Given the European origins of parkour, the first exposure to the discipline for the would-be American traceurs of the late 1990s and early 2000s came from the mass media and the Internet. Parkour's diffusion in America, therefore, is a superb example of Appadurai's (1993) concept of global ethnoscapes. “More persons throughout the world see their lives through the prisms of the possible lives offered by the mass media in all their forms. That fantasy is now a social practice; it enters, in a host of ways, into the fabrication of social lives for many people in many societies” (pp. 53–54). The role of fantasy is apparent in the recollections of Ando, one of Chicago's first traceurs. Ando's explanation of the Chicago parkour community's history—filled with references to the formation of local, national, and international connections (all mediated through different on-screen lives)—is worth quoting at some length.
Back when it first started getting popular in Britain, that's when we heard about it. [ … ] We saw it on TV. We saw Yamakasi on TV. [ … ] Yamakasi is one of the original French groups [ … ]. They had their own movie for parkour; it was born there. [ … ] It just looked like they were jumping and moving really uniquely. They’re jumping really high, moving really swiftly. It seemed kind of like they were super-human. We didn't know people could jump that high. We never thought of tic-tacs [i.e., jumping toward a wall and kicking off of it] getting you higher like that. They had everything down and coordinated. All the moves were really tight. We just watched all [the videos available on] Urban Freeflow [the premier English-language parkour site at the time]. We mimicked it. We went on the forums and talked to them. It was really helpful, but it was very unorganized back then. [ … There was] only Urban Freeflow. [There was a] French website [ … but] everyone spoke French. Barely anyone spoke English. [ … ] It was just very inspiring to see how they moved, to be able to move like them. [ … ] It was just fresh and new, and exciting to see something new like this. [ … ] We started going to Chicago [from the suburbs] and met up with [lots of different traceurs]. [We met] through the forums [on] Urban Free Flow. [ … ] In the beginning we had guys come out from Indiana, and eventually we met up with [ … ] all these other Michigan guys and then everyone from New York [ … ]. We started making a lot of connections nationally.
For Ando it was a British television show, broadcast in the United States, that provided a new prism of the possible for his life, and he was not alone. Inspired by their own mediated exposures, other people in Chicagoland were also looking to mimic what they saw. Further, they were able to transform their budding globalized imaginations into localized, real world experiences by utilizing the virtual community of Urban Freeflow. Urban Freeflow provided two essential functions. First, the website posted tutorial videos for performing parkour maneuvers (i.e., on-screen pedagogy). Second, it provided a forum for virtual interaction. Over the years, Urban Freeflow's influence waned as other websites appeared, but the same processes described by Ando are still just as essential to parkour.
Before moving on to how Chicagoland traceurs make use of on-screen pedagogy and virtual interactions in the contemporary realization of parkour, a few caveats must be explained. First, in comparison to Ando's discovery of the discipline in the early 2000s, parkour today is far more and far less global. It is more global because—mirroring the explanation provided by Ando—parkour has spread throughout the urbanized world. It is no longer a French or British import. The practices of parkour and the imaginations inspiring it now come from around the globe. It is less global because, unlike when Ando watched the Yamakasi, parkour is no longer something inherently foreign and distant for people in and around Chicago. A simple Google search will quickly direct interested individuals to the Chicago Parkour website—putting them in virtual contact with local traceurs. However, even in its most localized form, parkour in Chicagoland is integrated into the global ethnoscape of parkour. For example, two traceurs living in the same house posting things for each other online are also adding to and taking from the global flow of images, sounds, and words that define and refine the discipline.
Second, there are important and drastic changes brought about by the Internet and other ICTs. Regardless, it is essential to not get carried away in the descriptions of them. In recent years there has been a rather ridiculous tendency to ignore all the global diffusions of culture, ideas, and information that happened in the past and, thus, discuss the communications made possible by the Internet as something completely and utterly new (cf. Wellman 2004). Listening to the mainstream media's coverage of the Arab Spring, for example, one is left with the impression that before Facebook and Twitter the 1979 Revolution in Iran and the First Intifada must not have been possible.
Likewise, Ando's initial exposure to parkour is probably not that different from suburban youths in the 1960s discovering angst-ridden rock music over the radio or landlocked teenagers in the 1970s fantasizing about life on the California coast via subscriptions to Surfer magazine. What is different, though, is the degree to which virtually present (i.e., physical absent) others influence local practices (Castells 1996). Many neophytes train in parkour for sometime without ever meeting another traceur face-to-face. However, unlike in the past, this physical separation does not mean traceurs isolated in the real world are isolated in the virtual world. Many of these virtual interactions are taking place in real-time. Even questions posted to message boards allow for a call-and-response that is quantitatively and qualitatively different from writing a letter to the editor or calling into a radio show.4
Thus, what makes parkour an instructive activity for researching the real/virtual dialectic is not simply that parkour has been diffused across time and space. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about that. What makes parkour instructive is focusing on how ICTs are changing how we can interact with others and how those interactions are emplaced. Which is to say, physically absent others are increasingly able to be virtually present and it is the on-screen presence which increasingly influences off-screen practices (cf. Williams 2006). Nevertheless, and contrary to assumptions that lives are succumbing to the virtual world, parkour also highlights the continuing importance of the corporeal. Parkour is bringing people out into the real world, but this physical engagement is dependent on the virtual.
