Indirect Message

Episode 3: There's No "I" In Meme

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Hello, citizens of the internet. Welcome back to indirect message, a podcast about the cultural impact of the internet. I'm Laci Green. Thanks for joining me. Well, I don't have any housekeeping today, so let's dive in.

Chapter one: What Do You Meme?

Have you ever noticed how when we hop online or on the phone, we kind of start speaking a different language? The rules of spelling and grammar and punctuation tend to go out the window -- to the collective cringe of English teachers everywhere. On most platforms, communication is abbreviated given rise to hundreds of acronyms like AF, RN, and JFC. Here we speak the language of images, GIFs, short videos and hashtags. And then there are the memes. How would you describe a meme to someone who's never heard of them? I'll take a stab. A meme usually refers to text on an image, but it could also be a video, a tweet or a GIF.

[MEMES VIDEO]


Those who study memetics -- yes, there is a formal study of memes-- take things one step further. Memes aren't just any old image with text slapped on it, and it's not just a video that's gone viral either. A meme is an image that's gone viral that is then altered over and over and over again, so Amin can kind of be thought of like a literal virus. It's an infectious idea that spreads between our computer screens in our brains rather than infecting our bodies. They infect our culture, shaping it and transforming it every moment of every day. At least if you ask the scientists, the concept of the meme was first coined by a biologist, you may have heard of him, Dr. Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, the selfish gene.

 

 

[DAWKINS] I wanted to make the point that although the entire book had been based on genes, maybe we don't have to even go to other planets to find an alternative to DNA. Maybe there's something ready here on this planet, which is showing the signs of being kind of forerunner of a new sort of evolution, memes, cultural replicators, the cultural equivalent of a gene. The cultural equivalent of DNA, which is anything that's copied, anything that's imitated, anything that spreads around like a virus. It spreads around the culture. I whistle it. You hear it, hear it, whistle it. You go out in the street with somebody else, hears it, whistles it. Um, it spreads like a, like a virus and that's all you need in order to get natural selection going. I was, I call it a meme, so it doesn't exactly rhyme with gene, but it's some sort of result of shorten and sounds vaguely similar.

Laci:
So why do some meme spread across the world and others die immediately? Most memes have three essential elements. The first, it must be easy to copy.

[VIDEO]
My cousins, Matthew and max nominated me to do the ice bucket challenge. Here it goes.

Laci:
The second: when it spreads, it has to spread rapidly. And three, it must have staying power. If it doesn't survive through shares, it goes extinct. The vast majority of memes fall into this category. An example of a meme that clearly has all three of these elements is the be like bill mean. This meme taps into shared frustrations about how people behave on social media. It shows a stick figure sitting at the computer

 

Bill is on the internet. Bill sees something that offends him. Bill moves on. Bill is smart. Be like bill.

Laci:
The popularity of the original be like bill meme suggests that many people feel this way. Since then, the meme has seen thousands of mutations with many people offering their own passive aggressive criticisms of social media behavior.

Bill is on Facebook. Bill is vegan. Bill doesn't tell everybody about it. Bill is smart. Be like bill

The be like bill meme has since spread all over the world with be like Jose in Mexico, to Be like Rashid in Malaysia. Through the lens of biology, the question of why some memes become so popular starts to look a little less random. Successful names tend to have a low barrier to entry and speak to our collective conscience. They tap into a shared experience, a feeling or idea about the world. They might allow us to vent or to laugh with irony, satire or a wholesome dose of goofiness. While some memes like Pepe the frog have managed to find themselves at the center of a few controversies. I would argue that on the whole sharing memes is a pro social activity. It helps us connect over experiences that we might not otherwise have words for. It establishes a new bond between every person who likes or shares a particular meme and that my friends is a beautiful thing. Chapter two, the very first meeting, I was trying to remember the first meme I ever saw last night and while I can't be totally sure, I think it was when I first received a chain letter through email. Do you guys remember those?


Dear friends, please do not take this for a junk letter. Bill Gates, the sharing is fortunate for every person that you forward this email to Microsoft will pay you $245.

Ah yes. Good old bill Gates. Just giving out as money to randoms on the internet again, along with promises of money and fortune, some chain letters mutated promising, good luck. Others still threatened you with death if you didn't forward to 10 people before midnight. Then came the chain mail to protect you from chain mail.

This is the immunity dog you will protect you from "Your mother will die in her sleep tonight if you don't reply to this" and other likewise posts. Take good care of him. He's a good dog.

