• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Most of our elite contemporary forms of performance—drama, classical music concerts, ballet, opera, formal poetry readings, and so on—call for polite, narrowly defined participation by audiences. We’re encouraged to applaud and perhaps allowed to quietly express our disapproval, but these reactions are customarily permitted only after the performance has finished. To interrupt an ongoing event with audible comments or visible responses is normally considered rude and inappropriate; in the context of that kind of performance arena, such actions are unidiomatic.

Audience protocol is often radically different in the oAgora. Of course there are some forms of OT that demand rapt silence and careful observance of ritual constraints, but there are also a great many varieties that license or even require real-time contribution and intervention.

Working together

One case in point is slam poetry, which fosters a continuous, usually positive interaction between performing poets and their audiences as part of the ongoing event. Another is Basque bertsolaritza, a form of contest poetry in which mass audiences who know the rules for extemporaneous composition actually sing the last few lines of never-before-composed oral poems along with their composers. In a vital sense both OT groups are collectively surfing the pathways of a living network, co-creating the performed poem. Their interactions are positive and mutually reinforcing. Everyone is playing by the accepted rules of the oAgora.

For another instance of working together, please visit the Response node, which briefly presents my reaction to the reader reports on the Pathways Project as commissioned by the University of Illinois Press.


But what about the negative side of things—criticism? What about the equivalent of the harsh morning-after reviews of Broadway plays that mercilessly pan the production? Or critics’ scathing indictments of an opera, ballet, or symphony performance? Is there any outlet in the oAgora for audiences to disapprove or at least to query what the performer or group is doing?

One answer comes from Matija Murko, a Slovenian scholar and fieldworker who studied then-thriving South Slavic oral epic traditions in the early decades of the twentieth century and offers us this amusing firsthand report:

The audience listens to the singer with maximum attention, interest, and sympathy for the heroes, and is sometimes extremely moved by the whole of a poem or by certain episodes. During pauses for rest, the members of the audience make various remarks, question the singer, and critique him, to which criticism he does not fail to respond. One time I reproached a singer for having given a favorite Moslem hero, Hrnjica Mujo, four brothers instead of the two he is credited with elsewhere; he retorted in a bitter tone: “That’s how another told it to me; I wasn’t there when they were born!” There is one mode of criticism that does not lack originality: when the singer is absent during a pause for rest, someone greases the string and the bow of his instrument with tallow, which makes it impossible for him to continue.

It’s one thing to feel the sting of a bad review, quite another to have your string greased!