So benlehman wants me to talk about shared mythology, how it's created, how it works and what part of our lives it plays.
Ok, well, I'm not really that kind of Campbell style of thinker, but I'm stuck at home caring for my sick wife, so I'll give it a shot.
Ben gives some examples in the comments to his question and I'll further illustrate here to give some context.
It's a silly example, but here it is. When I was still in high school my gaming group consumed a huge amount of the same media. it was a smallish city without much to do, so we watched the same shows, passed around the same books and comics, and listened to a lot of the same music. We watched a whole hell of a lot of comedy on cable. We would tape it and play it for each other. Richard Lewis was a particular favorite of ours and there was this one bit he did about going to dinner with David Copperfield and how stressful that was for a neurotic guy like Lewis.
"Please stop doing magic. it's disturbing and I just want to eat my meal."
"Sure, ok, oh it seems your fork is in your ear."
"Really stop. I get it. Could we just talk about something normal? Have you seen the new exhibit at the aquarium?"
"Funny you should mention that. Oh, look! A squid! a squid pulled right out of my ass!"
For some reason we thought this bit was hilarious. It became an inside joke. Didn't have enough hands to carry everything? Hand something to the squid up your ass. Lost something? Maybe your squid had it.
Somewhere along the way it went from strange late night inside joke to a sort of mythology. There were rules to the squid. It could only hold ten things. If you didn't bring something important it was because the squid forgot. There were arguments about whether a squid could hold ten more squids, thus allowing the storage of one hundred objects. Real arguments with structured logic, point and counterpoint.
So how did a silly bit turned inside joke become a form of mythology so potent that we could have reasoned debates about it?
It seems to be a function of how long something imagined holds your attention. We're constantly hitting upon little ideas that say: Wouldn't it be interesting if cats could talk? Wouldn't it be funny if I had a cephalopod in my ass that could hold things for me? Wouldn't it be convenient if i could teleport? These are flights of fancy, pure whimsical creations that we muse over for a few seconds and let go of. Sometimes.
I think, however, that the longer we muse these ideas the more the rational part of our minds become involved. We apply rules and restrictions, address inconsistencies and problems, build models to test our theories, and we do it all inside our heads.
It's always amazing to me that we can use the rational parts of our brains to impose rules and order upon the absurdest of concepts. Fantastical fiction is all about this. Look at any fantasy world and you'll see ideas that are complete fantasy, but with a working structure built around them. "Magic is real,"says Jim Butcher "but there's a bewildering array of rules about how it works." "The dead walk the earth and hunger for human flesh," says George A. Romero "but a bullet to the brainpan will make them behave like normal copses again." We like these structures and constraints. htey give us fictional pathways to wander around in and explore. If only parselmouths can open the chamber of secrets, what if Ron learned enough parseltongue to open it? Would that work? Is it possible to learn something like Parseltongue? The longer you mull something like this over, the more of a myth it becomes, and this is regardless of whether you share it with anyone else or not. However a shared myth takes on a life of it's own.
The more people you share a myth/concept with, the more it grows. Conversation starts, questions are asked and people take the concept and muse off in other directions with it. Directions you never considered in the first place.
Take for example fanfic. I don't give a shit if you think it's a valid art form or not. These writers hook into a concept and muse about it. Whether they go far off the path or simply expand upon what's already there, it's a form of discussion and questioning. Fanfic communities are based upon these questions and conversations and often they take on a life of their own far and away from the source material. Often so far that the original creator has no idea about it and when they make a decision in their fiction that flies against the mythology created by these communities people become quite irate. they forget that it's not their concept, because they've made it their concept.
Here's another example. I go to Ambercon Northwest every year. It's a convention based around the Amber Diceless RPG, which is in turn based upon the Chronicles Of Amber novels by Roger Zelazny. There's always a lot of discussion about the characters and,since a lot of the games ask you to play these characters, how people play them. One of the things I've noticed is that there seems to be three levels of information about each character, book canon, game information, and play-culture mythology.
When someone says "Well, you know, i was playing Julian, so you know how that went." Does that mean they were playing the Julian glimpsed in the novels, the Julian as presented in the bios in the Amber game books, or the slightly sleazy sexy roguish romance novel character that he's become in certain segments of the ADRPG play-culture? Furthermore, which one is really Julian, one, or all of them, and who sitting at that table has the same thing in mind as anyone else? What often happens is that the person portraying Julian gives a few quick clues with action and deed and the rest of the players nod their heads and say "Oh, that Julian."
This is a great subject for the discussion of roleplaying games. As we sit at the table, the more engaged we are with the fictional elements of play, the more we create a mythos about what's going on in the game fiction. We start to ascribe life and breath to the characters and setting involved. We also start to impose restrictions upon what can and can't be in the game.
Ron Edwards call this the shared imaginary space. We create a fuzzy cloud of ideas between us and we use constraints and facts to give it sharp edges we can see. Everyone ultimately sees something different, but because of the shared constraints and rules, what we see isn't as drastically different as it could be. The best part about gaming, especially collaborative story gaming, is that we can lay these constraints down as we play.
For example, a game has goblins, which are described as short and ugly and damaged by the sun, but not much more, and there's no illustrations. Three characters are fighting some of these goblins in a dark abandoned house. One of the players takes a swing and misses, he describes his sword swiping over the goblin's head as it ducks and nearly hitting another character in the stomach, another player describes doing a single point of damage as his character punching the little guy in his warty yellow nose with the pommel of his sword, and yet another player describes doing a killing blow as tossing the hapless goblin out of the window where the sun petrifies it into a chalky yellow cracked statue.
think about what your mind envisioned as you read that paragraph, how short were the goblins before the sword sweep? Were they yellow and warty before the punch? What did the sun do to them before the poor bastard got tossed out the window? and now what are you thinking about? Are all goblins yellow and warty, or just that one? Does the sun do a variety of entertaining things to goblins?
Back in our example someone kicks open the shutters, and it kills two goblins unlucky enough to be where the sun's rays burst in. They petrify into those same chalky yellow statues.
Ah, now we know that's a thing goblins do, so if someone were to describe a goblin exploding into a disgusting bloody spray of blood and chunks when the sun hit him, we would question what was going on there. Was there something special about that goblin? Did the narrator get it wrong?
"Scott, what was that about it exploding? I thought the sun petrified goblins."
"It normally does, so there's something strange going on here."
"I think I'll use my magesight to see if there's something weird about the exploded goblin."
The rules we put on our mythology also, as you can see above, allow us to see exceptions as an avenue of interest and a possible place to create new additions to our mythology. The more thought and questoning we put to a muse the more substantial it becomes.
I'll end this by asking you to give me examples of where this breaks down and your thoughts as to why. When is there too much stricture and where is the violation of stricture unacceptable?
For example, are the sparkly daywalking vampires of Twilight worthy of the nerd rage they get, or should non-fans shrug their shoulders, realize that there's room in vampire fiction for new takes on vampirism, and get back to criticizing the book for it's bad writing and anti-feminist themes?