How Internet Folklore Works


While the idea of folklore may conjure up images of ancient cave paintings, it’s a concept that’s alive and well in the technological age.
While the idea of folklore may conjure up images of ancient cave paintings, it’s a concept that’s alive and well in the technological age.
© daseugen/iStock/Thinkstock

In incredible ways, the Internet has remade the way people communicate with one another. In centuries past, humans relied on word of mouth, handwritten letters, cave drawings, stone tablets and telegraph machines to convey messages and stories. Computers, satellites and cell phones have changed all of that. Text, pictures and videos all flow nearly instantaneously through the Web to just about anywhere on the planet.

This fundamental shift in communication is altering our cultures and traditions in countless ways. It's also morphing our collective folklore. Folklore has a whole lot of definitions that change depending on whom you ask. But the New York Folklore Society has one of the most succinct. The society indicates that folklore is made up of "cultural ways in which a group maintains and passes on a shared way of life."

A group can be just two people. Or it can be millions. And they need to have only one common factor that links them, be it dance, song, food recipes, myths, exercise routines, pets, video games, chain letters, costumes or even graffiti. All group members typically have some idea of the core concepts of their subculture.

It's clear that the digital pathways of the Web are critical to modern-day folklore. How it's changed folklore is less certain. When the Web first gathered momentum in the early 1990s, a lot of folklorists (people who study folklore) bypassed this new technology as a source of material. Some of them felt the Web was too abstract – too coldly technological – to warrant deeper inquiry.

Nowadays, the 1990s are practically ancient history. The Web is deeply ingrained into all of our lives. It's an indisputable cultural force that's upended the way we communicate our most basic missives to family and friends. It's overturned the way we perceive the world all around us. And in many cases, although the Web allows for nearly unfettered and unthinkable levels of communication, it has also isolated us in ways that old means did not.

But we humans have an insatiable need to gather in groups and subdivisions of society, whether we do so in person or online. We tell stories that perpetuate our groups and lifestyles because we understand a particular way of life. The Internet is a valuable tool for helping all of us pass along not just technological tips and tricks, but traditions and legacies that last far longer than the latest memes or online fads.

Keep reading and you'll see how folklore is changing in the age of digital immediacy and shorter attention spans. You'll find out that our human need for lasting folklore is elastic and powerful even in the age of email and text messaging.

Newfangled Folklore

For many people, the word "folklore" comes loaded with dusty, old baggage. They immediately think folklore refers to fairy tales, mythological creatures, fables, proverbs or any sort of story in which unicorns or witches might make an appearance.

But as we've pointed out already, folklore is just the stories of a group that shares at least one thing in common. That's it, really.

There's also a perception that in today's revved-up Internet age, folklore is a folksy, antiquated term that has little bearing on our current society. That it's diluted and made meaningless in a world dominated by digital devices of all kinds.

The reality is that technology isn't wrecking folklore. Instead, it's enriching it, according to the man many people recognize as the father of folklore studies. The late Alan Dundes, who taught about folklore at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that fears of technology killing off folklore are vastly overblown.

Dundes indicated that technologies such as phones, radios and computers have accelerated the spread of folklore in amazing ways. In past generations, stories spread in days, weeks or months. Now, thanks to the power of the Internet, those same tales spread like digital wildfire.

There's more to the tango between technology and folklore than simply faster transmission. Before his death in 2005, Dundes said the folklore of computers would become a defining feature of modern folklore. He was dead on. Computers, smartphones and the Internet are the basis for countless subcultures. On the next page you'll see how those subcultures thrive in a digitized world.

Inside Jokes Galore

“I know that Facebook copyright thing is probably baloney, but I’m going to post it … just to be safe.”
“I know that Facebook copyright thing is probably baloney, but I’m going to post it … just to be safe.”
© Hongqi Zhang/iStock/Thinkstock

What is the Internet if not just a massive blob of interconnected inside jokes? It's apparent from the comments sections of sites such as YouTube, Sports Illustrated, Reddit, 4Chan and Xbox Live that there's a certain lingo for communicating with your peers. Each site draws upon shared stories that immediately make sense to people in the know but may draw bemused looks from people who aren't familiar with a group's shorthand.

