Creature from the Black Lagoon: Folk Culture Emerges on YouTube

A folk culture is clearly emerging on video sharing websites such as the well-known YouTube, which demands exploration by folklorists and others. Out of the chaos of exaggeration and inanity, the mundane and bizarre, a vernacular visual style and vocabulary will undoubtedly emerge coherently enough to be recognized as a folk way.

One person sharing a crazy video may represent a work of art, and if weird or wonderful enough, perhaps represent a work of “outsider art,” or if it represents the creation of a mundane but well made artifact, a work of folk craft. Call it what you like, but when thousands of people start doing the same thing, undoubtedly a folk idiom will emerge, ugly and monstrous from the black lagoon of of the monitor screen.

YouTube does by default what documentary folk filmmakers have done by intent for decades. When people make videos of how they live, what their interests are and create visual stories, they are documenting their folk culture and creating folk artifacts. The folk documentary filmmaker may be more sensitive to discovering the important things to record, take a more academic or “neutral” approach to documenting folk culture, but YouTube content represents both the creation of folk art and culture as well as documenting of the culture. Moreover, it enables people to document their own culture without an intermediary, as most folk documentary work has been done, through the auspices of a folklorist.

This tension between the folklorist and the people they study has led to distrust between the folklorist and their subjects, as well as anger by the subjects who perceive they are being used or the folklorist somehow profits by the culture they created. Enabling people to be aware of and document their own folk culture may have its flaws, but it also opens up interesting new possibilities. It is certain to democratize the study of folk culture. However, it fits with the process of “amateurizng” that has been going on since the middle of the twentieth century, starting with the rise of amateur astronomy and gaining huge momentum with the web. Increasingly, fields of study are under the influence of this “amateurizing” process and amateurs will play a role in academic pursuits whether the academics like it or not.

YouTube enables a “self-documenting” folk culture, in which elements of commercial culture are drawn into folk culture (when video makers spoof television advertisements or incorporate commercially produced culture into their own cultural artifacts). Folk song has a precedent for this, wherein a song published as a commercial “broadside” would be played by people for so long they would forget its commercial origins and begin to change the lyrics to suit their own lives, thus producing a “folk” song. This interplay between commercial culture and the culture people create and use in their daily lives goes on continuously. Between the official culture and ordinary culture, between commercial culture and ordinary culture, creating folk culture and feeding folk culture back into commercial culture (when a folk artist becomes popular enough to be commercial…this process is seen in rap music).

YouTube represents the emergence of a moving picture folk culture on the web, both as expression (folk art) and as documentary (an unconscious amateur folk record). It may be that some of those under the YouTube effect, will decide to point their cameras at folk culture intelligently and consciously and start down the road to becoming a collector of folk life. This has the potential for many more eyes on the culture, catching it earlier and more deeply than a lone “song catcher” wandering through the folk collecting songs just before they disappear (watch Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison on Folkstreams for a folk art that vanished just after it was filmed).

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