crowd sourcing

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Illustration by John D Batten for “Indian Fairy Tales” edited by Joseph Jacobs, 1892. From Wikimedia.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the “At the Crossroads of Data and Wonder Symposium” held at Brigham Young University this month, where folklorists gathered with digital humanities folks to discuss the application of quantitative and digital methods to fairy-tale and folklore research. I compiled all of the #VisualizingWonder tweets into a Storify here, but I also thought the event merited a blog post.

Professor Jill Terry Rudy convened the event to brainstorm new projects, create a collaborative working group, and showcase her Algorithmic Visualizations of Fairy Tales in Television project, which is a fairy-tale teleography. Users can search the database for TV shows that include fairy-tale material, access visualizations, and so on. It’s shaping up to be an intriguing tool for research, and we’re all eager to see what comes of it. The associated blog, Fairy Tales at BYU, has some excellent blog posts presenting on their preliminary research, such as this post on Fractured Fairy Tales and the American Dream.

The other major collaborator in this investigation is Professor Pauline Greenhill, the driving force behind the International Fairy-Tale Filmography. She and other Canadian colleagues teleconferenced in for the symposium, and presented on their research, some of it methods-driven and some questions-driven. The IFTF is still growing and is accepting contributions from folks who’d like to suggest that films with fairy-tale tie-ins be added to the database.

This leads me into some major themes of the symposium. We discussed the benefits of crowd-sourcing information about fairy tales in pop culture, and the merits of involving the public in other ways. As scholars, what is our obligation to the public? Does it increase when we’re studying pop culture topics? If we start helping people understand fairy tales in film and television, do we risk becoming curators of material and losing our critical function?

Defining what we’re even studying is also a difficult task. Where do TV shows end and commercials begin? What about music videos?  What about pornography? If we want to understand the audience reception of fairy tales in film and TV, how do we go about setting parameters for studying how people process and remember and reformulate their content?

We spent a good deal of time discussing methodology, which is an endlessly fascinating topic to me (when I teach, I focus a lot on process, too, as in my Body Art class last fall). My perspective is that we scholars should strive to be as transparent as possible about our process. This is for a few reasons: first, it behooves us to be honest about what we’re doing, how, and why; it’s something we in ethnographic disciplines ask of our collaborators, and so we shouldn’t be afraid to do it too; and it’s often helpful for those who come after us. Given that I was presenting on some of my quantitative dissertation research, reframed to focus on birth and hierarchy in fairy tales, it made sense for me to discuss my methods honestly, both to give my peers insight into my working process and assumptions, and to issue a few cautionary tales about what not to do in this vein of research.

We also talked about future publications and presentations, and even though I’m not amassing publications in the hopes of getting tenure (since I’m currently an adjunct professor, not a tenure-track professor), I’m pretty excited to see where all this goes. I would be thrilled to have my name associated with anything that comes of this. Hell, it was an honor being invited to the symposium in the first place!

I could go on and on, but I’d urge readers to check out the top 2 links, containing a list of the attendees/topics and my Storified tweets for more information. It was a fantastic experience, and I hope to be able to post updates about the status of these projects in the future.

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For the non-folklorists out there, we use the term “tale type” to refer to a folktale or fairy tale plot that has shown stability throughout time and space. “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are great examples of tale plots that are transmitted in different languages, countries, and time periods. But here you run into the problem of tale title; “Cinderella” doesn’t bear that name in every telling, so how are we scholars supposed to keep track of them all?

The tale type system, pioneered by Finn Antti Aarne in the early 1900s and revised by American Stith Thompson in the mid-20th century and updated by German Hans-Jorg Uther in 2004, assigns numbers to tale plots. So “Cinderella” is Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) 510A, “Little Red Riding Hood” is ATU 333, and so on.

However, there are problems with the system. As fairy-tale scholar Donald Haase writes on his Facebook:

I am happy to announce a new project for folk-narrative and fairy-tale scholars. For decades we have relied on the Aarne-Thompson tale-type index to understand the essence of a tale, but its skeletal description of each type’s essential plot prevents us from seeing other possibilities. The recent revision of the AaTh index was an important first step in rethinking and revising those descriptions. The Internet, however, now makes possible a new way of thinking. Devoted to breaking the magic spell of Aarne-Thompson, I propose a communal catalog of #TwitterTypes. What are #TwitterTypes? Posted on Twitter, #TwitterTypes are new summaries of traditional tales in 140 characters or less (including some version of the tale’s title). Why Twitter? Because the discipline of 140 characters composed on a computer or smartphone forces creative choices about a tale’s “essence,” and those choices reveal, to the Tweeter, the alternatives — the “Tweets-not-taken.”


The cool thing is that Haase basically wants to crowd-source this, a technique noted by digital humanities scholars and which I’m really curious about for fairy-tale studies:

Why a communal catalog? Imagine not a SINGLE effort to capture the SINGLE essence a tale but MANY efforts to express its MANY possibilities. Besides, I don’t want to do this all myself. So this is a CFT — a Call for #TwitterTypes. A call for contributions to the omnipresent, cloud-based #TwitterType Catalog, an endless project that exists everywhere and nowhere, a catalog that grows every time a fairy-tale scholar tweets. The first two #TwitterTypes–for “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Frog King or Iron Henry”–follow soon on Twitter, with simultaneous postings on my Facebook page. (Thanks, Gary, for having inspired this project.)


Examples of Haase’s include Blue Beard: (he-said-she-said) I do.–DON’T!–I won’t.–YOU DID!–I didn’t.–YOU’RE DONE FOR!–DON’T THINK SO!! (He didn’t; done in.)

I’m going to start posting some of my own, and I encourage fairy-tale enthusiasts to do the same, and please share this link! In an update, Haase announced that we’ll go with the hashtag #TwTy since it’s shorter, allowing for more creativity within Twitter’s character limits (though I think starting with the #TwitterTypes hashtag to let searchers know that you’re participating might be helpful). Looking for inspiration? Folklorist D. L. Ashliman runs a great site of electronic folklore & mythology texts, many of which include tale type numbers. His Grimms’ tale listing is here. Another great fairy-tale site online is Sur La Lune. If you can’t find the tale type numbers, that’s fine, I think using the title will work too.

So, have at, and pass it on!

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