Monday, 3 June 2013

The Age Of Parrots - Epilogue (Or: A More Optimistic Note To End On)

"We seldom realise, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society."

- Alan Wilson Watts.

My Age of Parrots series was originally intended to have 3 parts, but when I got to the end of it I found that there were a few more interesting points that I'd been unable to get to. I didn't want to do a full "Part 4" for these points, because I think the other three covered all the major areas that I wanted to talk about. But I also didn't want to lose them. So this piece should serve as a kind of epilogue to the series, a bit of further reading as opposed to a chapter itself.

First a quick recap:
Part 1 - In which I looked at the term "Grammar Nazi" and how, even though it makes little sense, it has become a well known and accepted phrase. This is just one of many words and phrases that just get picked up in modern culture by people repeating them without giving any thought to what they are saying.

Part 2 - In which I looked at the Harlem Shake meme - in which people would upload videos of them dancing to a song in exactly the same fashion as millions of others. It's almost an attack on creativity the way that videos like this will become insanely popular, and get a ludicrous amount of views even though they present nothing new or interesting. People see something that they like, so they do that exact thing. And others still seem to like it.

Part 3 - In which I looked at the effects of all of this. How repeating memes and stupid phrases so much throughout popular culture means that we refuse to recognise something that doesn't include those things. They get forced in to places they don't belong, where they'll then be discussed with more passion and more detail than the thing they were forced in to.

It's interesting to me that a lot of people will not agree with the things that I've said in this series of essays. They might argue that copying things in the way that I've been complaining about is really just joining in. By talking the way others do they establish a shorthand, a connection between people. Why does it matter how they say things as long as everyone involved can understand? Similarly, by repeating memes, they're becoming part of something bigger and more exciting. They're joining in with other people. In cases like Harlem Shake they're getting friends and colleagues together to all do something silly as a group. It's harmless and fun, and what's wrong with that?

And it's hard to argue with that, because it would be like telling people that they're having fun wrong. It just seems ridiculous. But when you try and look at these things objectively it's hard not to wonder about them, and it's hard not to wonder about the effects of them. And there will always be people who see these things in different ways. People who will say and do stupid things to be part of a group, and people who will look at the group and not understand why they'd want to be part of it. And you can argue that it's all just fun, and that being included is better than sneering in from the outside. But when you come across a person who everyone is convinced is "just so funny" when all he does is shout Anchorman quotes at you, it's hard to be in the group that supports him.


Something I wanted to go in to in every part of the series, that I had to leave out each time because I always felt it would take too much attention away from the main thesis of the individual essays, is the argument that we've always been doing these things for as long as we've had a society. The English language is a mongrel bastardisation of several much older languages, that has developed massively over centuries of people picking and choosing the way they want to say and write things, and by copying the way other people do it. And the creative output of the modern world, at least in part is based around copying concepts as basic as the three act structure or the twelve bar blues. On the less positive side, you can't talk about people mindlessly copying the words and thoughts of others without your thoughts straying to religion and the effect that it's had over the world*.

My point is that maybe the Age of Parrots isn't a recent thing. Maybe it's not just something you come across on the internet, but something that has shaped the entirety of our cultural history. Maybe now that technology has enabled us to connect to each other, it becomes more noticeable. We may parrot to a greater extent, but we also get tired of it much more quickly. The part of this series that looked at the Harlem Shake, for example, is already dated because we - as a society - are already over that particular meme. Maybe we're not looking at the beginning of the Age of Parrots. Maybe we're not even looking at the continuation of the Age of Parrots. Maybe, now that we can see what's happening more clearly, now that we can understand the way these things play out, and now that we can actually get over these things in a matter of weeks, we are actually looking at the end of the Age of Parrots. An age that's been going on for as long as we have.

And that's a nice thought.

*Now might be a good moment to take a break from this and listen to John Lennon's "Imagine". 

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Age Of Parrots, Part 3 (Or: Why You Shouldn't Read Comments Sections).

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

"I've been imitated so well I've heard people copy my mistakes."

- Jimi Hendrix

There was a recent article on the BBC website about gap year volunteers, and whether they do more harm than good. It was an interesting article and the writer, Daniela Papi, clearly put a lot of work in to providing a strong, detailed case about a topic she cared about. What I found strange about the piece though was the headline: "Is 'Gap Yah' Volunteering A Bad Thing?"*. Just in case you were confused by the title, the website helpfully added a panel to the side of the article that explained the premise of the popular 2010 sketch, including an explanation of the central jokes - so you know why you're supposed to be laughing, even if you still don't quite get it. Apparently the BBC is now that annoying friend who always interrupts stories to tell you about a new Youtube clip that you have to watch as soon as you get a chance (because, oh my god, you have to see it, it's SO funny). Nowhere else in the article is it referred to as a gap "yah", and the article itself does not mention or refer to the gap yah sketch. So why is it presented this way in the headline?

