Studying Digital Culture through File Types

I am revamping “Introduction to Digital Studies,” my program’s overview of digital culture, creativity, and methodology. One approach is to partially organize the class around file types, the idea being that a close reading of certain file types can help us better understand contemporary culture, both online and off.

It’s a bit like Raymond William’s Keywords, except with file types. A few of the file types that seem especially generative to consider:

  • MP3 (Jonathan Sterne’s work on MP3s is the gold standard to follow)
  • GIF (especially the rise and fall and rise of the animated GIF)
  • HTML (a gateway to understanding the early history and ethos of the web)
  • JSON (as a way to talk about data and APIs)

This list is just an initial start, of course. What other culturally significant file types would you have students consider? And what undergrad-friendly readings about those file types would you recommend?

7 thoughts on “Studying Digital Culture through File Types”

  1. Neat idea. .torrent files could be a gateway to a whole discussion, I think.

  2. I don’t know about the exact formats, but 3D/VR in standard HTML nowadays?

  3. WAD files, the data files for the original DOOM game, and the culture of modifications (mods) that sprung from it in DOOM and it’s successors (Quake, Half-Life, etc.).

  4. I’ll throw in a second vote for WADs, which interestingly are still being developed, played and traded by a small group of doomers today (happy to share more — the WAD is truly an expression of moments in time).

    I’d have to know more about exactly what you’re trying to ascertain, but some thoughts off the top of my head (really just thinking about unavoidable formats of the pre-WWW internet/BBS days):

    FILE_ID.DIZ (See: and other README formats
    ASCII art
    .MID (midi music)
    .NZB (Usenet metadata)
    .RSS (and similar)

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