Course Stakes (for a Course on Digital Folklore)

A prolonged quarantine thanks to a worldwide pandemic provides a welter of opportunities to think about why I do the things I do. To a lesser degree, or at least within a smaller scope, designing a new course also asks me to think about why I do the things I do. Designing a course in the middle of a pandemic and designing it to be remote from start to finish, something I have never done before, is not so much an opportunity to ask myself but a requisite to knowing what to do at all.

In the Fall of 2020, I will offer for the first time a Digital Folklore and Culture class. I already offer a course on online legendry, but I imagine this course as more foundational, a course that might eventually be a prerequisite for the legend course such that students taking the latter course could be counted on to know a select set of theories and approaches to online culture(s) and possess a select set of skills to which they have already been introduced and have even practiced a time or two.

But what are those approaches and what are those skills?

First, I think students need to know how the internet works (and they don’t). To be honest, I think every university student should know how the internet works. It’s too important. Understanding how pages are made up of pieces of text, code, and images delivered from other computers and that those pieces can be tracked (for whatever reason) is something every single person using the internet should know.

That is, everyone should know HTML. Everyone. It’s not like knowing how your car works. You have a mechanic for that, and you develop a relationship with your mechanic, so you can trust him or her to translate things. The same applies for other trades and even other systems. (Dealing with a legal matter? Then you should probably have a lawyer help you.)

The assumption I am making is that for most complex systems, and a car is a complex system, we have curators/intermediaries who, if we are lucky and/or careful, we can trust. Once upon a time if you wanted information, you headed to your local library, and you had not only the librarian behind the counter to act as a curator, but the library itself and the librarians who staffed the acquisitions and cataloging offices to curate and intermediate for you.

The internet is the sine qua non of disintermediation, and what is dis-intermediated is information itself.

That could be, so we hoped, and enormously powerful thing, but that was before the internet was, first, commercialized, and, second, weaponized. The latter phenomenon builds off the former.

The commercialization of the internet that I am focused on here is not Amazon or anyone else: the commercialization of the internet I mean is the same commercialization of media that has been the foundation of American information systems since the nation’s founding, and it’s commercials. The simplest version of this is the time-worn adage that probably dates to Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman’s “Television Delivers People” (1973) but is probably best known in phrasing that eventuated in “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product.” (See Quote Investigator for fuller history.)

It wasn’t that long ago that the commercialization process was mediated by relatively few outlets: the handful of television and radio stations, newspapers, and magazines to which we had access. Say what you want about those old media outlets, but they drew lines between what was information and what was advertising. I’m not saying they weren’t blurred, but there was a discussion, and there were at least some individuals acting on the user’s behalf without the user being directly involved.

Now we are all directly involved. The outlets are still there, but, thanks to a publishing platform like Facebook and a search outlet like Google, they are broken into tiny pieces of information and the platforms decide who gets what pieces. The result is the kind of information bubbles that conservatives once lamented, but it’s capitalism itself, enabled by the power of information technologies, that has gotten us here.

Organizations can now reach us one-by-one and, just as importantly, know who we are and know how to approach us, and this is all a result of the way the web appears before us either in a browser or in an app on our phone — many social media apps are little more than custom browsers.

And we all need to know that. And to my mind, whether universities are teaching students skills they can use in the future or whether they are simply making them better citizens, then they better be teaching them how the internet works.

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