It's common knowledge that journalists do not usually write headlines to their own articles - this is left to the copy editor or layout designer - and from the content and tone of the piece in question I do not expect that Papi would have used the term "Gap Yah" in her title, had she written it herself. So what's happened is that someone has actually decided that the best way to draw readers to this considered, serious piece of writing is with a reference to to a three year old comedy sketch. Is this really necessary? Do we need to know that an article will feature a familiar punchline before we'll click on it? Will we only read things if we think they have something to do with a funny video that we've seen before?

In this series I've tried to highlight ways in which people unthinkingly copy others - we change the way we speak to take on terms that others use, we find entertainment and creative satisfaction in making facsimiles of other peoples output - and given the trend a name. But now I want to look deeper. I want to look at the effects of this.

Because I found the titling of the aforementioned article so strange, I went to the comments section to see if anyone else had pointed it out**. The top comment was from a man named Richard Gledhill, who said "The problem is with any person whom pronounces it a 'Gap Yah' it really is as simple as that. A gap year is time out to travel between life stages. A Gap Yah is a time for pretentious pillocks to spend mummy and daddies inherited wealth." Richard Gledhill is a man with strong, and sometimes controversial, views on things like third generation inheritance and the correct usage of the word "whom", and feels that we should all be aware that as long as you don't talk like people in a comedy sketch, you can do what you like. Richard Gledhill also feels that reading more than the title of an article is not necessary before commenting on it.

Similarly - and I'm sorry if it seems like I'm always attacking people who say mean things about me but it fits nicely - some cowardly dimwit who didn't leave a name commented on the first article of this series to inform me that Nazi really meant fascist and that the rules of grammar were just a viewpoint held by a few people who try to force it on everyone else. Now not only is this person clearly an idiot for thinking either of these things, but also I think it was pretty clear that the point of the piece wasn't that I was confused about the existence of a punctuation holocaust. It was - well - the parrot thing.

Now neither of these internet comments involve copying other people, but each is part of the deeper problem. Both Richard Gledhill and Nameless Twerp publicly commented on an online article without at any point referencing the main thesis of the piece. Neither took the time to consider what the author was actually trying to say; what was more important to both was sharing their own pessimistic, reactionary views. And both of them defended the use of the terms they did reference. NT attempted to widen the definitions of the individual words in "Grammar Nazi" in order to protect the phrase's right to exist. And Richard Gledhill supports the usage of the phrase "Gap Yah", because it allows him to identify people he hates. Both of them cared this deeply about a pair of phrases that only came in to existence in the last decade. And of course the original copy editor of the BBC editor promoted the phrase in the title of the piece - despite its associations having nothing to do with the article it preceded.

This is where the Age of Parrots becomes dangerous. Not just for the people mindlessly copying everything, but for the people who exist in a world full of those copies. People become so used to seeing them everywhere they look that they don't recognise anything around them. Half the world are putting old covers on new books, while other half won't open the books because they don't like the covers.

The Age of Parrots affects everyone. It represses logical thought. It drowns creativity. And it forces the simplification of everything to it's lowest, most basic form.

*It appears that, since I started writing this piece, the BBC have changed the wording in the title to now say "Gap Year". I won't speculate on what made them change this, I'm just glad they decided to. Even if it makes my article look silly. The description of the sketch is still on there.

**It says something about the state of the internet when I feel that I have to make excuses for why I would read comments on a news website. Or maybe it just says something about me. It's hard to be sure.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Age Of Parrots, Part 2 (Or: Why I Hate The Internet)

Read Part 1 here

"It seems to me that more and more we've come to expect less and less from each other, and that's got to change."
Aaron Sorkin 

 In August 2010 I wrote an article on this blog called "The Mad Men Drinking Game". As an actual game it was as poorly thought out as it was terribly written, and was never a piece that I was particularly proud of. But just over a month ago I found out that someone had discovered my stupid drinking game while (presumably) searching the internet for Mad Men articles before the new season began, and had posted it to Reddit. Suddenly this silly little article that I wrote three years ago was being read and commented on by people on the internet. And they didn't all hate it!

The reason I'm telling you this is because at the time that was a huge thing for me. This was an article that I had completely forgotten existed that had been found by a stranger who enjoyed it enough to share it with other strangers, 83% (according to Reddits voting system) of whom considered reading it to be not a complete waste of time. 17 people commented on it and discussed it as if this was a real game that I had really invented with the intention of playing, and I wanted to meet and talk to and thank every one of them for treating this as something written by a real writer. This was really, genuinely exciting for me.

Now I'd like to show you this:

That's a Harlem Shake video. It's not the original. It's not even one of the first ten Harlem Shake videos made. It's probably not even one of the first hundred Harlem Shake videos made. It is just one of over 40,000 Harlem Shake videos that were uploaded in February 2013*. And it has 30 million views. Thirty Million. And it's not even the highest viewed. A Harlem Shake video made by the Norwegian army currently has EIGHTY-ONE-GODDAMN-HARLEM-SHAKING-MILLION VIEWS. For one video. And even that was not the original.