The Internet is crucial for the transmission of parkour knowledge. There is a wealth of information about parkour on the Internet. Like all social practices, parkour is continually evolving—new maneuvers are created and old ones fall out of favor, and the Internet is the means by which parkour's evolving practices are codified and explained. There are instructional books about parkour (e.g., Edwardes 2009), but none of the traceurs in my study owned or read them. For example, when I told Grant that I was planning to eventually write a book about parkour, he told me that a few them already existed. He then told me that he has never read any of them because ‘you can learn everything in them and more with 15 minutes on the Internet.’ Likewise, though nearly every traceur I talked with had watched at least segments of documentaries about parkour, only one person had purchased a physical DVD. As a recent phenomenon, therefore, parkour has matured with the Internet and more traditional mediums of knowledge transmission have been disregarded (e.g., Snyder 2006). In their place are web-based articles, blogs, forums, and YouTube.
Like Ando, very few traceurs in Chicagoland learned about parkour from someone already experienced with it. Instead, people discovered parkour through the screen. Occasionally, the medium was film, television, or a video game, but the ubiquitous answer to the question of “How did you learn about parkour?” was videos on YouTube. Cody, for example, told me, “[How I got into parkour] is actually kind of lame. I saw some videos of it online, and I was like, ‘Oh, that's cool.” Although Cody wished he had a less “lame” answer to my question, his response was highly representative:
I first found out about parkour just watching videos on YouTube and junk. “Oh, wow. They’re running, jumping, flipping. I enjoy watching this. I could probably do this if I put in the time.”–ZK
I watched it online, and I was like, “Cool, I’ll do it.”–Digs
If I had to nail it down [ … ] there's a video called “Russian Climber.” That's it. That's the video. [ … ] I saw it. “Oh, we should do that. It's pretty cool.”–Jaska
“Hey, look at this video of these crazy dudes jumping off of buildings.”“Oh, that's so cool. We should do that someday.”–Max
Far more important than the Internet's role in exposing would-be traceurs to the existence of parkour, though, is its function as an instructional tool. At the most basic level, traceurs used Google Maps to share information about various training spots throughout Chicagoland. Most notably, both neophytes and experienced traceurs regularly consulted how-to videos posted online. These YouTube tutorials often served as an introduction to proper parkour technique. Recounting his initial method of training Ryan explained, “I’d look up a new vault [on Urban Freeflow], I’d do it, and [ … ] like a true beginner I’d be like, ‘Okay I have this vault now’ and I’d go to the next one [ … ].” Max described a three part process of first seeing a movement in a sampler (i.e., a video edited for the purpose of showcasing a traceur's talent), asking someone to label particular movements, and then looking up tutorials for those movements. “At first I used samplers. ‘Oh, what's that trick?’ I’d YouTube it. Sometimes it helps because [ … it shows] an example [ … ] of the proper way to do it.”
A surprising aspect of on-screen pedagogy is that it occasionally supplants off-screen instructions during face-to-face interactions. This underscores how the Internet is routinely posited as the principal location for parkour knowledge.5 At jams I often heard experienced traceurs direct neophytes to Internet forums. Forums were held out as the place not only to meet other traceurs, but also the place to learn from them and get answers to their questions. This is notable because these inexperienced practitioners were there, interacting with experienced traceurs in the flesh, but these off-screen meetings were being used as a gateway to bolster on-screen communications in the future. Similarly, I overheard one skilled traceur—a person who frequently served as an instructor both at jams and in gymnastic gym training sessions—dismiss the value of face-to-face instruction altogether. ‘I know it sounds nerdy, but the best way to learn is from YouTube. That's how most of the people here learned. There's instructional video on how to do everything.’ The point here is not to assert that socialization in the real world is being marginalized, but to emphasize just how important on-screen pedagogy is to the perpetuation of parkour.
Internet forums are not only a place to learn things; they are also a place to interact. In this regard, sites like Urban Freeflow, American Parkour, Chicago Parkour, and many others function like numerous online communities. They are places to post questions, provide answers, as well as express thoughts and feelings. Further, like most young people, Chicagoland traceurs are on Facebook, and their experiences with parkour make up part of their online identity. To my knowledge, there is nothing particularly unique in the methods traceurs use to socialize online or the frequency and magnitude of these socializations (cf. Collins and Wellman 2010; Ito et al. 2010; Stern and Dillman, 2006; Turkle 2011). Nonetheless, their on-screen interactions are essential to understanding their lives off-screen. In particular, I want to focus on interactions that are doubly absent. That is, I want to focus on interactions that are with others who are both physically and cognitively absent from the interaction.
