Media Analysis Journal: Old folk culture in a new media world

Picking pecks of pumpkins in Maryland. Photo credit: Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Picking pecks of pumpkins in Maryland. Photo credit: Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Can grassroots art and culture really survive in the age of new new media? The answer appears to be a clear yes. Moreover, the interactive processes of the Internet, far from snuffing out longstanding cultural traditions, instead provides an environment in which they can flourish. Whereas some critics have worried about media producing mass homogenization that would choke existing institutions to death, new media has instead helped to revitalize folk art practices in ways once thought unlikely. Their improbable intersection shows how the new and old can work together in harmony.

For one illustration of this process, consider the “U-pick” fruit farm, an enduring relic of America’s agricultural past. Suffice it to say that an individual strawberry farm, for instance, could never have purchased air time or produced a broadcast to promote itself for a network like CBS during the age of the “big three.” Today, though, such organizations have turned the Internet into a new market for their goods and services. Websites like pickyourown.org provide full listings of farms by product and location. Through partnerships with existing outlets like Georgia Farm Monitor, they can also connect with prospective customers to carry their messages directly into the home.

Similar phenomena are taking root within music, in obscure sub-sub-subgenres far removed from the mass media spotlight. Although the average converged communicator has never heard of Czech bluegrass, this little-known musical form has flourished in the Czech Republic (and previously Czechoslovakia) as far back as the 1960s in the days of Communism. (For an example, check this YouTube recording from the 1960s.) Through new media, artists producing music in niches not deemed commercially viable by the publishing establishment can still find – and expand – listeners who previously might have been unreachable. In turn, these media have served as forums for fans to spread the word about their favorite performers. Eventually, in some cases, the process can come full circle, with more organized media producers paying attention. Such is the case with works like the documentary Banjo Romantika, which explores the origins of Czech bluegrass and was produced through the efforts of East Tennessee State University as well as musicians and historians.

This seemingly surprising process in fact makes sense, considering the unique strengths of new media. Because of the Internet’s near-total disintermediation, the old gatekeepers who previously would have cut off media access (“Sorry, won’t get the ratings”) no longer pose a barrier. Outlets like YouTube, which open the content-dissemination process to almost everyone, enable these creators to project the experience and atmosphere of their work to a potentially enormous audience. In addition, the Internet’s multitude of forums for collaboration enables the construction of knowledge communities to promote, discuss, critique, and raise awareness of their interests.

The ideal method of reaching a prospective audience, not surprisingly, differs based on the nature of the creations. For a small blueberry farm, for instance, a website is a virtual necessity. But managers don’t have to stop there. Through online forums, web advertising, social media, and the like, they can efficiently reach their audience. Meanwhile, new forums continue to sprout, such as the week-old Periscope application that enables easy live streaming within a Twitter-integrated interface. Similarly, musicians are now finding new methods of bypassing the traditional distribution system, run by music publishing giants, in favor of experimental Internet-based technology. Although the ultimate course of technological evolution is far from certain, the easy accessibility of new new media ensures that some of the richest cultural traditions should remain viable for many years to come.

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