Untangling the Vernacular Web


In 1973, anthropologist Clifford Geertz published The Interpretation of Cultures, in which he discusses the idea of the vernacular web—a mess of interactions affecting how we understand our world.

Now, folklorist Robert Glen Howard thinks he’s found that tangle of signification: the Internet. But hold on, isn’t folklore made up of fairy stories and old wives’ tales? Howard says yes, but there is new folklore too; any stuff (his term!) that people share is technically folklore:

[I]f you want to study the folklore we have right now, you have to study it where it is practiced—and, for better or worse, network communication is major place we find people sharing folklore now; since the mid-90s, really, when I started my career looking at this sort of stuff. Just like maybe you got a 3×5 card that your grandma wrote a recipe in the 1980s, today she might type it into an email. The medium of communication may have changed, but it’s still folklore: the informal sharing of common knowledge.

And the way this information is most effectively informative is in its fully contextualized form or, as Howard puts it, “not just everybody’s tweets…but groups of people tweeting together.”

Caroline Kangas calls both Seattle and San Francisco home (though she currently resides in the latter). She recently received a mouthful of a liberal arts degree from the University of San Francisco and can be found selling pirate supplies at 826 Valencia or wandering the streets with her diva of a french bulldog, Elle. More from this author →