The goal of my research is to explore ways to find small narratives embedded in larger information flows and to track them as they move across networks of people (online and offline) in order to map how stories change textually and/or how their usage changes contextually. My focus over the last ten years has been the slow, sometimes steady and sometimes not, assembly of algorithmic and analytical pieces towards that end.
In our most recent work, Katherine M. Kinnaird (Smith) and I were joined by Allison Chaney (Duke) to explore the use of subject-verb-object triplets as a way to understand how speakers not only engender actions, by mapping which verbs they pair with gendered subjects (like she and he), but also how speakers engender themselves through the verbs they choose to pair with their own “I.” Our exploration led us to consider both gender in general as well as to begin to map how people express their sense of their own gender through discursive structures.
This work was based on the TED talks dataset which Kinnaird and I had developed and released (Kinnaird and Laudun 2019) and built on work I had done in parallel on modes of discourse (Laudun 2021). My shuttling back and forth between quantitative and qualitative approaches over the past few years has allowed me to sketch out a conceptual framework in one place and then try it out in another. Such shuttling is, I think, a strength of folklore studies, which compiled collections (e.g., Grimms) and developed type and motif indices.
Out of these, Vladimir Propp developed The Morphology of the Folktale, a touchstone for a great deal of work in cultural informatics, especially work on narrative. I used a computational version of Propp’s methodology when I examined several hundred versions of the clown legend that cascaded across the country in 2016 (Laudun 2020). While clown legends are an annual occurrence, that year the breakout was early and distinctly larger, moreover it trended similarly to the Ebola legend cascade of 2014, which I had previously tracked. In both cases the corpora were small, but awareness of folkloristic scholarship allowed me to trace larger patterns: the clown legend cascade’s geography was remarkably similar to Satanic panics in the late 70s and 80s, for example. What I found was a legend that morphed from fears about clowns in the woods to fears about “mentally unstable individuals” in/on social media, our era’s woods. Working more closely allowed me to understand the ideational networks at play in other legends (e.g., abandoned trucks during extreme weather events [Laudun, 2019, 2023] and stories about treasure ).
I have also used computational methods to map an alternate intellectual history for the domain of folklore studies, work which has been regularly referenced and which now appears in translation in Chinese (Laudun and Goodwin, 2013, 2023). While I worked with the Army, I was asked to assess and revise Information Advantage (ADP-313). As part of that work, I compiled a dataset that profiles the use of “information” within Army doctrine, research, and other documents, building on work I co-authored on multi-domain operations (Laudun et al. 2021). I hope to do something similar with China as a topic, and I look forward to establishing new collaborators for this vital national security work.
Elsewhere I have applied (and extended) Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory (2016, 2019, 2023), with the goal of eventually arriving at a way to map the relations between ideational networks and the textual networks in which ideas are embedded, and then textual networks and the social networks within those texts circulate. This was the basis for my work with the Army (2020-2022) and, now understanding underlying realities, it is work that I see as vital to us all.
Towards that end, there are two book projects in the works. Going to LSU Press in 2024 is “A Pirate in a Tree,” which is a small corpus of texts accompanied by analysis that reveals a hidden African American history in a larger legend tradition. Going to OSU Press in 2025 is “How Stories Work,” a consolidation of the technical foundation I’ve laid on narrative embedded in information flows. Recently I began collaborating with a librarian to build a dataset of ex-slave narratives, which were collected by the Federal Writers’ Project as part of the WPA in the 1930s. Some of these narratives have been subsequently been published but many, we fear, languish in file drawers in state archives across the south. We hope to bring them together and make them available as a corpus.
I was recently I asked to be part of a discussion on the future of the humanities. When it came to me to forecast the future, I was struck by the fact that, if the humanities in their current form fade, another form will arise because of the complexity that necessarily arises when a being studies itself. It’s a great time to be working: the relationships between qualitative and quantitative methods are intertwining and spinning off new ideas and new objects of study with each and every moment of contact. I count myself lucky to be part of this arena. I am senior enough to understand the importance of building infrastructure for others, and still junior enough in my own journey to be excited.