Friday, 17 May 2013

The folklore of the internet

Folklore is often seen as something that deals with the past - the way groups of people used to be. Most people don't see folklore as the evolving being it is, something that becomes obvious when you look at the folklore of the internet.

Folklorists have only relatively recently begun to pay attention to cyberethnography, but they have found that there's a veritable treasure trove waiting to be studied on the internet. It's something that's invisible to people who don't study folklore and anthropology, but the internet is filled to the brim with folklore. Even more interestingly, the development of traditions tied to the internet is far quicker than it is in the physical world.

Communities are everywhere on the web. If you can think of it, there's a community for it, from message boards to blogs to SubReddits. Both within and without these communities traditions, artifacts, images, jokes and stories are created, just as they would do within physical communities. Whereas once tales would be spun in the tavern, now it's done via a message board.

Leeroy Jenkins

One of the best places to look for folklore is the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game). These games best mimic real-world interactions, as you can see representations of physical beings and live out a life as if you would in a physical community. As with a physical community, MMORPGs develop their own legends, language and culture.

One of the more popular tales came out of World of Warcraft, a MMORPG based in a fantasy setting. This tale involves a character called Leeroy Jenkins, who appeared in a 2005 video on a Warcraft movies fansite. The video saw a guild of characters together discussing plans to take on a particularly dangerous part of the game. Suddenly, a character, Leeroy Jenkins, who has missed the meeting decides to run in head first, ultimately leading to the party being slaughtered.

The video went viral, and soon Blizzard, the developer of WoW, embraced Leeroy Jenkins as a character, making reference to him in the game, and creating a trading card and gaming miniature of Jenkins. Leeroy Jenkins has become part of the game's culture, an almost legendary (if tragic) figure unique to WoW.


Leeroy Jenkins eventually became a meme - known throughout the internet as someone who went into a dangerous situation without thinking of the consequences. Memes are another large part of internet folklore - part joke, part cultural artwork - they are some of the most transient fixtures of the cyber landscape.

 The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book 'The Selfish Gene', in which he described them as "small units of culture, analogous to genes, which flow from person to person by copying or imitation.” This is folklore distilled into a nice little nutshell. Jokes, images, videos and texts created by folk and spread, copied and enhanced over time. Memes are a fantastic example of the way the internet has sped up the folklore process, as memes are created on a frequent basis and as they are on the internet they can spread incredibly quickly. 

These are just a couple of examples as to why the internet is such a fertile ground for folklore study. There is so much more I could talk about, such as recipe sharing, cyber aliases, email hoaxes and more, so I may touch on those in another post.