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☘️ Call round for a céilí.
A conversation about online norms, the cultural velocity of the internet, and Irish social dances.
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Sarah Ingle is a researcher at New_ Public, and an endlessly open-hearted colleague who draws equally from art, methodical investigation, scholarship, and a preternatural attunement to ordinary life in order to illuminate our technological condition.
For this edition of the newsletter, what began as my personal curiosity about Sarah’s experience at a ceílí–an Irish communal gathering and dance, evolved into a wide-ranging conversation about the formation of community and of patterns on the internet, identity and performance in online social spaces, TikTok, and intertextual intimacy.
We called on the work of many thinkers and artists whose practices speak to us and richly embody the ideas that emerged from our exchange.
This interview was conducted over three Slack sessions across time and space; Sarah in her current home in Waterloo, Canada and I, in Oakland, California and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
—Min Li Chan
Min Li Chan: It has been a few months now since you attended your first céilí, Sarah—I recall that the experience sparked for you so many thoughts about dance as a social technology, including ideas of identity, belonging, and group cohesion. How have these ideas shown up for you again lately?
Sarah Ingle: Yes! I think it sparked so much because it was a very connective experience–I felt like parts of me tapped into something a lot bigger than me. I've been thinking/feeling a lot about this in terms of lineage and knowledge-keeping.
The céilí was hosted in a Catholic church gymnasium close to where I live in Waterloo, and what drew me to it was some of the deconstructing and reconstructing I've been doing around my own lineage. My maternal grandmother's family was Irish and I was raised Catholic. I'm somewhere between first and fourth generation Canadian (my dad was born in the UK and my mom, her parents, and grandparents were born here).
The céilí felt like a way to start exploring cultural knowledge and lineage that we've lost connection with here. Dancing at the céilí actually made me feel like I was remembering something.
MLC: In the sense of tapping into a collective embodied memory?
SI: Exactly that. I didn't know any of the dances or really anything about céilís when I showed up, but as I learned the different dance patterns I started feeling that and wondering who before me might have danced the same dances.
I also started noticing how those of us in the room were building together each time we did a round of a dance. At first it's awkward—some of us know the steps, some of us don't—but over time or through practice we started moving more smoothly together or kind of cooperating more!
MLC: Were there specific practices in the céilí you attended that were being used to foster this progressive sense of cooperation?
SI: Definitely! One is role-setting. At each céilí, there's a caller who teaches the group the dance pattern. They're usually at the front of the room or in the middle of the circle/crowd, depending on the dance formation. They pull people in to demonstrate and do a couple of practice rounds before the music starts for the group to dance.
During each round of a dance they're also keeping the time and count—the rhythm. Calling out the next move, how many rounds are left, etc. They keep things moving until the group is moving as a collective, and then bring things back down when the dance/rounds are over.
There are also roles within the dance patterns themselves. Different partners lead different moves or move in different sequences. These roles are sometimes gendered, but since the group wasn't an "even split"—I don't believe in binaries anyways—I found it really interesting and affirming to move between roles.
MLC: I love that clarity in role-setting, but also the flexibility in moving between roles—I'm imagining here that once there was a shared flow and rhythm as a collective that folks might also find the space to bring individual perspectives or flourishes to their roles, while keeping the beauty of the form as a whole intact?
SI: Me too, and yes, that's exactly what happens! You're sharing a pattern, but everyone moves differently and brings their own way of moving to the dance.
A lot of the patterns also involve switching between partners as you move through the rounds of the dance. I was in awe of that because it means that the more you dance, the more you build community and cohesion—you're learning how each person moves and responding to that.
It's also just so joyful and felt to hold hands, clap, jump around together, and giggle when you mess up the footwork!
MLC: It's like a compressed version of how a small social group evolves through a series of repeated conversations between different pairs or subgroups of people; with each pair or subgroup, you're learning and responding to a different dynamic or conversational choreography even when there is a shared set of norms, until eventually there's a sense of ease and play.
SI: That emergent sense of ease and play is so beautiful and important too. I think it's what communicates that even if you mess up, you can try again, and as long as you want to keep learning how to dance together you'll be supported/held by the group. You can evolve the norms together. Which feels like a key to healthy relationships or community at many different scales.
