The room went silent as the eyes of a dozen middle schoolers fixed on the front of the room. Side conversations, under-the-table texting, and notebook doodles ceased. The question I had just asked resonated with a grim electricity, garnering me their undivided attention.
On that particular overcast June morning, I found myself the invited guest of a summer journalism program for local middle schoolers. Because of my research in digital communication and everyday life, I had been asked to talk to them about their project on digital privacy. Afterward, I continued chatting with the kids and answering their questions about digital media. After answering several of their questions, I posed one of my own, "What do you know about the Slender Man?" This was the moment the room went silent.
In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised by this reaction. Only three weeks prior, two girls in a nearby town had attempted to stab their friend to death. When authorities asked the girls why they had done it, they said it was to win the favor of the Slender Man, an urban legend they had learned about online. News media narratives focused on these surprising events, frequently encouraging parents to more closely monitor their children's digital media use. As a result, this was probably a question they'd gotten from their parents at some point during the last several weeks, and those parents likely asked it in a much more concerned or accusatory tone.
Worried that I had just horrified a group of middle schoolers, I offered them assurance. I promised them I wouldn't judge, that I was just curious. There was a lot of misinformation spreading, and I was wondering if they wanted to talk about it. Several nodded slightly. So, after another brief pause, I reiterated my question, "What do you know about the Slender Man?"
One girl, sitting in the far corner of the room, began to speak. She knew the character looked like a tall, faceless humanoid wearing a black suit. She mentioned having read some stories that other people had posted about him online. She knew that the character was made-up, although she didn't know where or how it had originated.
Another student told me about watching his brother playing one of the Slender Man video games and being scared by it. Grabbing my laptop, I showed the class an image of a Slender Man monster in a different videogame--Minecraft. A chorus of ahhs suggested the majority of them were familiar with this iteration. Several students mentioned hearing about the Slender Man from the news or from their parents after the stabbing. Others admitted that they had initially learned about the Slender Man from friends or from stories they had heard on the playground.
As we continued to talk, it became obvious that these different entry points were not as discrete as they initially seemed. One student, for example, told me that he had originally heard about the Slender Man through stories told by a friend at school who played the video game. This student later played the game at his friend's house, which, in turn, led him to look up Slender Man videos on YouTube after he returned home. In this instance, the Slender Man bounced from an oral-retelling (based on a mediated product), to a mediated experience, to an exploration of digitally mediated folklore. Many of the students experienced the legend through a similar collection of fragments.
Our discussion that day left me with a lingering set of questions. I had assumed that since the Slender Man was digital folklore, then digitally mediated versions would be the most familiar material for these young "digital natives." Instead, talking to these young people revealed a complex web of introductory points to the Slender Man legend that included elements of oral storytelling, video games, mass media, rumors, social media, horror-themed wikis, fan websites, and YouTube videos which blurred over time. Even though this web included elements that resembled traditional folkloric circulation, they were connected to other new and mass media elements in ways that would not have been possible three decades ago. I began to wonder about how this legend was circulating, not only among children but also adults. How might these online and offline forms of vernacular practice influence each other? What are the implications for the circulation of vernacular practices as digital media becomes increasingly mobile, prevalent, and everyday?
The everyday circulation of vernacular practice in the digital age is a multi-mediated process defined by a sense of increased visibility that creates new opportunities for vernacular collaboration and critique. Technological affordances made available by digital communication technologies have resulted in social norms that encourage the documentation and sharing of everyday behaviors across networks. The result of this shift is that everyday life (including a variety of vernacular practices) becomes both more mediated and more visible. Hence, the technological affordances of the digital age fundamentally extend how vernacular practices circulate. Using everyday performances of the Slender Man legend to illustrate this argument, I suggest that this increased visibility circulates awareness which, in turn, encourages a sense of collaboration. As users collaborate on creating and sharing vernacular practices, they begin to develop hierarchies of performance that privilege certain types of interaction, creating an atmosphere that facilitates vernacular critique.
Circulation of Vernacular Practice in the Digital Age
In the digital age, the scope of our everyday interactions is no longer constrained by geography (Howard and Blank 2013, 10). For a variety of vernacular practitioners--legend trippers, cryptid enthusiasts, Slender Man costume-makers--the Internet offers the potential to seek out others with similar interests and share their experiences (Howard 2011,17-18). A group that forms around a shared interest hails engagement from other users that expresses both personal uniqueness and group connectivity (Shifman 2014, 30). This engagement emerges collaboratively and through a variety of media and expressions (including creating, viewing, sharing, remixing, and commenting) (Peck 2015). By documenting and sharing these expressions, users not only demonstrate their group connectivity but also help shape the emergence of future examples of vernacular expression.
Technologies do not dictate how they are used, but they encourage certain uses over others (Winner 1986). The relationship between technology and society is a reciprocal one, in which neither force is solely dominant and each is continually influencing the other (McNeill 2012). Scholars in a variety of disciplines, including communication scholar Nancy Baym as well as sociologists Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman, call this perspective the "social shaping of technology" (Baym 2010, 44-45; MacKenzie and Wajcman 1999). This perspective suggests not only that technologies have certain uses to which they are better or less suited, but also that people often adapt technologies to serve their needs (Baym, Zhang, and Lin 2004, 316).
The term "affordances" refers to the capabilities enabled by a technology (Baym 2010, 17). These affordances influence--but do not determine--use (Baym 2010, 45). A standard household claw hammer, for instance, is well-suited to pounding in a nail. In a pinch, it could also be used as a weapon. It would make a terrible toothbrush. This perspective suggests technology exists in a state of "interpretive flexibility." In other words, different groups can have very different understandings of a technology (MacKenzie and Wajcman 1999, 21); similarly, different groups may also have very different understandings of the customs and norms related to using a technology. As a technology becomes a natural part of daily life, certain norms of behavior begin to form around its usage based on these affordances. This is not to suggest that everyone will use a technology in exactly the same way; technologies provide users with structure while also leaving potential for individualization and variation inside that structure. It does, however, reflect a social pressure that can help us understand the emergence of expectations that undergird a practice. Hence, when discussing the changing nature of how vernacular practices circulate in the digital age, I am neither speaking in absolutes nor determinants. Instead, I am referring to capabilities enabled by digital network technologies and seeking to understand the various ways in which users have engaged that potential.
Digital network technologies are increasingly commonplace in everyday life. As of 2015, over 84 percent of American adults are online, a number that has been holding steady since 2012 (Perrin and Duggan 2015). Due to the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and other Internet-ready portable devices that we are rarely separated from, more than one-in-five Americans report going online "almost constantly" (Perrin 2015). Pocket-sized digital media devices are ubiquitous. They are perpetually within arm's reach as people move about their everyday lives. While these technologies make it easy to document the everyday, it is the networks they connect to that enable the circulation of this documented media via the click of a button. "The proliferation of visual technologies has become a key aspect of digital culture," writes sociologist Martin Hand, "digital imaging and photography have become thoroughly ordinary accompaniments to communication and connection practices in daily life" (2012, 11, emphasis in original). Hand's observation of the mundanity of capturing and sharing everyday experiences on the Internet suggests digital technologies may enable these practices but social norms have embraced the affordances of these technologies in ways that make the documentation and circulation of everyday life not only...