Barton – Vernacular Writing on the Web

Barton, David. “Vernacular Writing on the Web.” The Anthropology of Writing :Understanding Textually Mediated Worlds. Eds. David Barton and Uta Papen. London; New York: Continuum, 2010. 109-125. Print.

This chapter, “Vernacular Writing on the Web,” from Anthropology of Writing: Understanding Textually Mediated Worlds examines characteristics of vernacular writing in online spaces, specifically the photo sharing site, Flickr. Vernacular writing, such as graffiti, has typically been identified and analyzed in face-to-face environments; however, due to increased technological development and globalization vernacular writing is also taking place in the form of computer-mediated-communication online.

David Barton provides the following definitions/descriptions for his reader:

Vernacular literacy practices: local, every day literacies, often “voluntary, self-generated and learned informally;” not under the governance of the formal rules and procedures of dominant social institutions and associated literacies. These practices can also overlap and be intertwined with dominant literacies. These practices draw upon and contribute to “local funds of knowledge” and are linked to self-education and local expertise.

Vernacular Writing: “that ‘which is closely associated with culture that is neither elite nor institutional, which is traditional and indigenous to the diverse cultural processes of communities as distinguished from the uniform, inflexible standards of institutions’ ([Camitta,] 1993:228-229)”. Not tied to a particular language.

Vernacular Language: local languages associated with traditional and indigenous cultures and can be seen in contrast to dominant, colonial languages, such as English and French.

Because of the ways in which technologies have changed the ways that people “can be” in the world, including writing, Barton is interested in examining the impact of the social media site Flickr on vernacular writing. In this care, the function of Flickr, primarily visual, is similar to that of graffiti, which allows for a focus on how the writing takes place instead of a sole focus on  the meaning of the text.

Barton had to adapt, or as Spinuzzi might say translate existing methodologies and develop new approaches to analyzing vernacular writing for the internet study. Barton describes the study as multi-method consisting of five “interlinked” sources of data: 1)the initial study of 100 Flickr members’ sites, 2-3) tw0-stage online interviews with 30 Flickr users (starting out general and leading to specific questions re: at least 100 of their photos), 4) sites of Flickr users of other languages, including French Norwegian and Greek, as well as, 5) autoethnographies from Barton and Lee  based on their own Flickr activities. Here we can see Barton’s desire to capture data related to global communication resulted in his focus on multilingual activity on Flickr.

The various sources of data in addition to the abundance of data within the Flickr sites themselves, such as: tags, titles, and photo descriptions provided a great deal of data for analysis. The examination of the specific features of Flickr also contributed to an understanding of how the medium also shapes the writing activity. Users:

  • developed new practices and carrying out older practices in new ways (in part due to the new medium of Flickr)
  • contributed to broader social practices; people relate to the world in new ways, i.e. seeking more”views” of photos

Barton found that vernacular writing on the web also contributes to  new understandings of vernacular writing:

  • Vernacular writing is not always self-sponsored, but can be sponsored by private companies like Yahoo, the owner of Flickr.
  • Vernacular practices online exhibit different values than dominant literacies do
  • Vernacular literacy practices on the web still learned informally and is integrated into everyday activities
  • Vernacular practices are typically valued less by society, but now they are valued more particularly by media professionals.
  • Vernacular practices have typically been seen as limited to the personal sphere, but are now public

These findings led Barton to conclude that not only is writing still central to daily life, but it is growing in importance due to the increase of multimodal activity on the internet.

In this chapter, we are only given the methodological approach, findings, and implications; Peter Smagorinsky might call this methods section superficial in some areas, i.e. data collection and reduction. However, I am not particularly distrustful of this study. Based on the best practices recommended by the authors we’ve read so far, I’m curious to know what you think Barton does well here? In other words, do you think this chapter “works” in explaining how vernacular writing on the web works? Why or why not?


4 thoughts on “Barton – Vernacular Writing on the Web

  1. Hi LaToya–thanks for the summary 🙂 I didn’t get a chance to skim this chapter yet (I focused on the first two), so it was nice to get a detailed look at it.

    So while I can’t respond to your questions, I have a question. I’m interested in your first point of their findings regarding vernacular writing in online spaces. You summarizing them as finding that sometimes vernacular writing is not self-sponsored, but sponsored by companies like yahoo. I guess I’m curious to know whether or not they discuss the complexities in sponsorship for a site like flickr? Meaning, while Flickr is sponsored by yahoo–and thus any writing might be implicitly connected to yahoo sponsorship, I imagine that most people writing on Flickr would still consider their writing to be self-sponsored. How do they account for that? How did you feel about that–do you think that writing on Flickr is primarily self-sponsored or yahoo-sponsored? And, what are the implications of any connection to sponsorship by yahoo for such writing?

  2. This seems like a really cool chapter, LaToya. Thanks for both your careful summary and your thoughts on its methodological rigor at the end.

    As I read your notes about it, I kept thinking about Chapter 2’s (Fraenkel’s) work about graffiti, street signs, and public writing events after 9/11. The graffiti and the writing events definitely seem to fit into Barton’s definition of vernacular writing, and it’s cool that he makes that link.

    At the same time, I was thinking about the role of authorship as a slight difference between flickr and the street (among other things like access to the technologies of each and the different situated literacies/skillsets required for each). While fellow writers or readers on the street might be able to make attributions to certain graffiti writers based on style, the images/words left on walls function almost independently of their authors once they’ve been put up. In that way, the texts/images take on a life of their own, separate from the anonymous author. On flickr, the attribution seems to stay more tied to its creator. Does that make the text circulate differently? And if so, what difference does that difference make?

    What I like about this book’s frame on writing as anthropological is the way that it seeks to understand texts as agents in their own right (what they defined as “actants”) through circulation. Where flickr seems to allow broad circulation, it also ties that circulation back to an author on a page in the web. Graffiti has a much more local circulation, based on who’s eyes it gets to as folks walk by, but seems to allow the text to impact people differently absent the author’s comments or discussion of intentions.

  3. Tim and Katie,

    Thanks for your feedback and questions. Barton does attend to the complexities of agency and sponsorship as well as those around the lines that the internet blurs between local and global spaces. We’ll have a lot to discuss in seminar this evening!

  4. These notes are fab, LaToya, and I appreciated them as I skimmed through the chapter. I esp. appreciated you calling out that Spinuzzi connection — I would have missed it. As a pretty devoted Flickr user (1,000+ photos) and someone who’s interested in self-sponsored writing activity, I was looking forward to reading this chapter. Had I known there was a convo happening about “vernacular literacies,” I would have incorporated them into my searches on zines studies and zine activity. I’m glad to know I have another approach for that sort of work. But as someone interested in researching this area, I was a little disappointed in the both the buried methods (I agree with your speculation about Smagorinsky) and the conclusions, which didn’t seem particularly surprising or interesting. But your third bullet — “Vernacular literacy practices on the web still learned informally and is integrated into everyday activities” — does give me an idea for exploring how these vernacular literacies are learned. How do Flickr users, in other words, teach each other, and how would a study of peer-to-peer teaching import or not import into the classroom? I had a similar question when I attended a panel at CCCC on multimodal composing. One of the presenters, Devon Fitzgerald, talked about how scrapbooking communities often use web technology to teach each other how to get materials, produce nice scrapbooks, etc. How would studying those vernacular activities help us to understand multimodal composing? In short, I think an anthropological methods are valuable for sites like zines, scrapbooks, and web composing, but this particular illustration wasn’t all that impressive to me.

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