But more than linguistic twists connects users of the Internet. Some of our new technologies create entirely new tales, tall and otherwise.

For example, Facebook has always been fertile ground for all sorts of digital contrivances. One of the most frequent requests of avid Facebook users is an application that allows them to see who's been peeking at their profiles. Such an application would help pinpoint potential new suitors or see which old flames might still be feeling a spark for old times.

Of course, there is no application that allows you to see who's trying to view your Facebook profile. If Facebook allowed such a program, there would be all sorts of privacy repercussions. But that doesn't stop marketing schemes and fake app developers from trying to capitalize on a collective desire for such a capability. They promise to show you who's been looking for you – only they really can't [source: Facebook].

There are even sillier Facebook examples. For instance, posting a legal notice of any kind on your Facebook status won't protect your privacy rights in any way, nor will it serve as evidence of copyright for your kitty pictures.

Those are just a couple of examples of how bits of misinformation weave themselves into our lives. Keep reading, and you'll see more about how online rumors start and how some of them turn into bigger-than-life myths that ingrain themselves into our collective folklore.

Pasta Served with Urban Legends

The Internet is teeming with urban legends and myths and rumors and outright lies. Sometimes a few quick Google searches will confirm a source or outright debunk the premise of a tale. Other times you have to rely on the research of others. That's why sites such as Snopes.com are so interesting.

Snopes is sometimes called the urban legends reference pages. It's filled with Internet urban legends and their origins. Sometimes, those legends turn out to have basis in truth. Other times, they're complete hooey, like the ones about the Obama administration banning sprinkles on donuts or Michael Jordan (now older than 50) returning to play in the NBA.

Sites like Snopes are very much a reflection of Internet folklore. They're an immediate glimpse into the concerns and interests of people browsing the Web.

Rumors and urban legends spread quickly on the Internet because of the way people perpetuate them. On the Internet, it's common for people to copy and paste popular bits of content (called copypasta in Internet slang), which then spread throughout forums and social networking sites. Content that takes a weird or scary turn is sometimes then called creepypasta, for obvious reasons.

Like ghost stories around a campfire, creepy online stories tend to grab our attention.

Take the story of Ted the Caver, which is basically a journal of man who finds a cave and begins exploring it. He details the cave's features in lengthy narrative passages and includes grainy (and claustrophobia-inducing) pictures of his discoveries. After several trips underground, his experiences in the cave become unsettling and he begins having hallucinations and almost supernatural experiences that he attributes to his subterranean escapades.

Is the cave haunted? Is it driving him mad? Ted seems to think so. And so too will you, if you read his story in full.

The last entry of his journal indicates that he's returning to the cave one last time in hopes of returning his life to normal. He also writes that he'll update the site immediately up returning. The final page, appropriately, is never updated.

Although Ted the Caver is all fictitious, it's also gripping in the way that only the Internet can be. It speaks to the anonymity and helplessness of witnessing strange and even harrowing things on the Web. It's a ghost story for modern times, echoing through the digital crevasses all around us.

As folklore, Ted the Caver is powerful. But even as folklore, Ted is a pretty minor character compared to our friend on the next page.

Slenderman

You may have seen images or artwork representing Slenderman, even if you didn’t recognize it.
You may have seen images or artwork representing Slenderman, even if you didn’t recognize it.
mdl70/Creative Commons/Flickr, Used Under CC BY-ND 2.0 License

The pervasive presence of the Internet means it seeps into every facet of our lives. It becomes the perfect medium for steeping our collective consciousness – our common folklore – in stories that may have no basis in reality yet become a looking glass for our dreams ... or our fears. Sometimes those fears turn a bit nightmarish, as in the case of Slenderman.

