Memes. supercuts and meta-memes:
Junk culture, or Shakespeare?
The Last Word - The Week
They are little more than video clips that have gone viral online - but "memes" are considered so culturally significant, and so commercially lucrative, that they have a biennial university conference dedicated to them. Matt Labash investigates....
It's been two decades since I graduated form college, and I'm glad to be back, walking the halls of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Not that I went to MFI - I couldn't have got in on a bribe. I have not come to further my education, I have come to meet the future, as embodied by the 850 cutting edge types here for two days in May. They are the stars of You Tube videos that went viral, and others who've become online "memes" , execs from the likes of Google, ad mavens and TV producers looking to cash in on the memefication of the west , along with the geeks and academics who celebrate and study memes.
This is the third biennial ROFL conference, And for those few of you remaining who prefer English to the web jargon that is fast supplanting it ROFL means "rolling on the floor laughing" (ROLF is not to be confused with the many other permutations of online mirth such as lol, lulz, lulwut, ROFLcopter, and trollololol, the distinctions of which I'll skip explaining to you in the interest of keeping us both awake.) If in this article I sound like I'm implying that a New Dumbness has dawned, an era in which disposal internet culture as er know it- at light speed- I'm implying no such thing. Rather, I'm stating it outright. The people here are some of the brightest people you'll ever meet. But rarely in history have so many smart people applied their intelligence to something as dumb as aggregating and propagating LOLcars (cute kitty pictures with captions in misspelled baby talk - "I can has cheezburger?" being the ur-example).
Speakers and sponsors come from places such as the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University, which harvests vast aaarchies of research titles such as Salience vs. Commitment: Dynamics of Political Hastags in Russian Twitter. Or there's Kate Miltner, who has a master's degree from the London School of Economics. She is one of two academics at the conference who specialise in LOLcats, the other being a linguist from Louisiana State University whose aster's thesis is titled: I Can Has Thesis? A Linguistic Anaysis of LOLspeak.
The ROFLcon programme is a 95 page Choose Your Own Adventure paperback. (Remember paperbacks?) Choked with in-crowd cultural references, it contains everything from philosophical questions about the early years ("whatever happened to the Are My Balls guy?") to de rigueur Star Trek implorations like "set phasers for awesome". There are narratives and metanarratives, in-jokes and meta-in-jokes. One panel is called "Metameme". Second to meme, Meta is the most overused word here. Which in meta - fashion is acknowledged in the introduction to the "Supercuts" panel, which urges the panellists to "strip every use of the word meme from the video stream (current count: a bajilliion)."
Supercuts are a subgenre of the memesphere in which the supercutter might edit together every insistence of the F-word in The Big Lebowski, or every time someone says "I'm not here to make friends " in a reality show. They are meta-commentaries on our clichéd culture. Never mind that meme culture itself, which is still greatly dependent on remixing non-internet -generated material from old-school media dinosaurs, when not copycatting its own memes, is probably the worst cliché of all. Take an ultra-popular meme like Nayan Cat (a viral video of an animated cat running to a song whose sole lyric is "Nyanyanyanyanyan"). This gave birth to Nyan Cat Ten Hours (the same punishing video looped for ten hours). Which begets Nyan Cat Smooth Jazz (the same cat, now in shades, running to a smooth jazz soundtrack).
This is not a brave new world of innovation and enlightenment. As the virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier once put it , online culture has "entered into a nostalgic malaise... dominated by trivial mashups. It is a culture of reaction without action." Lanier adds, "People will accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other form."
By this time, many of you are probably asking yourselves: what the hell is a meme? Good question. I have always detested the word, and not just because it was coined by Richard Dawkins, though that helps. The concept originated in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins was on the hunt for a monosyllable that rhymed with "gene", and borrowed from the Greek word "mimema" (something imitated). The dictionary defines a meme as "an idea, behaviour, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture ". In the olden days, that was called "word of mouth" - too easy for Dawkins. As followers of the world's most insistent atheist know, he never hesitates to lend his scientific authority to that which goes beyond ethology and evolutionary biology, his fields of expertise. In the case of memes, Dawkins took this generic concept and spit -polished it to a scientific shine, insisting memes are discrete units that contain our cultural DNA and that seek to replicate themselves, like genes. Philosopher Mary Midgley dismisses meme theory as " a pretentious way of stating the obvious".