I have to confess you guys, I never shared these and I mean it's kind of a mystery house. So many of us who didn't share are still alive in true meme fashion chain mail actually didn't start with emails and it didn't end with them either. As a kid, I remember getting a letter, a snail mail letter, asking me to mail $5 with the promise of receiving $20 in return. These types of chain letters actually became so pervasive in the 90s that the us postal service ended up banning them. But look, these things can't be stopped. That bill Gates chain mail actually went viral again on Facebook as recently as last year, but what was the first meme in internet history? Some argue it was a cat picture or the smiley face that eventually mutated into an emoji, but there's another curious meme that mimetics experts and enthusiasts sometimes point to as the Internet's first Godwin's law. It's curious to me because Godwin's law is an idea, not an image. It's an idea about how we should engage with each other online. That is since crystallized and shaped discussions for 30 years. Godwin's law States that the longer an internet discussion goes on, the higher the probability that someone will compare someone or some thing to Hitler, at which point the discussion or thread is over. In 1990 Godwin wrote:

 

In countless Usenet newsgroups, I frequented the labeling of posters or their ideas as similar to Nazis or Hitler like was a recurrent in often predictable event. It was the kind of thing that made you wonder how had debates it ever occurred without having that handy rhetorical hammer.

As examples, he cited discussions about the second amendment or gun control advocates were warned that Hitler wanted to ban personal weapons too, or in debates about abortion. Pro lifers would accused pro choicers of mass murder worse than the Nazi death camps. Godwin found the Nazi meme frustrating. It was stifling honest debate within offensive trivialization of the Holocaust, so we set out to mutate the meme once again this time by planting a counter meme of sorts to criticize those who are derailing conversations after planting what's now called Godwin's law and his forums, Godwin writes of a notable drop in Nazi comparisons. Noticing the success he seems to have had a bit of an internal crisis. He writes:

If it's possible to generate effective counter means. Is there any moral imperative to do so when we see a bad or false mean go by, should we take pains to chase it with a counter meme? Do we have an obligation to improve our informational environment? This power to do good may also be a power to do ill. Anyone on the net has the power to affect stock prices or caused an international health panic.


I got to admit guys...reading this 30 years in the feature feels a little bit like reading it prophecy. He concludes that the solution to harmful memes is to craft counter memes like he did, to put things in perspective.

The time may have come to commit ourselves to mimetic engineering, crafting good means to drive out the bad ones.

Chapter three: Becoming a meme.

 

Next up, I sit down with a real life meme and one of the first major memes on YouTube. Mr Tay Zonday. We discussed what it was like to become a meme and the existential crises that can follow it. Before we begin, I wanted to give a shout out to sweet pea dating app. Yep. We made it official guys. Sweet pea is the official partner of indirect message and I got to say we're pretty compatible. Instead of building an app based on addictive algorithms that keep people swiping for hours, sweet peas focused on helping us build quality connections and have meaningful conversations. So by the time you go on your first date, it feels more like your third. Check it out for yourself by downloading sweet pea on the app store. Okay, let's hop on with Tay.

Tay:
You know, my mom listened to NPR every day when I was a child. As she would get ready in the morning, I'd hear Karl Cassell do they, it's national public radio news with Carl castle. And then I saw Karl castle on TV once and he didn't look anything like the person I had visualized.

Laci:
That's the weird thing about radio is you sort of, or audio in general, you sort of come up with this idea of what a person should look like in your mind. I feel like sometimes people are surprised by you actually.


Tay:
Well, no, that's it. That's a big part of, I don't know if I'd say my mystique, but at least how I came into public in the period of time when I think a lot of YouTube talent came into public attention, sort of as a novelty, as a circus is YouTube being this place where uh, the amazing and the unprecedented and the unusual and the strange to us kind of came together in this corner of the internet. And that's how YouTube made its disruption in 2006. 2007.

Laci:
So what was the experience like for you?

Tay:
Well, there's a question of like, how did I feel about it then I felt lost in the moment that it was blowing up in the moment that I was hot, so to speak. And you know, everyone wanted to contact me in three of the four major labels. One at the time wanted to sign me and there was this big hoopla. Um, firstly I didn't have a lot of breadcrumbs to follow because I couldn't look and say, Hey, what did Rebecca Black do? What did, uh, Antwan Dodson do? It was uncharted territory.

Laci:
Why do you think chocolate rain went so viral?

Tay:
I had a voice body mismatch, obviously. Uh, you know, people didn't expect to see this very young looking person. Uh, yeah, I joke that I look like Bruno Mars. I sound like Barry white and I move like Mr. Bean. Uh, people just didn't expect that combination. It is unexpected and I think, you know, obviously I wrote it as a political ballot about institutional racism, but I knew immediately as it was going viral that that is not how it was being received. That it was being received instead as, Hey, that's the catchy song that my two year old can't stop singing your bedtime.

