Caring for customs and heritage of the internet

Foto: find me meme, Luna Jubilee band poses / flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)

The internet is not free and neutral just by itself—we need to care for it and its culture. Here’s an idea for the founding of an Internet Heritage and Customs Association, so that it can continue to exist and rise to meet its challenges.

Trump, Brexit, right wing populists—2016 will be remembered for the strengthening of backwards-looking concepts of nation and ethnicity. But there are also many people who feel at home in a place that has transcended regional and national boundaries; just as it has transcended religions, sexual preferences and ideologies. For them, the internet has become a home that unites people: one where they can care for a certain culture that deserves just as much protection and promotion as those of the analogue world.

This homeland is an alternative proposition to the world of backwards-looking nationalists, and it is under threat. In 2016, debates about the freedom of linking and web neutrality demonstrated that there is no garantee the internet remains as free as we’ve come to know it. We ourselves must protect it so that it remains a place with its own culture, its own dialect, and one that is a home for many people. It is for this reason that in 2016, I made the suggestion to found an Internet Heritage and Customs association.

Digital Folk Culture

In late October, I wrote the following in my newsletter Digitale Notizen (Digital­ Notes):

Together, we should found Germany’s largest customs association: an association for people who call the internet their home. An association that strives for—and promotes—digital folk culture and folk art. The debates of the last few months around net neutrality and linking, as well as nationalism and hate-speech, have shown us this: the internet, a place many people call home, deserves our protection and care!

In order to both articulate and meet the resulting demands, circumstances may call for established paths to be taken. To explain why digital culture is significant, we must perhaps renegotiate concepts learnt from cultural preservation. Show nationalists that the internet stands for understanding and exchange amongst peoples—over and above any boundaries. To do this, we need to re-define concepts. Those who are at home on the internet have the same rights to cultural and local preservation than all other interest groups who influence schools, administrations, committees, churches, political parties, and trade unions. The Digital Heritage and Customs Association should step in right here. For example, it should promote “educating love of the homeland through a deeper knowledge of the homeland”. I read that on the Bavarian Regional Association for Local Preservation and thought: exactly the same should apply to the digital homeland!

The Charter

The following 8 points represent a first proposal for a Digital Heritage and Customs Association charter.

1 We love the internet, and the new forms of folk art and sharing culture that it has brought and should continue to bring. For us, the internet has become a home transgressing borders. That this virtual homeland should be retained and cared for is the paramount goal of this association! We should appreciate the internet as a neutral, unifying network of involved citizens. We want to defend and develop exactly this. We absolutely reject arbitrary mass surveillance (either for commercial or political reasons), curtailing of access, and the breaching of telecommunications secrecy.

2 Digital culture deserves at least the same recognition and the same promotion (also in financial terms) as established forms of culture. As a lobby group for digital (folk) culture, we are a part of the digital civil society that understands appropriate digital frameworks as a civil-societal and public task, not just a private enterprise one. For us, the rapid development of a digital infrastructure counts just as much as the modernization of copyright law.

3 Our aim is the appropriate representation of digital culture in public organizations and committees: to protect the digital economy not only against one-sided commercial interests, but also to create an awareness of its societal significance in schools, parliaments, political parties, churches, and unions. We understand this as a prerequisite for a competent interaction with the digital that is long overdue.

4 The preservation of digital culture is an international concern. We regard ourselves as part of an international community; but in the first instance, we will apply the associations’ aims to German administrations and organizations, in order to accord an appropriate advancement for German-speaking digital culture. We are in no way bound to a political party; rather, we are guided by a concern to both strengthen and expand digital customs, and to advance the digital sphere’s democratic constitution through an active and diverse civil society. We regard ourselves as an extension of (not a competitor to) associations like the CCC, Digitale Gesellschaft, EFF, D64 and many others who perform very good work.

5 The commitment to our digital homeland emphatically also means the rejection of nationalism, racism, sexism, and the exclusion of presumed minorities of any kind. For us, the internet is a transnational place of connection that we wish to protect and expand.

6 We want, and will promote, a pragmatic interaction with the societal changes activated through the internet and digitalization. We fight against one-sided fear mongering, and counter this with the requirement to make changes in accordance with the values of freedom and democracy. Fear never leads to sovereignty!

7 The aim and purpose of the association is the advancement of…
… Art and culture in the digital sphere.
… Cultivation towards the digital sphere’s self-defining, creative constitution.
… Science and research concerned with the digital sphere.
… Civic involvement supporting these purposes.

8 The association’s aims will be realized in particular through…
… Co-operation with teachers and educators, schools and youth associations to support an education guided by this: through a deeper knowledge of the homeland to a love of the homeland.
… (Virtual) local studies meetings.
… Publication of (digital) journals and other publications on fundamental and current questions concerning maintenance and development of digital cultural values.
… Education in all areas of digital culture.
… Public responses to important questions of digital culture.
… An annual prize for digital local customs and support of the homeland.


Given that reading his book “Culture of Digitality” also inspired this idea, I interviewed Felix Stalder, Professor for Digital Culture and Theory of Networking at the Zurich University of Arts.

Dirk von Gehlen: In your book, you talk of digital folk art that is comparable to the classical model of folk culture. Could you quickly explain that for us?

Felix Stalder: Unlike professional culture, the role allocation of producers and recipients is very flexible. The threshold to participate is low and therefore can be easily overstepped (in both directions). The aim of folk art is to strengthen the community, not to bring about autonomous works. I use the term folk art in a structural way, not as a generic term. For me, the TV programmes showing folk music made by professional musicians like the German TV show Musikantenstadl does not belong to folk art.

And what is it that makes this folk art so unique?

A huge amount of new cultural fields have arisen through digitalization. One can ascribe them to folk art because they are formed by mass participation—participation where results are difficult to remove from their original context. For me, open source software belongs here—it can best be used when you know your way around the particular communities that produce them. Or meme culture that thrives on being passed around a lot, and in doing so is constantly appropriated and transformed. Of course, negative phenomenon like hate posters and shitstorms also belong to this new folk culture. But all in all, the chances and possibilities that arise from many people talking together predominate. All these things are of course already here. We can either attempt to supress them, or we can learn how better to deal with them.

I’m not objective here, so I’ll ask you this as a scientist: is this digital folk art experiencing any kind of public sponsoring or archival storage?

Not directly. Today, media production is taught at many schools and is a part of the curriculum. As such, more people will be equipped with the ability to participate in digital culture. But in terms of public sponsoring or recognition—there isn’t much. In the last few years, the festival Ars Electronica has awarded a prize in the category “Digital Communities”, recognising the new character of Culture production.

What do you think of the idea to found a German-speaking Heritage and Customs Association for digital culture?

I find the idea of taking “Customs”, “Folk art’ and “Homeland” out of the conservative corner, and occupying them in a way that is for many novel and unusual, both tremendously exciting, and searingly important. Particularly at a time where such terms are becoming loaded in a more conservative, if not to say reactionary way. However, I fear this is a rocky road that will bring about a lot of misunderstanding. Perhaps, though, this is exactly what makes the project interesting.

Dirk von Gehlen

Dirk von Gehlen

Dirk von Gehlen directs the department of Social Media/Innovation at the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and is engaged with the digital transformation of culture, community and business. In addition to his activities as author and speaker, he runs the Digitale-notitzen.de blog, and has the Twitter handle @dvg.
Dirk von Gehlen

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