Meme is now a catch-all for popular internet content, especially jokes. Some sceptics don't find it so amusing. Cracked.com recently complained, "Instead of going to all the trouble of humour, everyone just agrees on what's funny and repeats it." But evangelists wheel out heavy artillery to defend cat pictures. Recently, I was listening to a radio show about memes, Christina Xu who works at the MIT Centre for Civic Media, was asked: "Is this building up our culture, or is this just a funny picture?" Her answer: "I would argue there's no distinction between the two. If you look back, how many of Shakespeare's plays involved just, like, jokes about flushing toilets essentially, right?"
Yes, her host replied, "But they were that and more" "They were that and more," agreed Xu. "And I would argue that internet memes are that and more. There are a good number that are just not very meaningful and ways to pass the time. But there's also some that I think will go down in history and I think are a way for people to express themselves about what's happening at the moment in a very powerful way." She cited the Texts from Hillary meme (fake texts from Clinton) as an example to my party? it's my birthday ..." Hilla ry interrupts: "yo, colin. i'm really happy 4 u. imma let u finish, but i am 1 of the best secretaries of state of all time." It's pretty heady stuff, living in this world of Web 2.0 ideas.
While I've been admittedly hard on the memeverse, one of the enjoyable aspects of attending ROFLcon is meeting the "talent", the viral video stars who populate the panels. Most of them seem slightly disoriented, accidental tourists on the fame train who have gone from anonymous to universally known overnight. They may have racked up 100 million YouTube views, but like so many in the digital culture, they often have no idea how to monetise it.
I hang out with Tron Guy , aka Jay Maynard, from Minnesota. Maynard became famous for wearing a luminescent leotard modelled after the suit worn in the 1982 sci-fi film Tron. This resulted in juicier pop-culture plums, like being parodied on South Park. But he's not so in demand now. "I understand why movie stars get hooked on drugs," he says. "While you're big, everyone wants to tell you how wonderful you are. Then all of a sudden, nobody wants to talk to you." Later, I meet Charlie Schmidt. He is the originator of Keyboard Cat, which is a video of his late cat playing a keyboard in a T-shirt (YouTude views: 25,271,864). Charlie has fared better than Tron Guy. Since his dead cat hit the big time, he's flown all over the world. He's licensed the footage for TV. His new cat plays a key board in a nut commercial.
Charlie differentiates himself from the other viral stars. Most do. They all like to believe they're special, that their fame is a reflection of their creativity and individuality. "Many of these guys are insurance salesmen, and their kid falls in a bucket of poop, and the camera was running. It's different for me". But he admits that going viral can spoil you. "It's like when guys go to the Moon. They can't come back and sell insurance. Most go nuts and drink." What does all of this add up to? What does it mean that a grown man can pull down a six-figure annual income making piano-playing-cat videos in the US in the middle of a recession? "It means that people are nuts," shrugs Charlie.
Matt Harding of Where the Hell is Matt? fame (in which Harding dances like an idiot in locations throughout the world - YouTube views: 43,413,218), complains that the internet is losing its individuality, that it's getting corporatised. It's the eternal complaint of hipster subcultures: "It was great as ling as it was just us, then they ruined it." But he is right. And it's not just the aggregators - the Huffington Posts of the memesphere. Even TV types are smelling where the action is. The guys from Eyegoogie, Inc. are here on behalf of their new YouTube channel, PopSpot. They are now going to be captioning viral videos with behind the scenes fact and interesting asides. It's a way of hovering up the traffic of those who have already created viral brand awareness.
But it's not all filthy commerce. If there's one meme who seems to be on a spiritual journey, it is Double Rainbow Guy, aka Bear Vaswuez. Unless you're Amish, you've probably seen his video. Bear, who lives in a trailer on a mountain outside Yosemite, saw a double rainbow, and started filming. While his face never appears, he talks to himself in a series of "oohs" and "ahhs" and exclamations. There is squealing. There is crying (YouTube hits:34,458,444). Bear is the star of his panel. He makes the crowd laugh when he insists he wasn't high when spotting the double rainbow, though he was during an earlier effort - Single Rainbow . Bear is not only being watched by the crowd. A habitual YouTube uploader, he is watching them with two cameras of his own - one handheld, one on a tripod. The meme, while the whole thing is filmed by PopSpot. Mega-meta.
He admits that the success of Double Rainbow has changed him: he no longer experiences things in order to experience them. He experiences them thinking about how other people are going to see him experience them. "When I shot Double Rainbow I was completely by myself and didn't have any expectation of anyone seeing it. Now, that ability to capture the perfect moment is gone. The perfect moment is not there any more, because I'm not by myself. Everyone is watching."
This is an edited extract of an article that first appeared in The Weekly Standard (Washington).
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