As we saw in the quotes above, most of the traceurs I met first found out about parkour through sensational video footage posted to YouTube. In their recollection of this first exposure, they insert themselves into the story. Which is to say, as they remember it, they were not passive observers. Instead, the videos ignited their own vision for what they could do and what they could be. These videos symbolically enter into their interactions with themselves and their friends (e.g., “I could probably do this” or “we should do that”). This is the very essence of Appadurai's global ethnoscapes—ideas and images from around the world become integrated into our aspirations and self-understandings. Even if these objects are incapable of interacting with us; we interact with them. And, we bring them into our other social interactions.
Traceurs, even those with no ambitions for corporate sponsorships and mass media attention, can post videos with the hope that they will serve to widen the prisms of the possible for others. As Ryan said, “I get inspired by videos.” In more detail, Strafe explained, “Before, I’d only seen the videos that were really good, and as a beginner [ … ], those would really discourage me [ … ]. But, I saw a [ … ] sampler [of] someone after their first year [ … ], and I realized there was an intermediate step. You didn't have to be that good right away. So, I thought, this is at least worth a try. That's how I got into.”
Further, when videos are posted online there is usually the ability to post comments about them. Ryan, for example, remarked about reactions to videos he has posted of himself, “Sometimes it's nice to hear people say, ‘Ryan, your training's been awesome lately.’ Sometimes I’ll post it, [ … and I’ll] get criticism, and it's like, ‘I hadn't thought about that [technique or movement] before.” Thus, videos not only serve as instructional tools, they become incorporated in symbolic interactions with the self and others.6
Beyond the instructional and sensational videos, there is also the philosophy of parkour. Like other alternative sports, parkour is not defined by competition and most practitioners are attracted to it precisely because it is different from mainstream sports (cf. Gilchrist and Wheaton 2011). To this end, the virtual world of parkour is filled with treaties on what parkour really is and what the practices really mean. In terms of the latter, there are countless variations on parkour being primarily a mental discipline. As a mental discipline, it is said that training in parkour should be transferable to other, nonphysical problems in life (e.g., romance, school, work, etc.). In terms of the former, there are numerous debates about the role of flips and other nonefficient techniques in parkour. As mentioned above, there is a difference between parkour and free running, but this difference is blurred in practice. In online forums and articles, however, there are often very bright lines separating them.
When Chicagoland traceurs talked about parkour—especially to outsiders (or a sociologist asking them formal interview questions)—they routinely brought forth allusions to parkour as a mental discipline and the importance of distinguishing it from free running. What is notable here is that these issues are generally quite foreign from actual practices of parkour during jams and training sessions. Among the people I studied, many were quite cynical about the idea that parkour's skills were transferable to other aspects of life. Jaska, for example, told me, “Parkour is not life.” In more detail, Ryan explained:
When I first started I was really into improving your capacity to move and your mental capacity of overcoming obstacles and how that can carry over into actual life. When, in reality, what I’ve experienced is, what you learn mentally in parkour doesn't really carry over into solving a math equation. [ … ] I don't know if I actually thought that, but I tried to convince myself.
In addition, though all the traceurs I met routinely ignored efficiency to perform flashier and more exciting movements, most still asserted the importance of distinguishing parkour and free running. Max, for example, told me, “I don't really like when people confuse [them].” Similarly, Phil explained, “There's parkour and there's free running. A lot of people confuse the two, and there's [ … ] an ongoing [debate about it]. [ … ] What ticks me off, though, is I see people with videos and they say, ‘I’m doing parkour,’ and then it's all flips. They’re flipping everywhere. I’m like, ‘No, that's not really parkour. You’re doing free running. It's a little bit different. Nice try, though.”
What these quotes underscore is how traceurs—locally situated—defer (at least partially) to absent others—the generalized other of the global parkour ethnoscape. Which is to say, as it is realized in real world practices, parkour is about enjoying the creative, risky, and skillful movements of the human body through environments built for other purposes. But because parkour is not simply a local phenomenon, traceurs grapple with fitting their actions and motivations into the virtual parkour canon they access in their lives on-screen. As such, when traceurs were asked to explain themselves in the etic situation of a formal interview they engaged in boundary work meant to ally themselves with a virtual presentation of parkour at odds with the practices found in Chicago. Thus, traceurs routinely referred to “people” who got irate about confusing parkour with free running, people who were upset over the organizing of parkour competitions, and people who felt that the discipline of parkour would improve other aspects of their lives. As best as I can tell, these were not people the traceurs had ever met. Such people were certainly not found among the experienced and respected members of Chicago's parkour community.