Future Tense

Memes Are the New Jump-Rope Songs

The Library of Congress has long cataloged American folklore. Now it’s turning to the internet for a new generation of shared culture.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock.
What counts as folklore? What would be most useful to scholars in the burgeoning field?

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock.

In 2012, Nicole Saylor, head of archives at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, had a revelation while attending an annual meeting of the American Folklore Society. Some of the junior scholars at the conference had abandoned familiar topics like quilt-making and lumberjack songs. Instead, a few were trying to make sense of our digital moment, presenting papers on Slender Man and other memes.

Listening to them talk, Saylor realized that she was witnessing the early days of a new scholarly genre. “I thought, ‘These are among the scholars that we need to serve,’ ” she says. “And there’s a whole new class of documentation that we aren’t getting.”

That revelation ultimately led the Library of Congress to create its Web Cultures Web Archive Collection, a project that formally launched in June. More than a mere repository of memes, the collection includes snapshots of entire sites. Some of them—such as the My Little Pony fan community Equestria Daily—focus narrowly on particular topics. Others—such as Boing Boing, which promotes itself as “a directory of wonderful things”—are long-standing clearinghouses for the broader preoccupations of the internet.

It wasn’t a shocking development. The Library of Congress had been collecting video games for years, and it already had a web archiving project in place. Still, the question was what to include. What counts as folklore? What would be most useful to scholars in the burgeoning field?

To facilitate those decisions, the library turned to a handful of experts, some of them academics. They proposed a variety of sites that would meet the criteria that scholars apply to folklore: the “embodiment or expression of shared values of a particular group, [whether] that group [is] ethnic, religious, occupational, or regional,” according to Elizabeth Peterson, director of the American Folklife Center. Thirty-three sites are currently included in the archive; in a few cases, the library wasn’t able to acquire permission to include a site. (Trevor Blank, a scholar of digital folklore at SUNY Potsdam, told me that he had recommended they incorporate Snopes, but the library hasn’t received a response from the embattled site.) The Internet Archive helped the library crawl and capture the sites.

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.

But understanding folklore in these terms comes with a risk: In freezing the movement of culture, such efforts threaten to create the illusion that there’s a definitive version of a given story, joke, or even meme. McNeill, for example, tells me that some of her students mistakenly believe that the Brothers Grimm authored stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood” instead of simply collecting particular versions of them. Peterson worries that similar dangers might play out online, wondering aloud, “Once you put a frame around it, are you freezing it? Are you memorializing it? Are you killing it or giving it a status that maybe it doesn’t have?”

The Library of Congress’ archival approach arguably pushes back against those possibilities. Though the collection’s curators chose which sites to include, they decline to impose other value judgments, so you’ll find fraught memes such as the white supremacist icon Pepe the Frog side-by-side with more innocuous creations. “We’re looking to capture a moment in history,” Saylor says. That attitude extends to the way she and her colleagues approach the work of collecting material, which they see as a potentially indefinite project. They’re already working to incorporate other sites, taking recommendations from scholars and ordinary Twitter users alike.

The trick may be getting people to care about their efforts. As Saylor and Peterson told me, no scholars have come in yet to work directly with the collection. That may be because much of what they’ve archived is still available in its original form, though at least one site in the collection has already gone offline. Preserving it in this form may be valuable for future researchers, partly because it provides a buffer against the possibility of future losses, as well as smaller changes on the sites. But Saylor and Peterson also imagine there might be other, more immediate uses for the collection. The data in it might, for example, benefit from analysis that could help researchers see how the sites and their contents have changed over time. “I think part of it is just sitting down and beginning to think through how we can get the word out,” Saylor says. “How can we creatively engage people in using this material—engaging with it, writing about it?”

A more pressing issue may be what folklorists call the “triviality barrier.” As McNeill explains, the premise is that people think folkloric materials are so commonplace as to be unworthy of attention. But it’s precisely that familiar quality that makes them so important. She points to the example of jump-rope rhymes, which can be too easily dismissed as inconsequential. “If everyone knows these jump-rope rhymes, they must mean something. We don’t all collectively know long, drawn-out rhyming narratives for no reason,” McNeill says. In other words, the very fact that we share something, whether or not we give it any thought under ordinary circumstances, makes it worth studying.

Much the same is surely the case for our online activities, even when they seem to arise out of the zeitgeist’s passing fancies. Indeed, it may be even truer online, since one of the most salient features of meme-making is that it tends toward self-reflexivity. Take the example of the distracted boyfriend meme, which recently exploded throughout the Twitterverse. Its early instantiations told simple stories about objects or ideas that catch our eyes when we should be paying attention to something else. As its star rose, however, online wags began using it to comment on the popularity of the meme itself.

This sort of meta-commentary is part of the internet’s lifeblood: a temporary brake on its ever-accelerating pace that encourages us to look back at the terrain we’ve just torn past. When we share such memes, we’re laughing at ourselves, but we’re also striving to make sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going. In that sense, the internet isn’t just a venue for the creation and circulation of folklore; it’s also a proving ground of folklore studies, with or without the imprimatur of academic authority. Hence the Library of Congress’ decision to include sites such as Know Your Meme, which as Blank puts it, “bring the focus onto what folklore is all about.”

Archiving swaths of the internet may serve a similar function precisely because it encourages us to think about these sites as folklore. There’s a strange contradiction inherent in this possibility, since it suggests that we can only see how important they are when we cut them off from the everyday flux in which they thrive. Yet the real value of the Web Archive Collections may not reside in what scholars learn from its contents so much as in the way it invites us to examine phenomena we might have otherwise overlooked.

“The internet is self-archiving, but it’s self-archiving the way a landfill is self-archiving,” McNeill says. “It’s all in there, but you can’t parse it easily.” Things pile up so quickly that we forget to pause and consider the rubble beneath our feet. Our next challenge, one the Library of Congress’ efforts encourage us to take on, will be to start digging down through the accumulated trash, searching the many treasures buried within.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.