• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

This node chronicles a case study of migration – not from one geographical location to another but from the tAgora to the eAgora. However, the brief history it presents is only secondarily about actual transferral from paper to pixels; far more fundamental and far-reaching is the dimension of audience reception as determined by the operative rules of each marketplace. Most basically, we’re concerned here with the end-user – that is, with who has access, and with how users participate in brick-and-mortar versus virtual communities.

The original vision: toward integration

The journal Oral Tradition was founded in 1986 to encourage and support interdisciplinary and international exchange concerning the world’s oral traditions from ancient times to the present. With what avowed mission? To serve as an open and refereed forum for all interested readers and contributors, regardless of their particular background or expertise. And the goal? To offer a mix of presentations that could not take place in books and journals devoted (and thereby limited) to single traditions, areas, or approaches. In short, the journal was established in recognition of the fact that oAgora activities are a worldwide phenomenon, and that they represent our species’ initial and still most widespread communications technology. On that score they certainly merit the most inclusive and diverse conversation possible.

Early signs were heartening. Miscellaneous issues, the bread-and-butter format for OT’s editorial program, grouped articles from as many as 8-10 different and often far-flung areas side-by-side in the same collection, implicitly urging both analogies and distinctions among the traditions involved. Summary essays on Biblical, Welsh, ancient Greek, and Celtic studies, for example, helped scholars and students in these and other areas gain an understanding of what kinds of research and scholarship were prevalent in various fields. Special issues on African, Native American, Arabic, and Chinese minority oral traditions also played a part in the overall mission of sketching the nature and social function of oral traditions on six of seven continents. Fifteen or so years into its existence, OT had no doubt opened doors and created avenues for new kinds of interaction.

The peril of the “glass ceiling”

But not enough doors and not enough avenues. It eventually became clear that while conventional academic networks had substantially facilitated exchange in certain ways, they had simultaneously blocked communication in other ways by imposing a “glass ceiling” on our efforts. For every cross-disciplinary success we were also suffering multiple failures. Alongside unprecedented connections we began to become aware of frustrating and apparently unbridgeable gaps between people, subjects, areas, and so on.

Here’s how the shortfall most obviously reared its ugly head. Every week or two the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition would receive a request for either gratis or exchange copies of the journal, chiefly from colleagues and institutions in developing countries who because of challenges posed by price, currency type, or physical distribution could not be served by the usual paid subscription. At first we aspired to fill all these requests, but that soon became impossible in practice; even when we could afford to send boxes of back issues, such packages not seldom failed to arrive at their destinations.

A dark cloud began to threaten, or at least to severely curtail, our mission. We simply couldn’t extend our avowedly open forum to many colleagues outside the Wired West, where (only too ironically) so many of the world’s oral traditions were flourishing. As a result, we risked not only an artificially diminished and non-representative audience and contributorship but also a foreshortened view of the complex, many-sided oAgora itself. In other words, we risked diluting the natural diversity of the very phenomenon that the journal had been created to study and discuss. This was just unacceptable. We had to do better: we had to find a way to include everyone with a stake in the investigation, regardless of their finances, their physical location, or the status of their research programs and institutions.

Supplementing the paper page

The eventual solution took time to emerge. It was foreshadowed by the invention of multimedia supplements, or eCompanions, for OT. In volume 19, issue ii (October 2004) we began to offer web-based audio, video, photographic, appendix-based, and extra bibliographical support for articles published in the conventional paper format. For instance, readers could navigate to an online platform to peruse interviews with jazz musicians, listen to recordings of Gaelic song-performances, and the like. Pioneered as a supplement to the 2002 monograph How to Read an Oral Poem, the eCompanion has since 2004 become a regular feature of most issues, sometimes containing major presentations of multimedia, as with the special issue on Basque oral traditions.

Still, even with these new eAgora-enabled opportunities, the brick-and-mortar millstone wouldn’t budge. For those many prospective readers necessarily outside the orbit of paid subscriptions and convenient distribution channels, the most basic article content – for which the eCompanions were after all intended as supplements – remained off-limits. Despite our best efforts, the core message of OT continued to be restricted to the predetermined few rather than shared democratically with the world. Beyond the grasp of many interested and engaged potential scholars, students, and general readers, and sequestered in a vehicle that only a select group could access, OT simply wasn’t fulfilling its fundamental purpose.

