Lessons from the Diablo Auction House: Mass Media as Folk Media


Erik Hinton discusses how the critical response to Diablo 3 can help us understand the problems faced by mainstream journalists. 



Everyone is upset that Diablo 3, the fastest-selling video game of all time, is not enough like Diablo 2. See, in Diablo you collect items by killing demons. In Diablo 2, trading these items involved eBay, making ad hoc games to barter (and try not to get cheated), or brokering deals in chat rooms and lobbies. Diablo 3 “solves” this inconvenience by supplying an auction house where players can auction/sell their items. It’s much more efficient. Everyone should like it, right?

They don’t. In fact, the forums are full of people complaining about it. Complaining that a certain je ne sais quoi was lost from Diablo 2. It’s not really less social, it’s just too produced. But of course it is, it’s one of the biggest game franchises of all time. It’s always been overproduced. So what is missing?


In “Mass Art as Folk Art,” Jane Feuer writes, “Claude Levi-Strauss has used the term bricolage to describe the cognitive processes of ‘folk’ culture, cultures which are prescientific. For Levi-Strauss, primitive thought is a kind of intellectual bricolage. In creating their cultural and intellectual artifacts, primitive people make use of materials-at-hand, which may or may not bear any relation to the intended project but which appear to be all they have to work with.”

Diablo 3 is missing that improvisation that takes an over-engineered product and makes it seem like a product of the people. It gives too much. It fails at allowing its community to create folk token economies by giving them a formal auction house. It doesn’t let them erase the mechanical roots of the product with their ad hoc use of game features other than they were intended. (Of course, at some level, the game engineers built into the game these avenues for invention, these freedoms.)

How does this all work?



In “Mass Art as Folk Art,” Feuer describes the process by which “ideology acts to make the cultural seem natural, to mask the transforming material forces of history … Ideology operates in the musical to make mass entertainment (a product of capitalism) appear entertainment (a product of pre-industrial societies).” By making their musicals seems folkier, Hollywood erased their over-production. Hollywood countered the alienating effects of their big budget products.

This was accomplished by “valorizing” the community product, the spontaneous performance, the amateur. “…human values and relations associated with folk art are substituted for the economic values and relations associated with mass-produced art. Through this system of exchange, the economic relations are erased as the human relations are created.”

The tactics for this were:

  • Bricolage overcoming engineering: Dancing with brooms and light posts erases the expensive sets and prop budgets by making it seem like Gene Kelley and Fred Astaire are just “making do” with what’s at-hand.
  • Non-choreography masks actual choreography and professional talent: By horsing around, dancing in groups, stomping on garbage can lids professional dancers seem like they are just having fun, not performing scripted numbers.
  • The rehearsal as performance: We don’t see our stars on stage, just getting ready or singing with a coach, a teacher. The rehearsal, though, is the performance: think Glee.
  • The amateur: Our stars are farm girls, nobodies, sailors. Playing the role of not-singers, not-dancers they pretend to not be professionals.
  • The spontaneous song: Oh this wasn’t rehearsed, we all just happened to be sitting here and now we are singing and dancing together.

Together, these methods “naturalize the relationship between mass art and its audience as one of community rather than alienation.”


I work in journalism. As I reread “Mass Art as Folk Art,” I realized that Hollywood musicals were diagnosing and responding to many of the same ills that journalism suffers from now, the difficulties of a more austere public that’s less trustful of/ receptive to big production companies.


We keep hearing that community journalism will cure the problems in journalism. The problem, as everyone knows, is that ‘hyperlocal’ journalism is generally not very engaging. There are exceptions, sure. But it is difficult to maintain interest, reporting on a small group of people that are more “folks having fairs” than “politicians having affairs.” There is tremendous value in tightly focused, local journalism. However, it just doesn’t scale well. So why do we keep talking about it?

See, big journalism is alienating. Even though the industry isn’t printing money like it used to — it’s hemorrhaging it, in fact — journalism is still very produced and engineered. No matter how many stories we do about local artisans and urban farms (which I’m not bashing), we are still big companies mired in profits, CEOs, products, etc. There is something necessarily alienating about publicly traded, big business newspapers. That’s why, growing up, I was teased for reading The New York Times at my local rural diner. It’s not because big newspapers don’t do great local journalism, gritty profiles, and fantastic community pieces (we do). It’s because the economic machinery and the technological polish around these productions taint the authenticity, foul the bed.

Can we learn from musicals?

Consider bricolage. Twitter gave users 140 characters. So, someone proposed using hashtags to create groupings or topics. Then, Twitter adopted the proposal. People continued to permute the idea and now hashtags aren’t just for events and topics but have their own grammar. They are parentheticals, apostrophe, jokes. Improvisation again. Even with Twitter’s institutional seal of approval, hashtags carry none of the weight of “doing Twitter’s work for them” because they are fully rooted in their appearance of spontaneity and local dialect.

The New Tork Times carefully selects hashtags for events, topics, jokes, etc. We use a wholly organic, wholly improvised syntax, the “primitive language” (of Levi-Strauss), as bricolage. It’s not an institutional TAG or CATEGORY. It’s just the Times, playing along with the folk creation, dancing around the lightpost. Readers respond to this far more favorably than they do to topic pages or button-ed up taxonomies.

What’s more, the hashtag embodies the “spontaneous song.” Just follow @daveweigel or @brianbeutler to see how often a community of journalists happens to jump on a joke hashtag and bandy it about. It’s a spontaneous community performance! Only, of course it isn’t. I was in the side channel where we all chatted about the jokes we were going to make before the first #HipHopBBQActs tweet went out.