Laci:
Yeah. You know, it hadn't really occurred to me that there might be a deeper meaning to chocolate. Right. Until I actually talked to you about it and you, you pointed out to me that it was about racism.


Tay:
Hey, you're one of those people in my comments. If he commented, you're like, when I was young, this just didn't mean anything to me. But now that I'm older,

Laci:
Guilty as charged. How do you feel about the fact that maybe most people didn't really absorb what you were trying to say?

Tay:
I kinda got into this mode where chocolate rain blew up and I wasn't sure it wasn't blowing up as a joke. Was it blowing up in a way that was serious? Uh, initially I chose not to be polemic about it. I chose not to seize it as sort of a Malcolm X moment or a moment to be a political activist because I felt like, uh, people who disagreed with the message of the song didn't necessarily know what the message in the song was. And if I started preaching that to them and they'd be like, well, I used to like it. I used to just be like, questioning, what's the meaning of chocolate rain? But now that you telling me, uh, you know, it's almost kinda like, um, I'm sure there were, you know, conservative Christians who are singing, uh, Michael Jackson's, uh, all I have to say is they don't really care about us as, you know, they're driving to church in their cars and their kids were bopping their heads to it and they weren't actually thinking, gosh, this is a song that is seriously critiquing my life and my role in contributing to criminal justice, a criminal injustice.


And so there was also kind of that question of what is my role as an artist? Uh, and I really struggled with that probably for about the first 10 years that chocolate rain wasn't released. I really avoided, um, claiming it.

Laci:
Have you thought about doing more advocacy or I guess talking more about it?

Tay:
NO because then it's like, then it feels like it's a liability, like, I don't know.

Laci;
What do you mean?

Tay:
I feel like it, it's dangerous. It's dangerous to be political, but then it's then like, does that, does that matter anymore? Like are all the old rules out the window? Lacey?

Laci:
I remember the ethos of YouTube when when chocolate rain went viral and all of these videos, the early viral videos are happening. And for me, like my content has always been somewhat political and I always remember feeling a little bit resentful that nobody would talk about it. Right? And now we're in this period where literally everyone is talking about it all the time....

Tay:
I don't know what my place is in that Laci. I don't know if I want to be a faction in that hunger games. I always want it to be the pied Piper that, that let everybody together that unified. Everybody I wanted to eat. The Brown rats, the green rats, the purple rats, the, you know, the upside down. Rats, the square rats, whatever type of rat you are. That's what I w that's always what I wanted to do. Um, you can still kind of do that with music. It can still exist in a space where two different people who might not like each other in real life and might not agree on very much in real life. We'll listen to the same song and they will love that song and believe that it speaks to them.

Laci:
You're so right. Music is the last, it's the last bastion of, of peace and safety, but I want to talk about you as, as Tay, as a person, as someone who went viral to an entire country, to the entire world, through your camera in a time where that wasn't really something that was happening to people.

Tay:
I remember when all the YouTube YouTubers started moving to LA, there were like 30 of us at the end of 2008 who had moved to LA and you bumped into another person and made money on YouTube. Was like, hello long lost alien brother. You are the chosen one. Just like me. Our families don't understand. Our friends and coworkers don't understand, but you I can talk to.

Laci:
It sounds like that was maybe a little bit lonely.

Tay:
Well, my life is lonely. I've just always been different. I've, I've always been alien. Lacy.

Laci:
Hmm. What do you mean by that?

Tay:
I just, I've, there's always been something that feels fundamentally different about me that causes my experience and the way I experienced the world to be different than a lot of other people. I think that's what I struggled with in doing improv comedy. I often found that in improvising comedy skits, the points of reference of everyday experiences that people kind of draw from. I've just, um, I've had pretty unique experiences.

Laci:
Do you think it messes you up?

Tay:
Ooh, I don't know. I think it messed me up. I think other memes and other people who've come into public attention handle it better than I did. I think I handled it poorly in so far as is not being smart about my business and being able to separate the needs of the business from my loneliness and my personal desires as a person.

Laci:
I don't know. I think you're being a little hard on yourself because you're kind of talking about the commodification of who you are and that's part of what the internet does so well and what the internet does so horribly. Uh, particularly with regard to memes, right? It turns these bizarre, fun, quirky, weird sort of shooting stars in this giant digital space into major cash cows. Um, I think there's something to humanizing,

Tay:
Gosh, I wish I was a major cash cow.

Laci:
Is that your biggest regret? That it wasn't a good business decision?

