The Magazine

The Meme Generation

Hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your husband. The end is nigh.

Jun 4, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 36 • By MATT LABASH
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The New Dumbness, however, is by no means a slag of its curators’ intelligence. Far from it. These are some of the brightest, most articulate people you’ll ever meet. On balance, their IQ scores will smoke yours, or at least mine. But rarely in history have so many truly smart people applied their intelligence to something as dumb as aggregating and propagating LOLcats (cute online kitty pictures featuring captions of cats speaking in misspelled babytalk—“I can has cheezburger?” being the ur-example).

It’s enough to make bad reality-show producers look like MIT professors, and vice versa. And one could hardly be faulted for confusing the two. But can we really be surprised that enterprising academics consider online memes worthy of study? Academics often feel compelled to go where the action is. Now that a good chunk of the country is Tweeting, Facebooking, and Tumblring itself—an exhibit that never closes—people are now spending more time online than watching TV. Academics are just aping the rest of us, figuring as long as you have a high-speed connection, why leave the house and get smudged by the sticky stuff of the corporeal world?

On its candy-coated surface, ROFLcon is all fun and games. In the concession area, an attractive woman with a creamy British accent stands in a lab coat, offering passersby Pop Rocks and Coke. Her name is Holly Clarke, and she’s the head of social media science for Unruly Media, a company that tries to cause the ads of its clients—everyone from Old Spice to T-Mobile—to go viral. Or as the company’s website puts it in the language designed to reap big consulting fees: “to identify the brand & content advocates that start conversations .  .  . to deliver the desired brand engagement.” As a child of the seventies who is well-versed in the urban legend of the lethal combination of Pop Rocks and Coke, I ask Holly if it’s safe. “Don’t worry,” she says. “If not, you’ll just explode, we’ll film you, and put it on YouTube.”

Registrants receive complimentary fanny packs, jammed with all sorts of hipster goodies, from old-school Viewmasters to ROFLcondoms. The program is an elaborate 95-page Choose Your Own Adventure paperback. (Remember paperbacks? They’re so retro.) Choked with in-crowd cultural references, it contains everything from philosophical web-centric questions about the early years (“whatever happened to the Ate My Balls guy?”) to de rigueur Star Trek implorations like “set phasers for awesome.” (Always a pleaser with such a geeked-out crowd, “geek” being a term of self-description and never a pejorative.)

The program contains narratives and metanarratives, in-jokes and meta-in-jokes. One panel is even called “Metameme.” Meta is perhaps the most overused word at the conference, second only to meme. Which in meta-fashion is acknowledged in the program. In the introduction to the “Supercuts” panel, the ROFLcon program even holds out hope that the panelists will “strip every use of the word meme from the conference video stream (current count: a bajillion).” Supercuts are one of the favorite subgenres of the memesphere in which the supercutter might edit together in rapid succession every instance of the F-bomb getting dropped in The Big Lebowski, or every time some skeezer says “I’m not here to make friends” in a reality show.

Supercuts, you see, are meta-commentaries on our clichéd culture. Never mind that meme culture itself, which is still greatly dependent on remixing or remaking 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 Nyan Cat (a viral video containing an animated cat with a Pop-Tart body running to an annoying Japanese song whose sole lyric is “Nyanyanyanyanyanyan” droned endlessly). This gives birth to “Nyan Cat 10 Hours” (the same punishing 3-minute video looped for 10 hours). Which begets “Nyan Cat Smooth Jazz” (the same Pop-Tart cat, now in shades, running to a smooth jazz soundtrack for 14 minutes). This is not a brave new world of blinding innovation and artistic enlightenment. Rather, you’re looking at a mirror of a Xerox of a parrot inside an echo chamber.

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