A reader writes:
Matt Labash seems to believe that proliferation of Internet memes is some sort of cultural revolution. It isn't. People do it because they think it's funny. Have you ever heard someone say that a meme changed their life? No, because you look at them and move on. We're not talking about books or music or Monet here. So if a guy can make money off of captioned cat pictures with weird spelling, more power to him.
Another also responds to Labash's letter:
There are examples of Internet culture that are trite and derivate? Oh my. Some people focus more on traffic generation via aggregation than real content? Dearie me. Every generation's culture has Bouguereaus and Van Goghs, Andy Warhols and John Lennons. The derivative entertains, while the truly creative stimulates. What remix culture has taught us is that making derivative works can be a form of real originality, not that all derivative works are original. The Internet is, alternatively, hilarious, brilliant, thoughtful, vapid, disgusting, stupid, and boring. Railing against smart people making a quick buck by exploiting cultural trends is about as thoughtful or original as complaining about dishonest politicians or crooked car mechanics.
I dunno, I think Labash brings up a lot of salient points about the relative worth of adding text to a picture. I think he's spot on about some of the companies, like Cheezburger, who have institutionalized the practice to the point of stifling creativity. But I think he misses the forest for the trees though when it comes to the overall value of memes.
When Matt says he can crank out 25 Scumbag Steve memes in two minutes and they'd be worthless, he's probably right. The thing is, the value isn't in the Scumbag Steve memes; it's in the Scumbag Steve meme. The art is not in the iterations, at least not for the most part. The iterations establish the archetype, and the art is in boiling down popular sentiment or comedic potential or familiar paradigm into an avatar.
Friend Zone Fiona [seen right] is the crystalizing of a common relationship into a stock photo. Business Cat is a comedic idea to explore, gifted to the net as a shared intellectual exercise instead of exhausted by a single comedian before it is presented. Ultimately, that is the art of the Internet: resonance and participation. It produces a lot of crap, the same way attending an improv acting class does. But here and there, something happens, and when you zoom out and view the whole, you find that entire conventions have been created and you have crowdsourced art.
Have you ever seen the mosaics that are made up of many small pictures? Of course you have. There's a very nice Jean-Luc-Picard facepalm one out there I'm certain Matt is familiar with [seen at the top of this post]. That is Internet art both in metaphor and realization. A picture of an exasperated person palming their own face is a picture. Ten pictures is derivative crap. Ten thousand pictures is a new picture, and that picture is the art.
In the '70s and early '80s, Britain was similarly besieged by similarly woeful unemployment, and a large population of unemployment youngsters. The result? Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Young Ones. Someone besides me has to already have had this realization, but those comedy shows may have prefigured 21st century Internet comedy culture. They were surreal, trivial, ridiculous mash-ups of different media and themes. Irreverent, goofy, and without any pretense at all of appealing to or caring about "culture". They were also notable for their constant switching frames, storylines, settings – all very ADD – all very Internet.
Another circles back to the broader debate:
I'm a Boomer and I don't hate the Millennials. I admire their digital chops and their adaptability in a world they didn't expect. I wish they didn't hate me, because I had nothing to do with "pissing it all away," if indeed that has happened. The world is going through a rough economic patch, mostly owing to right-wing economic blunders and endless appetite for war.
News flash: this has happened before. I graduated college in 1973, when the expensive fiasco of Vietnam began to be felt in the economy, the same year the Arab oil embargo ushered in the famous decade of "stagflation." Job prospects were dismal. But the economy crawled back, and by the time I reached my peak earning years, I was able to succeed beyond my wildest dreams. If we can avoid a return to the past (the insanity of Hoover-esque austerity) and embrace the future (new forms of energy, investment in technology and infrastructure instead of war), Millennials may yet have a chance at the good life. I hope so.
The only thing more tiresome than Goldberg/Labash complaining about "kids these days" is 23-year-olds insisting that, trust them, they really are smarter than their parents. Just like your readers who blame the Boomers for climate change and the debt, boomers blamed the Greatest Generation for nuclear weapons and the war on drugs. And eventually, when the Boomers are grey-haired and wrinkly, we'll speak about them in awe while we credit them with civil rights and the sexual revolution. And eventually, when the Millennials get old enough to spawn a new breed of whatever, some of them will complain about all the weird shit those kids do.
Can we all just agree that every generation is equally awful?