are more like communities: we sort of choose our neighbors but most of us don’t have the financial mobility that means if one of our neighbors isn’t to our liking we simply up and move. Instead, we find ways to accommodate differences, to get along. The same is true of small town life and life in rural communities to this day. It’s also true for many of us with our work places, where we have to get along with a variety of kinds of people. It is less true of other places: we can joins the Jaycees, for example, and if we don’t like it there we are free to leave. We can frequent a coffee shop, and if the wrong crowd starts turning up or they start playing music we don’t like, we can stop frequenting.
These locations will strike many as being the difference between rural settings and urban settings, and that is true. It was also true that our scholars of old, and even scholars now, tend to think of urban settings as being particular manifestations of modernity. And, indeed, folklorists and sociologists have long imagined communities as being something from a more rural past and associations as being from a more modern present. (The assumption was that people would shift where they lived, and, for the most part, that assumption has proved true: cities have grown and rural areas have either held constant or emptied.)
Distinguishing between rural/urban or past/modern isn’t really helpful in helping us think about the kinds of communities (and associations) we encounter in our lives. The better distinction might be something more like sticky and free. (These are amazing technical terms, are they not?) Groups that are more like old-fashioned communities are stickier: it’s harder to leave. And groups that are more like associations are freer: the barrier for leaving is remarkably low.
But there’s another dimension much more important to the differences between old-fashioned communities and new-fangled associations, likeness. Despite what the old-fashioned scholars thought about the villages into which they poked their noses, everybody there was not the same, and if they were it wasn’t an important dimension of why they were together.
The same is not true for the Jaycees or a painting group. These are groups that depend upon likeness, sometimes in very narrow ways, for their composition. The same is true for online communities. That makes a certain sense, if you think about it: the barrier for joining or leaving an online community is exceedingly low and most people belong to one out of mutual interests. They share an affinity for something.
Shortly after WW2, a Andrew Vazsonyi was assigned as a medical aid to a work battalion in Hungary that was tasked with clearing fields and woods of materielle left over from the war. The work involved men being strung along lines that then made their way through a section of land. It was tedious and often boring, and Vazsonyi noticed that the men would pass news, jokes, and other bits of information up and down the line.
Curious about the ebb and flow of certain kinds of information along this linear social network, as we might describe it in the current moment, Vazsonyi introduced the occasional item of what he would later call, in an essay with his partner Linda Dégh, fake news. His objective was to see which kinds of information passed successfully through the network, which he and Degh called a conduit, and which kinds did not, and where they stopped, or, rather, with whom they stopped.
His astonishment was not that this occurred, but how certain kinds of information would find ways to route around blockages in the network: if it was one individual, someone might shout it over him. If it was a group, then perhaps at lunch time, when groups of men tended to clump together based on religion or ethnicity or occupation, the information would circulate there and then pick up further down the line.
What Vazsonyi had discovered, and he and Dégh conceptualized, was the importance of affinity for the flow of information through social networks: information that matched a group’s interest flowed more readily, whereas information that did not flowed less readily and information that ran counter would not flow at all.
Fast forward to our current moment, and you have a clear understanding of how the internet has made what we now call so readily fake news flow so easily through social networks: it flows through networks for which it has affinity.
Another way to think about this for older readers is to remember that crazy uncle or neighbor who was always going on about something but who had no ready audience in the people around him (and they were, and are, usually men). I’ve been in plenty of groups where that person started talking and everyone discreetly rolled their eyes and slowly found a way to excuse themselves. In this case, real communities have a way of containing such things. Sadly, their ability to contain, or isolate, difference has also been worked on people were different in other ways, by gender, sexuality, race, and other dimensions of human experience. (As one student once told me about the small town in which he grew up: “You try not talking about tractors and see how far that gets you.”)
But the internet made it possible for the crazy uncles and the crazy numbers to talk to each other, to find people who thought and talked like them. This amazing power was blooming throughout the late eighties and nineties and may, in fact, be one of the factors behind the rise in identity politics. So many people could feel connected to others “just like them.”
These were and are natural affinities of some kind, and as we have already seen lead to the kind of faster flow of information than happens in communities.
The terminological confusion is a bit troubling here: based on a loose understanding of what scholars used to think about communities, people started using the term community to refer to groups online. There’s no undoing that, just as there is no undoing that meme now refers to a particular genre of online discourse and not the kind of cultural unit that Richard Dawkins’ first imagined in the appendix to his book on evolution, The Selfish Gene.
Natural affinities have long sped the flow of information. As Thomas Rid makes clear in his account of Soviet information operations in the U.S., the Russians always looked to feed particular groups certain kinds of information. They knew from experience that the best way to create wedges was to take advantage of the highly associative nature of much of American folk culture: just think about how much of our culture was largely national. Few regional developments that had any staying power regionally did not also explode onto the national scene in the latter half of the American twentieth century.
And the end of that century saw the rise of the internet, which held the promise of the ultimate democratic infrastructure — everyone could publish! — and also an associative machine of great power — anyone could find someone interested in whatever thing fascinated them. This sounds pretty ideal for someone who wants to learn to knit when no one around them is interested, but it is also ideal for someone with deeply paranoid ideas who can find solace in others with deeply paranoid ideas.
In short, the internet quickly establish itself as the breeding ground nonpareil for affinities: suddenly each of us could have a dozen or more (by belonging to a dozen or more online communities). What social media platforms have done is not only made it possible to form groups but also to heighten the hold those groups have on us through the deployment of various kinds of technologies that are known to create addictive experiences. It is a dangerous combination of natural phenomena that we have long seen with synthetic dynamics that are designed only to make us want more.
Most importantly, I think we need to distinguish between the kinds of heterogeneous communities in which a great deal of folk culture first bloomed, in which certain forms, as Degh and Vazsonyi believed, found their way through communities based on affinity, e.g., some people preferred jokes to legends. But it was the heterogeneity that made the network interesting. Our current online communities are often far more homogeneous. I’m not saying they are unnatural, but the dynamic is very different, and I think we all do ourselves a disservice by thinking about them in terms of community and not in terms of association.