Radical eDemocracy as a responsibility

In 2005 we began to make plans to use the Internet to its full potential for enlarging and diversifying the journal community. Instead of providing a paper product to a maximum of 1200 individuals and institutions, mostly in North America and western Europe, we aimed to reach everyone with a web connection and a browser. And, crucially, we were committed to offering OT on a universally accessible and free-of-charge platform. The basic conviction underlying this shift to an open, gratis format was and remains the belief that virtual communication presents not merely an opportunity but also a responsibility. If we’re able to leverage media to initiate and maintain new kinds and levels of involvement for all concerned, thus creating a community that faithfully represents the remarkable diversity of oral traditions around the world and throughout history, then doing so isn’t simply an option. It’s something we clearly must implement.

With the blessing of original publisher Slavica (president George Fowler termed the separation an “amicable divorce”), we took the journal online as of volume 21, issue i (March 2006), during that transitional year providing both paper and electronic versions. Within 18 months all back issues were also available on the website, with full-text search by keyword and author as well as more advanced routines. We made the decision to configure the articles simply as downloadable PDF documents in order to avoid disenfranchising anyone and to preserve cross-platform fidelity in fonts, formatting, and so forth. By mid-2007 anyone anywhere in the world had full and unfettered access to more than 500 articles, totaling some 10,000 plus pages, entirely without financial, geographical, or distributional barriers.

ePublication raised some challenges, of course, none more frequent or persistent than the too-proverbial mischaracterization of Internet resources as necessarily second-rate or undependable. To combat this misconception, we were careful to keep the OT review process precisely intact: since the inception of the journal more than 25 years ago, both a specialist and a generalist have had to evaluate a submission positively before it can be considered for acceptance. Reviewers have before them three levels of recommendation – Accept with minor revisions, Revise and resubmit, and Reject – with which to assess the soundness of the manuscript within its home field (the specialist) and for our diverse, overwhelmingly non-specialist audience (the generalist). If the article is accepted either early in the process or after revision (amounting to a cumulative 14% success rate), then only one question remains. Should it be confined to a paper artifact accessible to a small fraction of OT’s natural constituency, or should it be shared democratically among all interested parties via electronic media? With peer review firmly in place as a sound gatekeeping mechanism, the web represents the unquestionably superior alternative.

eResults

The results of this media-migration have been dramatic. From a paid subscription-based readership of approximately 1200 maximum, server analytics show that the journal now reaches as many as 31,000 different individual users per year. Over the five years that OT has been available online, more than 115,000 unique visitors from no fewer than 216 countries and territories worldwide have accessed the site, with an average of three articles consulted beyond the home page on each visit. India and China are among the top ten in number of users, with about as many readers in Beijing as in Chicago. Also high on the roster of countries are Australia, Brazil, Iceland, Indonesia, Japan, Nigeria, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey. In its online format OT is finally accomplishing on a large scale what it was founded to do: namely, to offer research and scholarship on the world’s oral traditions to the entire international community.

But that’s only part of the story. Any forum worth creating and maintaining should foster not merely one- but two-way communication, with all participants free to contribute as well as consume. And as OT began establishing its identity on the Internet, that is precisely what started to happen. Whereas earlier collections of articles had focused disproportionately on western European and North American traditions, chiefly by authors from those areas, we began to receive many more submissions from outside the Wired West. In other words, a truer representation of the oAgora now started to emerge as a result of the radical eDemocracy of the eAgora. Issue 25, ii, for example, contains articles on Mandarin, Aztec, Yoruba, Tuzu, and Karelian traditions alongside studies of Hispanic, British, and musicology. In addition, several of the non-Western contributions include eCompanions, so that web-enabled readers can also become listeners and viewers. The journal’s contributorship is expanding and diversifying in step with its readership.

Migration from a text-limited to a virtual community thus continues the evolution of the journal Oral Tradition as an instrument for interdisciplinary exchange on the oAgora, as a vehicle for studying and communicating about the world’s oral traditions. More than a mere conversion into a modern medium, this transformation alters the most basic rules of the game: all interested parties now have unrestricted, ready access to 25 years of research and scholarship, with the result that OT’s audience reflects more faithfully the true constituency of the oAgora marketplace. Just as importantly, everyone, regardless of location or institutional status, is now eligible and welcome to contribute to the discussion, under the very same peer-review guidelines that governed the paper edition of the journal during its tAgora period in 1986-2005.

The salient difference, of course, is that the eDemocracy of eOT allows the whole world access to the whole world’s rich and diverse oAgora.