Digital Folklore and the return of praise for the User in Web 2.0

On November 9, 2010 Olia Lialina presented her new book on Digital Folklore. The book describes the aesthetics of the amateur web which has been Lialina’s object of study for the past ten years. The book reflects on amateur culture as the basis of the Web; the web that has been built by us, the amateurs. The Vernacular Web refers to the aesthetics of the early web of the amateurs. Not only the World Wide Web but also the 3D amateur culture and font creators indirectly contributing to the graphics online. It is about being a “real” user that uses Comic Sans. Part of the challenge of creating the Digital Folklore book was how to translate the World Wide Web into paper?

The term digital folklore is a term where everybody seems gets the idea but it is not clearly defined. Folklore is traditionally defined as: “The “traditional,” usually oral literature of a society, consisting of various genres such as myth, legend, folktale, song, proverb, and many others.” (Routledge). But how do we translate this type of oral literature to the web genres of under construction banners and animated gifs? The book describes what digital folklore is, why it is important and why it should be studied. It presents digital folklore as a field of study.

Digital Folklore encompasses the customs, traditions and elements of visual, textual and audio culture that emerged from users’ engagement with personal computer applications during the last decade of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st century. (( Dragan Espenschied and Olia Lialina, Digital Folklore: To Computer Users, with Love and Respect (Merz Akademie, 2009). ))

User Timeline

The preface of the book, ‘Do you believe in Users?,’ is presented by Lialina and is shown as a Google Docs working document in Comic Sans. The preface is a historical account of the changing role of the user in the history of computers:

1940’s Vannevar Bush – imaged the Memex, the table, a personal working stage, where the user was the Scientist.
1960’s Douglas Engelbart, the user was the Knowledge Worker, Intellectual Worker and the Programmer.
1970’s XEROX PARK: Thacker, Alan Kay, Licklider (History of the personal workstation) – Lady with the Royal Typewriter, Kids, Real Users (People who are buying computers, especially personal computers)
1974 Ted Nelson – Dream Machines, the Naive User (( “Person who doesn’t know about computers but is going to use the system. Naive user systems are those set up to make things easy and clear for such people“. Ted Nelson: “The Most important computer terms for the 70’s”, in Dream Machines, Tempus Books, 1987, p.9 )) Two categories of users: user hackers and naive users. A user can be a developer of the system with no distinction between developer and user.
1982 TRON – You believe in the Users? Big moment for the user, the user as God.

1983 Time Magazine, “The Computer Moves in.” Machine of the Year. Technology becomes the person of the year.
Eric S. Raymond: September that never ended. User lacking netiquette. “September that never ended” refers to a phenomenon happening since September 1993. One of the seasonal rhytms of the Usenet used to be the annual September influx of clueless newbies who, lacking any sense of netiquette, made a general nuisance of themselves. This coincided with people starting college, getting their first internet accounts, and plugging in without bothering to learn what was acceptable. (more info)

1996 The New Hacker’s Dictionary is a lexicon which contains an entry on the user:

user n.

1. Someone doing `real work’ with the computer, using it as a means rather than an end. Someone who pays to use a computer. See real user. 2. A programmer who will believe anything you tell him. One who asks silly questions. [GLS observes: This is slightly unfair. It is true that users ask questions (of necessity). Sometimes they are thoughtful or deep. Very often they are annoying or downright stupid, apparently because the user failed to think for two seconds or look in the documentation before bothering the maintainer.] See luser. 3. Someone who uses a program from the outside, however skillfully, without getting into the internals of the program. One who reports bugs instead of just going ahead and fixing them.

The general theory behind this term is that there are two classes of people who work with a program: there are implementors (hackers) and lusers. The users are looked down on by hackers to some extent because they don’t understand the full ramifications of the system in all its glory. (The few users who do are known as `real winners’.) The term is a relative one: a skilled hacker may be a user with respect to some program he himself does not hack. A LISP hacker might be one who maintains LISP or one who uses LISP (but with the skill of a hacker). A LISP user is one who uses LISP, whether skillfully or not. Thus there is some overlap between the two terms; the subtle distinctions must be resolved by context. (source)

The entry clearly distinguishes between implementors (hackers) and lusers (users). Lialina observes that twelve years later the Software Studies lexicon does not contain an entry dedicated to the user.

2006 Time Magazine: YOU!

From 1983 onwards people are designing posters in Word, praise activity of the users that are disrespected, the users that are not developers. You are now appreciated for your lolcats, your Facebook Likes. The User is only appreciated now.

An alternative history

The history of the World Wide Web is often dated in 1993 with the appearance of the Mosaic browser. It marks the year when the first users started to design the web. While Tim Berners-Lee invented the technology that build the web four years earlier, in 1989, the web was shaped by its users from 1983 onwards. In this publication (Digital Folklore) the user is pushed to the foreground. As such it provides a different history which foregrounds the users instead of the technology.

The idea of the “Rich User Experience” is one that typically accompanies Web 2.0. The term refers to all the Ajax apps with a richer interaction in the browser but also in general the claim that with Web 2.0 and social networking sites users finally have a rich experience. In the Midnight project based on Google Maps the rich user experience is hiding the real user experience. In the Gravity project navigating is done by scrolling providing a more rich interactive experience to scrolling.

The research not only about aesthetics but also about what the user could be and how to change it. One example of such a project is Trailblazers:

This is a project by Theo Seemann, a student of Russian online art pioneer Olia Lialina at the Merz Akademie in Stuttgart. Seemann created Trail Blazers as a surfing match in which the winner is the person who can find the shortest path between two sites, with only a mouse to navigate. The player has no keyboard and cannot use a search engine. The game is played with a slightly modified browser that registers every click. Besides being a lot of fun the project seems like a declaration of war on the search engine. It is a return to the feel of the early Web, in which navigation largely depended on links. In this sense it is also a return to the truly social web. In a time when the search engine, and this is usually Google, increasingly guesses the pathway (‘did you mean?’), link surfing is the digital equivalent of the six degrees of separation. (Josephine Bosma on

The project is based on the Memex from Vannevar Bush where he describes the (professional) users of the system as trail blazers: “‘There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.'” (Bush, 1945) Lialina shares that the most difficult part of the Trailblazers projects was how to get out of walled gardens like Facebook.

Related projects and writings by Olia Lialina

6 thoughts on “Digital Folklore and the return of praise for the User in Web 2.0

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  4. Unfortunately not. I signed up for the book at the book launch (interesting paradox) and will be notified once it will be available. Will keep you posted!

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