Double Take

26 June 2019

Since the early eons of the internet, wacky and wonderful curiosities have managed to weasel their way to the core of our online experience. For late teens and early twenty-somethings, viral phenomena like Rebecca Black’s nasal singing about days of the week, or Crazy Frog’s downright painful “ring ding ding daa baa”, seem ingrained into our collective memories. But today, with the online world more intertwined with our daily activities more than ever before, it feels like the one-hit wonder has gone missing.

Are random images and videos still able to permeate internet culture the way they used to five or ten years ago? 2019 has seen more memes than ever before, but they aren’t quite the same. While memes seem to cover an innumerable selection of topics, they have more similar than one might think. Academics taking this topic far more seriously than even I identify memes to have three key properties: intertextuality (memes usually reference other concepts or memes); indexicality (one element of a meme can be applied to many contexts); and templatability (a recognisable format for creating new memes). While often nonsensical by nature, memes are becoming an easy format for social and political discourse.

But it wasn’t always this way. To quote Tywin Lannister, a lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of sheepand neither does Salad Fingers. The viral sensations of the mid 2000s had an ability to permeate our culture without any need for political commentary or easily imitable structure.

There are a few reasons for this change. Previously, the internet’s greatest appeal was its ability to allow all of us to share the same content, but now it lies in its extremely niche communities. Mass hysteria online still exists, but it is contained to that specific group or fandoms while the rest of the internet simply observes without participating. Just take a look at K-pop, or the dozens of YouTube channels that deconstruct each frame of a movie or music video to millions of engaged “stans”. Today there is a greater depth of appreciation, but it comes at the loss of the global visibility of a decade ago.

There is still content that reaches us all, but these tend to be news stories of political disasters and international tragedies instead of the trivial and downright bizarre. We have so much (often negative) news taking up our mental bandwidth that we no longer want to engage with content outside of our specific interests.

And like most good things in the world, the concept of “going viral” has been hijacked by corporations trying to relate to the youth to increase margins. Spotify’s genuinely hilarious billboard campaign may be great contentand great marketingbut it seems to have dealt the final blow to the magic of viral content.

Maybe I’m wrong and jaded from years of internet use, nostalgic for a time when my browser was still a portal into a world of wonder, free from the woes of LinkedIn and Lecture Capture. Perhaps viral phenomena that takes the world by storm still exists today, but I’m just too old to see them the same way. Young kids latch onto fads and trends due to greater impressionability and the need for social approval, characteristics we have grown out of. But like each generation before them, today’s tweens have interests that everyone older loves to look down on. Maybe Tik Tok is today’s Crazy Frog and Fortnite is this generation’s Nintendogs. 

Growing up, I really enjoyed the shared online experience, to be a part of an era where you knew millions of others had the same emotional reaction to internet marvels. Who could forget their awe and infatuation at the first cute cat meme they saw, or the Charlie Bit My Finger videos, or urban legends, or links to shock sites that traumatised a generation of young internet users…

Actually, maybe I am very happy that the era of the viral video is over.

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