Some people call Slenderman the Internet's first celebrity of legend and folklore. He's an ominous supernatural character that appears all over the Internet, a sort of boogeyman that's out to get you even if you aren't sure why or how.

Slenderman got his start on an Internet forum where users manipulated pictures to make them seem as though they'd captured ghosts or other supernatural creatures. Eric Knudsen (who went by the online alias Victor Surge) created two black-and-white images featuring a warped, faceless man wearing a suit, and notably, they had creepy captions that referenced a mysterious, dangerous "Slender Man."

The suspenseful and harrowing images seized the imaginations of like-minded users. They copied the theme and made new Slenderman images, adding their own text to suit their preferences. From there, the legend took on a life of its own, spreading across the Internet.

As the blurry man in the suit made his way around the Web, his origins quickly became equally blurry. Although most people generally accepted him as an urban legend of sorts, other people wondered if there wasn't some truth to his existence. In 2014, that idea went to an extreme in Wisconsin.

It was then that two 12-year-old girls lured an acquaintance into a wooded area and then stabbed her 19 times. The victim survived and her attackers were arrested. One of the offenders told authorities that she wanted to become a follower of the mystical Slenderman, and that to do so, she had to begin by carrying out a murder.

Although the Wisconsin events set a high (or, rather, low) bar for Slenderman-inspired violence, there have been other incidents linked to his legend. Typically it's young adolescents who buy into the Slenderman mythos, committing strange or scary acts to bring Slenderman into their lives in some way, even if it lands them in handcuffs.

That young girls might commit murder because of an Internet urban legend is certainly awful. But that fact speaks to the power of online storytelling and folklore. The stories we humans tell each other hold real meaning. How we interpret and act on that meaning affects our society in profound ways.

Godlike Machines

Slenderman is a specific online legend. Beyond particular stories, there are more amorphous references to technology itself as a part of modern folklore. At a time when the Internet is nearly everywhere, it's more than a little scary to some people. The Internet seems like an omnipresent, omniscient, almost godlike entity that holds the answers to all of your questions about life.

It's no wonder that Google and its brethren take on outsize importance in our lives. The Internet provides answers to nearly every question, feeds on our privacy, rules our social lives, drives our work, offers parenting instructions and tells us how to make the best possible cup of coffee, too. It's no wonder that some people feel as though they're trapped in some digital dystopia ruled by their master, the Internet. One wonders if future civilizations will excavate our remains and speculate as to the significance of the Google logo.

Without a doubt, as they reconstruct the flecks of silicon and circuitry, they will come to see how a digitized planet spawned all manner of cultural symbols. They will realize how our society's folklore within the Internet was a living, breathing, dynamic thing. How it churned its details, not just from month to month or day to day, but from second to second.

On our contemporary Internet, old tales take on new life. New tales quickly become stale and lifeless as even newer versions go viral. And as for picking through the pieces to trace the origins of those tales? In today's unimaginably vast Internet, data is fractured and misplaced or frequently simply impossible to find.

But folklore doesn't demand rigid answers about a story's origins. All it demands is that we humans share our lives with one another. And with the Internet, we can share more about our lives and cultures than at any point so far in history.

Author's Note: How Internet Folklore Works

I remember the first time I connected to an infant version of the Internet. I used a 300-baud modem to dial up a local bulletin board system with a rudimentary chat feature and a text-based adventure game. Even as a child, I knew my life would never again be the same. The online universe connected me, a rural kid, to a vast world full of stories, fun and (sometimes) danger that transfixed my friends and me. We still played outside, swapping ridiculous kid stories and playing in the dirt, but we also connected online, developing an entirely new type of culture that mystified our parents but seemed as important to us as anything that happened IRL (in real life). Our shared folklore then wasn't just in the flesh. It was – and is -- digitized, too.

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Sources

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