This kind of mass media as folk media needs to happen more.

We don’t even have the same problem Hollywood did. We are doing real, local (and national and international) good. It’s just marred by the economically necessary circumstances of production. Mass media as folk media isn’t even as cynical as Hollywood mass art as folk art.

We need to do a better job of giving users the tools and freedom to improvise their way to the products we want to produce. Rather than diagnosing our problem as not enough polish, we need to recognize that sometimes there’s too much polish. I mean look at the blogger who live-tweeted the Osama raid. Everyone loved that story. Sure, it spread “virally,” but let’s not kid ourselves. As soon as the big boys got the chance, we turned on the feature-and-analysis engine and cranked. But the folk-art nature of a rural tweeter live-reporting on one of the biggest international events in the past decade erased all of the machinery. It was just a good, human story.

Because in the end that’s what we are trying to achieve. To win back the humanity of our originally-human pieces. To win back the humanity that’s choked by the exigencies of mechanical reproduction and profit motives. It’s not just good business, it’s good journalism.

We are seeing the beginning of this potential in social media, because bricolage, improv, and community is built into it naturally. But there must be more ways to fully embrace mass media as folk media elsewhere in the newsroom. We still get stumped by how to consistently get users to submit good content, reporting, tips, etc. But here’s the thing: just by asking the question, “how can we get users to do x?” we are letting the curtain slide away. The machinery, the production is back. As Feuer writes, “That paradox consists in the need for the most calculated engineering to produce effects of spontaneous evolution.”

Say wha‘?  We have to become better news engineers to hide our news engineering?

I’d love to hear some more ideas on any of this.



About Erik Hinton

I'm a web developer at The New York Times, where I specialize in next-generation skeuomorphs, disruptive cartographic practices, and alchemy. I'm also the one of the founders of the Moustache Club of America and Penny & Farthing, blogzines specializing in flash fiction and creative nonfiction that I co-curate with university professorOliver Bateman , medical consultant Nathan Zimmerman, and freelance writer Christie Chapman. Follow me on Twitter: ErikHinton


  1. MediocreMenProject says:

    The stretches between Diablo, musicals, and journalism you make are tenuous at best. You should really corroborate your claim that the mobs are shouting for local journalism because, from the eyes of a fellow journalist, I’ve heard more criticism than support for this idea. Making this point the lynchpin that holds journalism to the rest of this discussion just allows you to wander off into insignificance regarding the problems facing print media. While I agree that assimilating to people’s newfound interests is a must, your solution of using ‘bricolage’ through fast and fun hashtags makes a mockery of what is already destroying the quality of our industry – sensationalist journalism. The problem is nothing new (I’ll get to this in a second), but even your example of the Bin Laden raid shows how distracting this is. Was it crucial that people hear about that right away? Don’t journalists often jump on news to get readers then end up misinforming them in some way (e.g. the Miami ‘bath salts’ cannibal – all the journalists printed that it was LSD at first. They turned out to be wrong, but now the comparison between bath salts and LSD is everywhere despite being incorrect). Your end point seems internecine to your original project: the only reason online ‘bricolage’ helps you is because it will hopefully make the Times more money. Does it improve the quality of news? Probably not.

    The other point I wanted to pass by is that much of this article really ignores history. Broadway has been a highly-produced industry since major musicals started in the 1860’s. You seem to want to talk specifically about Hollywood–a separate issue from that of musicals it seems–yet with all the interesting thoughts, you draw out the most mundane. The ‘naturalizing relationship’ you speak of is no different than the way people watch the NFL or NBA players who are incredibly talented individuals acting out the choreography of the coach. They get spectators because people can hold an identifying relationship with these teams and players. Does this make any of this good, or something that should matter to journalism? Probably not. The other historical point is that of news distraction. The telegraph taught us that if the populous chooses the news, we won’t report on anything important. In Michigan, a post-telegraph newsroom couldn’t even report on their own town being on fire because people wanted to know about the transactions between rich folks in other countries. Will allowing the Twitter community to help produce the news help journalists avoid this pitfalls? Probably not

    If I were you, I’d get a broader grasp of the idea of ‘folk art’ beyond your one academic, seemingly Foucault-like, writer’s perspective. The word seems misused all over the article. Also, sadly, I think your idea is inflammatory to anyone hoping that good investigative journalism will triumph through the changes we’re facing now.

  2. I don’t know why anyone would complain about how the AH is supposed to function, since it hasn’t fully been working for weeks now.

  3. Hiya, so you’re use of Levi-Strauss is a bit problematic. The concept of bricolage is a bit outdated, and also problematic. Levi-Strauss was wicked awesome with a lot of things, but he came from a period that treated indigenous populations as though they were overly-simple and primitive. Heck, he even uses the term “primitive.”

    I get what you’re saying in this article, though. You’re sort of talking about the difference between a grassroots organization/movement/community (bottom – up) versus an official institution (top – down). It’s just, problematic to suggest that indigenous populations only have grassroots type organizations and that more modern societies have somehow gotten rid of them.

    • Erik Hinton says:

      Heather, I do agree that a lot of the Levi-Straussian thought over-simplifies and over-primitivizes. But Feuer is playing on the word, not adopting it wholesale. She re-terms “bricolage” with a touch of irony. It’s not describing primitive communication anymore. It’s describing the engineering of a product to appear primitive. I think that Feuer would agree with your assessment of Levi-Strauss, hence her punning on his vocabulary. Whereas he is describing “primitive” cultures making do with what’s at hand, Feuer is describing Hollywood copying these improvisational products to create an appearance of primitivity.


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