In this piece from Slate, Jacob Brogan explores the complexities of cataloguing meme culture into the American folklore canon.
Like much of what we do in our offline lives, many of the things that hold our attention online meet the folklore standard with ease. “We try to communicate online in ways that are familiar to us from face-to-face contexts,” Blank says. Utah State University English professor Lynne McNeill identifies two intersecting ways of thinking about what counts as folklore, both of which resonate with elements of our digital lives.
First, it’s about the way information moves. “We want to see that there’s a cultural form that’s been passed on, that’s been shared. That can happen over the course of a generation, or that can happen over a day in a Twitter community,” McNeill says.
Second, it’s about the way that information changes as it travels. Members of a community don’t just interpret the significance of folklore as they pass it along; they also express it in their own ways. Folklore, McNeill argues, isn’t folklore “until it begins to be adapted, until it begins to evolve, until it allows for every individual in the transmission chain to tinker, to make their own version of it.” This is precisely what we denizens of the internet do when we imprint ourselves on popular memes, pushing them in new directions even as we borrow from and nod back to the efforts of those who came before.