Academic journal article Western Folklore

Virtually a Local: Folk Geography, Discourse, and Local Identity on the Geospatial Web

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Virtually a Local: Folk Geography, Discourse, and Local Identity on the Geospatial Web

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION: OF FLOWERPOTS AND LIBRARIANS

Famed for its vital but insular neighborhood cultures, Boston is a city where place-based memory and local interaction are a particularly central element in the imaging of social and cultural identity. Take, for example, a recent incident that illustrates both the importance of localized discursive interaction in Boston and the centrality of neighborhood identities in local culture. On September 25, 2009, a 30-year-old librarian in South Boston awoke to the sounds of someone smashing her neighbors' flowerpots. By the time she got to the window, the culprits had fled; however, the damage was already done. The next morning at 8:30 a.m., still feeling badly for her neighbors who are avid gardeners, the librarian vented her frustrations to some of her friends. Although her friends consoled her directly, word of the event spreads quickly outside her friend group. By later that day, people were repeating her story, as well as her supposed accusation that it was the work of "Southie Jerks." A group of people who heard the story alternately defended or criticized the behavior of these "Southies," or local residents of South Boston.1 One discussant strongly condemned the librarian's assumption that the culprits were from Southie. Instead the event was attributed to the drunken escapades of neighborhood "transplants", who are "the onlyjerks in Southie". Other members of the group attacked this point, sarcastically noting that "real Southie people would never do anything bad or get drunk or cause trouble ... nuh uh - must be those other people who weren't born in this miniscule eden and [sic] some trouble making visitors." Although talk of the event eventually faded, people continued discussing it late into the evening; they offered their perspectives on the episode, the librarian's credentials as a local, and her supposed assignment of blame to local mischief makers. ("Southie Jerks" 2009)

While it might not seem so at first, I intend this example to highlight some of the ways that new media technologies are becoming interwoven with local cultures. Although my presentation of these performances perhaps suggested face-to-face interactions, all of the events described, except of course the smashing of the flowerpots, took place virtually. The performers and the audience did not share the same physical location and it is more than likely that few of the people involved in any of these events knew each other personally or even by name. Yet, all of these moments of vernacular performance are deeply rooted in a highly localized discourse of place. They employ knowledge of and, in some sense, create discursive features on the map of local folk geography.

But the lack of face-to-face contact and the seemingly anonymous setting of these interactions make it difficult to simply see them as exercises in the creation of folk geography as we have come to know it. Without a stable notion of the social identity of a folk group or community interacting, how can we see these as moments as forms of vernacular performance that create and sustain local identity?2 Through an examination of several emerging practices of localized discourse in digital media, this essay will offer a response to some of these questions. In order to do so, I will first provide a brief review of some of the most relevant previous works in folkloristics and media studies. Building on the questions I identify in this body of scholarship, I will offer a provisional theoretical framework for the study of the hybrid practices of folk geography enabled by digital media. Using this framework, I will then examine a few examples of the ways that individual tactics of spatial movement are being absorbed by digital publics and transformed both into spaces for vernacular discourse and annotations on the local conceptual map. After treating these important emerging uses of digital media in bringing together local and non-local publics, I will turn to a brief examination of the externalization of folk memory and folk geography, and the effects of the changing access to "local knowledge," a dynamic which will become increasingly common as the physical places we move in become overlaid with digital annotations such as "geotagged" videos or digital walking tours. …

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