And so it came to pass that, in 2001, UNESCO established the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, a project aimed at recognising and preserving ‘intangible cultural heritage. On this list are festivals, puppet theatres, folk music, human towers, cuisine and the whistled language of the island of La Gomera.
All of these are transitory – a performance, a meal, a dance, a prayer, a conversation, and while my area doesn’t have anything as evocative as the Mosque at the End of the World, we have Aynuk and Ali and faggots and peas (don’t laugh). All those quirky expressions of culture that don’t make it on to Britain’s Got Talent but that are somehow an intrinsic part of our humanity.
I’ve been thinking about things like this since I read MaggieCakes’s blog, specifically the articles on the evolution of storytelling in the digital age. The blog has featured pieces on microfiction and whether or not Twitter and Facebook will develop a native storytelling tradition, and I guess that’s what’s prompted my interest in the subject; that and a post I wrote a few days ago about the BBC’s Domesday Book project almost falling prey to the digital dark age.
There are examples of Twitter being used as a storytelling medium, and it will be interesting to see how they develop, but despite how they exist within an infrastructure of computers, smartphones and PDAs there’s still a sense that they lack permanence; this may be my prejudice coming out, but although I love the Kindle app on my iPhone, there’s something fragile about the books I read on it – one wrong sync or copyright screw-up and they disappear and yes, they can be retrieved but…
(There’s a great line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Giles, the technophobic fount of all knowledge, weighs in on the books vs computers debate: “Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is”, he says, “A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up memories long forgotten. Books smell, musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is…it has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last then the getting of knowledge should be tangible, it should be smelly.”)
I’m not getting into whether or not I agree with Giles, but I know that the funniest things I’ve ever read on the internet have seemingly vanished without trace (a review of All Star Batman and Robin and the Hulk getting emotional in his reviews of DC Comics). Does this lack of permanence mean that stories born out of social media face an uphill struggle to take hold on the popular imagination? Internet memes are all very well, but I’m not convinced they’re particularly mainstream yet – my mom’s heard of Superman but not Dramatic Rodent, and that’s before we get onto how strongly a story can take hold in a world where the majority of internet users are concentrated in certain geographic areas. That said, Twitter’s use in mobilising Middle Eastern protests may be a precursor to net-based storytelling taking off globally.
And even if this new storytelling fails to become a global thing, who cares? The traditions listed by UNESCO are the products of specific communities, formed by culture, language, resources and geography. We in the West may have a tendancy to see our pop culture as mass media, but my experience of the internet is that it’s formed of thousands of interactive communities, defined by forum membership, blogrolls and friends lists. Even forums I read every day have their own acronyms and in-jokes I don’t get – I’m not part of the in-crowd, not there 24/7, a lurker on the edge of community listening to secret languages, not meant for outsiders.
And if all these emerging cultures are, by their nature, transitory and intangible, should we be thinking about preserving them? It feels like it’s early days for that question, but the internet moves quickly – heck, it hasn’t been that long since Myspace was bigger than Facebook. Do we look at archiving (asks the man with a back-up blog), or do we let the jokes and the flame wars fade away, moments in time that it would be pointless to capture; if the internet is formed by its users, democratisation and a little bit of anarchy, would trying to capture and preserve it end up with a zoo-dwelling tiger in too small a cage?