I had been having a back-and-forth about global warming with a friend in Japan. Just on a lark, I sent a silly music video that was a remix of an infomercial . It is absurd and yet it’s hard to resist rewatching (“Stop having boring tuna!”).
My friend in Japan is a bit crazy, but he’s generally pretty tuned into American culture (he grew up in Houston). A few hours later, he replied by sending me another remix of the song; apparently not only had he already seen the video, but he had found a “better” version. I couldn’t believe it. This video was just a minor example of American pop culture, but apparently my friend saw it before I did.
A few years ago I used to take comfort in William Gibson’s thought that the future is already here; but it’s unevenly distributed. I would still receive the occasional email about Nieman-Marcus cookies or the Bill Gates chain mail for charity. It comforted me that people were stumbling upon these things for the first time while for other people like me, it was old hat. It made me feel so hip and avante-garde.
Nowadays, I am no longer so sure. An Albanian friend of mine watches Friends more religiously than I ever did. A Brazilian friend of mine had also watched every episode of Lost (I knew Lost was a worldwide phenomena; I just didn’t know that the level of obsession was to be found everywhere). A Ukrainian friend is telling me he has already seen the music video I sent him, and I tell him I had already seen the crazy stunt video he had sent me. I had been reading an obscure and erudite book on a provocative topic, and I find to my astonishment that my Albanian friend had been reading a pirated digital version of the exact same book! I thought I had found something unique and unknown when I discovered a wedding dance video and my family members told me they enjoyed watching it. That dance video was on CNN a day later; the same thing happened for the United Breaks Guitars song and several other minor Internet phenomena. Since when has CNN been so quick to identify cultural trends? (My glib answer would be: ever since the invention of Digg, Reddit and Google Hot Trends). Media outlets like CNN amplify certain aspects of pop culture (creating enough momentum for these trends to take off). Facebook has certainly added a new dimensi0n to everything. Now you see the memes which are infecting your friends, and you infect other friends with the same Meme. Assuming that your friends are interested in the same kinds of things, it now seems that you are sharing the same cultural signposts.
For a while, I thought Slashdot was driving the cultural memes in geek culture (and to a lesser extent, Metafilter). Then it was Digg and then it was BoingBoing (actually BoingBoing was always big and still is). Now it seems that the video clip sites are taking over (Collegehumor, blip.tv, etc) while certain political icons are also exerting a lot of influence (Andrew Sullivan, Matt Yglesias, Tyler Cowen). For a while, I stopped blogging about anything that appeared in Slashdot or BoingBoing. I just assumed that if it had appeared on BoingBoing, the world had already heard of it.
Is it possible that Internet memes transcend cultural and geographic boundaries? Obviously email and facebook allow URLs to be shared, and so it is theoretically possible. On the other hand, I would expect aspects of pop America to interest only Americans (and maybe only English-speaking countries). Yet that does not appear to be the case. On the other hand, this may simply reflect the fact that English still exerts a lot of influence over world culture; surely that is changing; pretty soon Philipinos or Brazilians will no longer be interested in our stupid music videos (and we will no longer be interested in theirs).
I really don’t think there is anything magical about the Internet memes I have described. The wedding dance video just isn’t that funny or clever. But it took off because people found it cute enough to share with friends. (One characteristic of an Internet meme is its harmlessness and inoffensiveness; if an Internet meme were offensive, it wouldn’t be shared as often). This criteria of inoffensiveness meshes perfectly with the criteria of mainstream media (which cannot risk offending its audience or advertisers). Even though Big Media amplifies certain aspects of pop culture, I doubt that they are wholly responsible for it.
Perhaps these cultural memes serve as social exchanges, and the ability to recognize these memes as potential social exchanges is hard-wired in our brains. Certain messages and jokes are shareable; certain ones are not, and the unconscious human brain is equipped to tell the difference. Perhaps cave man would have some synapse in their brain that fired at the sight of the Slap Chop video which would have prompted him to want to share it.
Semi-Related: This post was the inspiration for another one.
Post-script: “Lewis Black’s Law” (mentioned here) states even if you don’t seek out Internet sensations, they will come finding you, hounding you nonstop until the winds of the fad die down. I guess the opportunity to miss the Gangnam Style sensations is a rare privilege to be savored.
Post-script 2: There will soon come a time when people who stumble upon this blog entry (if it exists) will not recognize any of the references or names. At this point they will need to consult some archive of historical Internet memes (if they are motivated enough). A meme is bad enough when it is first born. Later though, it will be viewed as tiresome historical curiosities which perhaps can be co-opted by another meme which is newer and more ludicrous.