Floor Patterns on the Internet
MLC: You talked about the experience tapping into something a lot bigger than you, a diasporic memory. Are céilís spread as an oral tradition?
SI: I've just started reading more into how they're spread. I think it's part oral/embodied—people holding the stories of how to host a céilí or do a specific dance in their bodies and then teaching others.
Over time, a lot of it has been documented and evolved with technology. For example, in Baroque times, they would carve/paint the footsteps for dances into the floor. For céilís, there were handbooks made and distributed to revive Irish nationality or culture following British colonial rule. A lot of those handbooks, texts, diagrams are now collected/shared through the internet. There are a bunch of websites that are dance pattern databases.
I was reminded of baroque floor patterns at the Computer Games Museum in Berlin the other week:
MLC: There were baroque floor patterns in the Computer Games Museum? I love these pattern visualizations—a reminder that encoding and decoding happens in the analog world and isn't just the province of codecs and technical formats!
SI: Right? I was surprised too, but they were a part of tracing the lineage of interactivity/participatory computing!
There was a section on video game music, and how creating it is a unique challenge for composers because you're creating a soundtrack for something that you don't know exactly where it's going to go. The user's choices shape what music is played, in what order, etc.
MLC: Your mention of interactivity and participatory computing makes me think about comments on the internet—in particular, the work that it takes to enter a conversational space each time, especially if you care about the commenting culture that you’re co-creating with others.
What if there were conversational patterns carved out on the proverbial floor as a suggestion, or a guide? The point isn’t to restrict or conform individual speech—if the goal is to get to a state of play so that a genuine conversation or a meaningful collective moment can happen, some patterning could ease that anxiety.
SI: I love what you were saying about that moment where you're trying to enter a new conversation or space and using patterns as a guide for that.
It reminds me of some conversations we've had before about the UX paradigms that try to eliminate frictions or seams and the way that can actually be unhelpful, unhealthy, or even harmful when it removes moments of pause or mindfulness. It can remove space for choice, consent, and discernment.
I feel like those moments are especially important when you're just starting to get to know a person or a community. if you jump into the dance too quickly without getting to know your partners or the rhythm it can be a mess!
There is a tension or a balance here that you're pointing out, too—how can patterns provide guidance but in a way that's spacious and unrestrictive, that allows for movement and interpretation? Have you been noticing or feeling this tension recently?
MLC: Since we've brought on several new teammates recently into a fully remote workplace at New_ Public, I’ve been thinking about which patterns of conversation and patterns of working are most legible or most easily described when you're helping orient a new coworker.
Contrast that with what is expected to be picked up by osmosis over time and through repeated one-on-ones or team meetings, because it is not as easily nameable and you can't seem to put a finger on it. Some might call this a vibe.
SI: You're right, there are the structures you can point out or put in place, but the rest is emergent and kind of mysterious.
MLC: Yes, and building an organization or a team is like being in a long dance together! Since everyone hopes for some measure of longevity in this dance, other principles start to become important beyond play and playing together—a sense of responsibility, for instance, and an awareness of power structures as well as a curiosity about status.
The goal ultimately isn’t to dance the same dance forever and ever; there’s an expectation that we’ll need to evolve this dance into other original, tangible, fruitful forms along the way.
Protocols for Connection
SI: That feels like a theory of everything. I think it really captures what you were saying about bringing new team members into a structure.
It also resonates for me a lot around research and design processes. I just finished a class at the School For Poetic Computation called For Love and Science, where we did some co-learning around the physics of sound—different wavelengths, harmonies, resonance, etc.
It made me realize that resonance is a relationship between sound and space. Like people and our structures. Different hums emerge as our structures and relationships with each other evolve.
Which I think is totally clear when you compare the vibe or what resonates/doesn't resonate with people across different social media. TikTok is so well-known for dance and if you look at its affordances I think that makes a lot of sense! It's short video content which uses your visual and auditory senses, and it's shaped around remix—allowing people to reuse songs/sounds and duet or stitch each others' videos. When you use a sound or remix another TikTok your TikTok also becomes a part of the lineage. Everything's linked so you can go back through the evolution that led to that TikTok in a way.
