Posthum(or)ous: The Folk Response to Mass-Mediated Disasters in the Digital Age

Open Access
Blank, Trevor J.
Graduate Program:
American Studies
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
February 17, 2011
Committee Members:
  • Simon Josef Bronner, Dissertation Advisor
  • Simon Josef Bronner, Committee Chair
  • Michael Lee Barton, Committee Member
  • Charles David Kupfer, Committee Member
  • Girish Subramanian, Committee Member
  • Digital Age
  • computers
  • Internet
  • humor
  • death
  • disaster
  • mass media
  • folklore
Today, Americans are raised to seek and sustain intimacy with others through the use of computer-mediated communication. As a result, American society is becoming gradually more addicted to the convenient accessibility of satisfying content and the opportunities for expressive exchange. To be sure, people inherently need to feel connected or united with others in some way. New media technologies deeply fulfill these needs by providing users an expansive forum for humorous, combative, or intellectual communicative exchanges—especially in times of social anxiety or forced emotional suppression. More so than other events, shocking news of death, disaster, and scandal invite humorous vernacular expression on the Internet when repetitively consumed via mass media outlets. The Internet propels the diffusion of humor about tragedies to many people that would not have been included in previous years. Considering that the Digital Age’s accessibility and interactivity now prohibit most stories, jokes, or regional behaviors from remaining exclusive to their originating contexts, it is essential that we examine the new ways that people respond to media disasters in contemporary society, and how cyberspace became the “go-to” format for vernacular expression. By comparing the pre-Internet contexts of local, regional, and national responses to disaster with the trends of vernacular expression in today’s new media-driven society and popular culture, this dissertation shows that the global reach of cyberspace has irrevocably extended itself into the ways that modern society expresses itself and underscore the implications that this has for the trajectory of contemporary folklore studies. Most importantly, this work demonstrates that the allure of the Internet (as a locus of vernacular expression) comes from not only its widespread accessibility, but because it eases the growing trend of physical detachment from the analog world that cyberspace has made commonplace in the lives of working people.