Tay:
Um, I think as I get older and the question legitimately question, uh, crosses my mind of how do I support myself into old age and yeah, not end up in poverty and old and alone and just without any success or, or worse, I think I think about that more. Maybe you, you do have this critique. It's probably accurate that I'm being hard on myself as it's almost like I feel like I still haven't done fame, right. Lazy. I feel like time went by and I drifted off into kind of being this old man, this senior meme, this uh, this old dude in the college internet bar and I'm still wanting to do my first time. Right.

Laci:
Do you think that becoming internet famous effected your identity in some way? Like how did it affect your life?

Tay:
Something I often say in interviews is that before public attention, I could sing lovely on the street or sing loudly in my apartment and after fame I went from being some guy to being that guy, the chocolate rain guy who's singing on the street there. And so I lost a certain sense of anonymity. And I think the fact that I've always felt a little bit off, a little bit awkward, a little bit different from everybody my entire life created a situation where one of my childhood dreams and one of my lasting life desires was just to be able to feel normal.

Laci:
I think there was a period in my YouTubing where I started to see myself filtered through, you know, how other people see me or filter it through my YouTube persona of late seed green.

Tay:
Oh my gosh, yes.

Laci:
And there's like this identity crisis that happens, right? Like who am I? Like everyone sees me as this person and everyone sees me through this lens, but I'm actually this and I'm that and you know, whatever it might be, people kind of decide who you are for you. And I think that's an incredibly dehumanizing feeling that can leave people feeling lost and is one of the more difficult struggles of, of going viral. How do you maintain your sense of autonomy, your sense of agency and independence and clarity about who you are when there are millions of people telling you? Yeah.

Tay:
Yeah. I think it helps to ground yourself in real relationships with actual people who kind of form a support network. I think my biggest fear also is someone who meets me in real life, having liked some of my content or with this perception of who I am that they like. And then they hang out with me and they actually get to know the real me and I'm like, wait, I, I'm sorry. I don't live up to that.

Laci:
Like there's some kind of expectation that's been created that you cannot live up.

Tay:
Yeah, I dunno. I guess it's like, I feel like that's the case with any child that idol though, or any idol of yours. Like, you know, Brent Spiner who plays Lieutenant commander data's an idol of mine. Uh, I grew up watching it really all this star Trek, the next generation actors. I think that if I was stuck in an elevator with Patrick Stewart or Brent Spiner for four or five days, you know, maybe I'd be sick of them after that four or five days and I didn't kind of want, I'd kind of, what my own space, I don't know.

Laci:
I don't know if there's anyone that I could be stuck in an elevator with for that long and still like!

Tay:
well, that's the point then like, so we're all fundamentally unlikable to some extent. Am I in this anxiety where I'm trying to hide the parts of me that are fundamentally unlikable as long as possible.

Laci:
I mean that that's always been a dynamic in human relationships is the need to be accepted, to feel a sense of belonging. Um, do you think that the internet is, does it making it worse, more exaggerated, more erratic?

Tay:
Here's what I feel. I feel like the silent majority of human beings do not see themselves as influencers or celebrities or someone who has big social media numbers and they're kind of trying to figure out where they fit in a, that is dominated by those things. If you're a doctor, well, you better build a social media following about, you know, your medical opinions. If your a gardener, you better build a social media following about your gardening business and have a fan page and reach out and develop clients that way. Whatever you're doing, it seems like there are fewer and fewer safe islands. We're all kind of pushed into being social media brands. If we want to a raise our level of success, uh, level of importance, so to speak.

Laci:
Well said. My dude. Um, before we wrap it up, I gotta ask what is your favorite meme?

Tay:
I really struggle with favorite. It's like my confessing that my favorite pizza topping is pineapple, which is a very controversial thing. Uh, I think Andrew Vaughn's made, uh, pink fluffy unicorns dancing on rainbows. I always love that song. That's among the memes that I like. Pink, fluffy unicorns dancing on rainbows.

Laci:
Well, that's about as non-controversial as one can get, I would say.

Tay:
Yeah. But then like, is my life held back by the fact that I play it so safe?

Laci:
Hm. You tell me.

 

On the next episode of indirect message.

 

"I don't come from a perspective on free speech that's like, Oh, you know, I don't like what you have to say, but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it. Like I will absolutely not fight to the death for Nazi speech. What I do believe is that authority really can't be trusted on these things and we've never seen a form of censorship that solves a societal problem."

 

We discussed the absolute minefield of freedom of speech online. Ooh, this is bound to be a juicy one. Thanks so much for joining the conversation, guys. I'll be back October 16.