It can be super low privacy though. My sister and I sometimes talk about the way TikTok culture is building on c. 2014 Tumblr culture but without the anonymity. People are using their whole faces and bodies, so I wonder how that shapes how much content is or feels performative.
MLC: That's an interesting observation, Sarah. TikTok definitely feels like participatory theater. From the standpoint of the politics of citation, I appreciate its attributive nature, of being able to trace that lineage and in a way, give credit where credit is due.
SI: I love that too, the citational politics—it reminds me of what feminist scholars call intertextual intimacy.
MLC: Could we go as far as to say that TikTok's participation patterns exhibit a feminist intertextual intimacy?
SI: I think what's pulling me in about this re:TikTok is that it's a place on the internet where there is so much creativity and constraint. The remix affordances and culture that has emerged is super liberating in some ways—people are finding and making community and creating very joyful things together.
At the same time, there's a lot of censorship on the app, concerns about its data collection and privacy, and very little transparency about how its algorithm, which can feel bizarrely personalized, actually works.
Community has responded to those constraints in even more creative ways by basically creating entire dialects to get around it, which humans have basically been doing everywhere always, encrypting knowledge in folklore or cultural artifacts to protect it and pass it on.
A technology like TikTok makes more of this into data, makes more of it legible, and accelerates it. There’s a lot of intertextuality, and maybe feminist intertextuality depending on who is using it and how, but within a platform that has some oppressive and distinctly non-feminist policies/practices
Read It and Weep
MLC: When we chatted a while back, you mentioned having some thoughts about TikTok and the work of the artist Maya Man. Could you elaborate?
SI: One of the reasons I love Maya Man’s work is that she's playing with the concept of performance online, especially of femininity and girlhood. Her work is very generative and browser-based—it's happening live on the screen you're viewing it on—and changes over time. She's also a dancer and brings a lot of that into her art and her own performance of her art and her identity online.
One of her browser-based pieces is called "read it and weep" and it generates a bunch of text in your browser over the time you keep the window open. In Maya’s words:
𝓡𝓮𝓪𝓭 𝓲𝓽 𝓪𝓷𝓭 𝓦𝓮𝓮𝓹 is an infinitely performed text that examines the relationship between interiority and exteriority in an era where our practice of consuming and producing online relentlessly influences our sense of self. It features excerpts from articles, books, essays, personal journals over a span of 10+ years, as well as text fragments (I call them "internet trash") observed and collected throughout my time spent scrolling. The work layers these snippets to mimic our habit of overwriting our identities on screen again and again and again.
MLC: When I think about this cluster of ideas that we’re circling—dance, performance, patterns—my associative brain jumps to Pina Bausch’s work, and the repetition of patterns that she co-creates with dancers in her troupe.
SI: I’m not familiar with Pina Bausch, but I just looked her up and I'm really struck by this paragraph on her Wikipedia page:
One of the themes in her work was relationships. She had a very specific process in which she went about creating emotions.
"Improvisation and the memory of [the dancer's] own experiences ... she asks questions—about parents, childhood, feelings in specific situations, the use of objects, dislikes, injuries, aspirations. From the answers develop gestures, sentences, dialogues, little scenes."
The dancer is free to choose any expressive mode, whether it is verbal or physical when answering these questions. It is with this freedom that the dancer feels secure in going deep within themselves.
When talking about her process she stated, "There is no book. There is no set. There is no music. There is only life and us. It's absolutely frightening to do a work when you have nothing to hold on to."
She stated, "In the end, it's composition. What you do with things. There's nothing there to start with. There are only answers: sentences, little scenes someone's shown you. It's all separate to start with. Then at a certain point I'll take something which I think is right and join it to something else. This with that, that with something else. One thing with various other things. And by the time I've found the next thing is right, then the little thing I had is already a lot bigger."
I think it also begins to get at what I've been thinking and feeling about patterns and performance. There's this tension between performance and authenticity that shows up a lot in conversations about expression online, especially for people who have amassed a large following on platforms.
