Culture 2.0: Facebook as Cultural Storytelling

For any current, former or recent grads who might be reading out there in cyberspace, the words “elective credits” most likely bring a smile to your face.  After all, most of your 4 (or 5…6…7……….) years of college probably consisted of coursework that was already decided for you by whichever school you attended.

Whether you enjoy classical works or not, you were likely forced to endure endless hours of “General Credits” to prepare your student mind for the well-rounded world of academia.  It isn’t really until your last few semesters that you gain any real degree of control over the topics you read about or the teachers you will be learning from.

This was perhaps my favorite thing about grad school- it was like having a course load of 100% electives.  “Finally!” I thought, “Gone are the days when my joyful hours of anthropological immersion are dampened by a double header of quantitative statistics,” or some other area in which I arguably had little to no interest (I won’t even get into the irony present in the fact that quantitative analysis now makes up a majority of my job- let’s just say I have since had a change of heart!).

But even in grad school, my last semester I still found myself struggling to decide how to fill my last 3 credits apart from the 6 credits of thesis research that ate up most of my “fun” time anyway- what to take?  It was then I noticed a course description for a Native American Folklore and Mythology class that I couldn’t NOT sign up for.

Months after completing the course, I continue to see its themes resurface regularly in the context of my daily life; both at work and within various social interactions.  Like most of my introspections, an article I read caused the most recent resurfacing of these themes.

If one things is certain about traditional Native American culture, it is this: it is a culture comprised of gifted and passionate storytellers.  What these peoples might have lacked in what we refer to linguistically as “abstract language” they made up for with their powerful skills in weaving together descriptive, metaphorical and natural parallels to describe multi-layered concepts.

If you are familiar with some of my previous posts, you probably know that this is the part where I finally get around to linking culture with the internet in some way (and you’re right!)  The article that triggered my Native American nostalgia was one reporting that, in 100 years, 500 million Facebook profiles will belong to (rather morbidly) dead people.  This got me thinking for several reasons, but first and foremost, it made me think about how weird it would be to have an online visual journal of your entire life history for anyone to see- even after you’re gone.

What I remember being absolutely fascinated with in Native culture was their propensity for re-telling (and thus, preserving/passing on) tribal stories and ancestral lineages.  Myths and tribal accounts, first told thousands of years ago, have been preserved with nearly unchanged meaning through to the present day by consistent and loyal repetition over almost countless generations.

Reading that -by the time my grandchildren’s grandchildren are roaming the planet- they might be able to gain access to my entire life history through my old Facebook account made me wonder if this isn’t a new form of “cultural memory” and storytelling.

A mistake that is sometimes made in Anthropology -or related fields- is romanticizing the ways of the past, and failing to fully appreciate current social trends or practices.  That said, I’ll admit it.  The Native American version of passing down cultural knowledge seems so much more holistic when compared to the thought that my great-great grandchildren might learn of what I was like from my Facebook profile long after I have died.

But the article also made me realize what I wouldn’t give to have this view of my own great grandparents, for example, should it be available to me.  If Facebook and cameras existed back then, I would be able to peruse a gallery of my great grandmother coming to America from Ireland.  Or see pictures of the boarding house she lived in with something like ten or twelve siblings.  I would be able to watch her grow from a young girl experiencing the mystery of a new world, to being a mother, and eventually, a grandmother.

Although I sometimes fear that “internet addiction” threatens to damage interpersonal relationships to some extent by minimizing (or sometimes, even removing) the need for actual face-to-face interactions, articles like this one make me realize that some modern internet trends need not be labeled so negatively all of the time.

Cultural knowledge of our family members -and the generations before us- is precious: no matter what form it takes.  Whether Facebook decides to retain a user’s profile in their system after a user’s death or not isn’t what truly interests me, either.

What does interest me as an anthropologist is seeing how my generation -the Facebookers, the Tweeters- utilize their profiles to tell their own life stories…and possibly even use them to pass on stories to their own families over time whether they realize it or not.

I also try to remember that among other traits, Native American cultures are also typified by their excellent sense of humor in all things…I can’t help but laugh when I think of what kinds of reactions might be shown by children of respected elders if the latter were to have personal Facebook pages so many years ago.

Truly, our society’s level of insight into generations past will continue to grow to levels never seen before.  I guess this might be a good time to ask yourself: “Would I want my great grandchildren to see this?” before you make your next Facebook post!

What do you think?  Should Facebook keep profiles long after their users are able to post on them?  What moments from your own family history do you find yourself wishing you could re-live from social media photos and posts?

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