MLC: The patterns that emerge can be a kind of crutch at worst, but also helpful scaffolding to help someone figure out how to perform or express oneself online.
SI: Yes, I think it depends on intention and relationship. They can be liberating and or oppressive structures.
What patterns allow us to express is shaped by (and shapes) our relationships to it and to one another. Thinking about online performance, all these patterns emerge in the form of dances, challenges, video formats, meme formats, photo dumps, internet speak, etc. and they get repeated and evolved. They can feel really empty and disconnected though when there isn't much intention behind it, or the intention is only driving engagement or amassing a following rather than fostering connection.
"Authenticity" is a driving concept in the influencer marketing world, yet it often produces the opposite result. When someone you followed or formed a parasocial relationship with based on relatability becomes a platform for brands to sell you things, it fundamentally changes that relationship.
A Fast and Slow Internet
MLC: I’m looking back at this quote from Pina Bausch in the Wikipedia screenshot you sent, and it feels relevant to your observations:
“There is no book. There is no set. There is no music. There is only life and us. It’s absolutely frightening to do a work when you have nothing to hold on to.”
Being online can be frightening especially when you have nothing to hold on to. I can see how the dances, challenges, meme formats, internet speak, etc. as patterns all give us something to hold on to.
On the other hand, the emptiness and the absence or hollowness of intentionality that you mentioned reminds me of this amazing supercut by the artist Elisa Giardina Papa titled, “need ideass!?!PLZ!!”
I find this supercut simultaneously sincere, funny, moving, and absurd. Is it emptiness? Is it reaching out over the disconnection? It’s a frightening abyss out there—I need ideas!
SI: Yes! It feels so “alone together.” Kind of the human condition. I think some of the narratives that we have about the internet produce this—it's this new, emerging thing that we're all figuring out together. And it's so temporary, one day one thing is viral and the next thing something else. There's very little to hold on to both in terms of space and time. It's fast.
The internet is also slow though. It's the result of a long history of incremental changes in the socio-technical construction of networks and protocols. I think we can look at our patterns in that context too – what ways of relating to each other have emerged over time as a means of adaptation and survival? How are they shaped by our environments?
MLC: I’m intrigued by your provocation of the internet as being slow, especially given the prevalent feeling of increasing acceleration.
SI: The artist-technologist-researchers Alice Yuan Zhang and soft networks come to mind. They worked on a project together called remote protocols which “explores new forms of online intimacy between two people". It offers different protocols for connecting with one another at a distance.
I appreciate their work because it resists those narratives of acceleration. There are many powerful people, organizations, and structures invested in perpetual acceleration, growth, and extraction. It's one of the stories of colonialism and imperialism.
Which kind of brings us full circle—céilís (or céilídhs in Scotland) were and are a part of this resistance. A lot of the documentation of dance patterns and the resurgence of céilís happened as a means of (re)constructing Irish national identity and culture following British colonial rule.
SI: At the céilí I attended a few months ago, we closed by doing a dance called the Lucky 7 where you form a paired circle and weave around each other – left and right–for a count of 7. Then you stop and do a few steps with that partner before starting another round.
As you weave, you're holding the hand of each person who passes by. We repeated each round until we'd gone all the way around, meaning you had held everyone's hand, danced a few steps together, and maybe even chatted. Everyone has met, everyone is woven together. It was one of the most intricate and intimate communication protocols I've ever witnessed.
MLC: It’s difficult to imagine orchestrating such intimate communication protocols among strangers on very large commercial social networks online, especially with the asymmetrical structures of parasocial relations (i.e. that of influencers and their audience). But you’ve left us here with a beautiful and compelling vision to aspire to.
SI: Thank you, and I agree. We're still dancing the dance and figuring out the steps. I believe that the more we connect to those who've danced before us, the more we'll have an idea of what step comes next. 🌳
More on Ceílís
If you are interested in learning more about céilís, here are a few of Sarah’s favorite links:
And that’s it for this week! Next time, we’ll run a status check on the latest internet protocols.
Putting the kettle on,