And I was excited about 17 comments.

How many individuals have had to watch this video how many times for it to reach 30 million views? How many times can one person watch this video without getting sick of it? And how many other Harlem Shake videos have the people who contributed to that figure already seen?

Making a Harlem Shake video is like going on stage at a comedy club open mic night to tell the same joke as the guy who was on before you, and expecting the audience to like you more because you did it while wearing a hat. And the guy before you was telling the same joke as the guy before him, but waving a golf club at the same time. And this has happened forty thousand times, with a joke that wasn't even that good to begin with.

A man dances while everyone else in the room ignores him, then the beat changes and we jump cut to the same shot, but now everyone's dancing in different ways with previously unseen props. OK the quick transition is kind of funny the first time, but it's essentially the same on every one of the Harlem Shake videos on Youtube. Yes, the location and the people involved are different, and there are variations on the props and wacky dances, but come on. It's the same joke. Forty thousand times.

All of those people. All of those forty thousand people with cameras and internet connections and Youtube accounts and the ability to round up enough friends and colleagues to participate in these things. What if all of those people had put just a little bit more thought in to what they were doing and decided to create something new? Something that wasn't just a direct copy of someone else's video? Something that wasn't a rip-off of someone else's joke? Why is it OK to put time and effort in to perfectly replicating something created by someone else, and why is it OK to watch and share all of those copies as if each is individually entertaining?

I've been focussing on the Harlem Shake, but this is true of all memes. Whether it's a sarcastic comment pasted over a picture of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, a club full of people doing the Gangnam style dance, or a Rage Guy cartoon - we're putting more effort in to copying someone else's ideas than creating anything ourselves.

What's more is that many of these don't acknowledge the original in any way. I didn't know which Harlem Shake was the first until I looked it up on Wikipedia. There was certainly nothing on Youtube that helped me find it. In fact there are quite a few different videos online that claim in their title to be the "Original Harlem Shake". Do you know who made the first Rage Guy cartoon? Do you know where the condescending Wonka, or the squinting Fry started? Do you know where the Chuck Norris facts came from? Maybe if you've lived on 4chan since 2003, but for most people these are just ubiquitous internet jokes to be adopted by anyone.

It's not just that the creators of these things are missing out by not having their name attached to each copy. I doubt "Filthy Frank" (who uploaded the first Harlem Shake) is complaining about the 40,000 variations of his video. It's the attitude of the consumer. We don't care who Filthy Frank is, we only care that people see the version that we made. Because you can be damn sure that every single person who made a follow up video shared it on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and anywhere else they could so that everyone they knew could see how funny they were. No-one made these just for the fun of making them. They made them so that they could get the same attention as everyone else, and each one feels entitled to the millions of page views that the others got, even though they've contributed nothing new to the joke. They want to be credited with doing something funny on the internet, but that doesn't mean they'd ever credit the guy they're stealing from.

I began this piece by talking about another blog post that I wrote in 2010. The reason for this isn't because I wish that piece had the same success as that Harlem Shake video, because I don't (I can't stress enough how stupid I think the piece is). It's because at least this is something I created. At least I put some thought and effort in to it. At least it's original. And when one person decides to share it, or seventeen people comment on it, then I can be happy that someone liked something I made. Not just something I copied from someone else.

The people who created the Harlem Shake deserve to feel great about their stupid video, because an unimaginable number of people loved it enough to even love cheap copies of it. But the people who made the video posted above? They don't deserve anything. They got 30 million views, and they didn't do a damn thing to earn it.

In the age of parrots an unoriginal work can be watched 30 million times. A video can be mimicked over 40,000 times in 10 days, with each copy being uploaded and shared online. And we fully expect to experience the same level of success as someone else by directly copying their work.

In the interest of sharing some original work, and because I now have a Harlem Shake video on my blog and feel terrible about that, here's a great video from BriTANicK that is far, far better and far, far funnier than the Harlem Shake and most other things.

In Part 3 I look at the ramifications of The Age of Parrots, and why we act this way.

*Over 40,000 Harlem Shake videos were uploaded between the 5th and the 15th February 2013 [source:]. At the time of writing, searches for "Harlem Shake" on Youtube show 8,240,000 results. Many of these, however, appear to be repostings and compilations of already-existing Harlem Shakes (which, if anything, strengthens my overall point). No information appears to be available at this time to determine how many individual Harlem Shake videos currently exist online.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Age of Parrots, Part 1 (Or: How To Insult All Your Friends In One Blog Post).

Carl: Homer, if it weren't for you, we'd be at the mercy of weekend philatelists.
Lenny: You know, why didn't you just say stamp collectors?
Carl: 'Cause I'm tired of dumbing myself down for you.
The Simpsons - The Little Girl Who Slept Too Little 

While planning an event in a recent Facebook message thread a friend of mine excused himself by writing "Sorry guys n gals Im in leed's"[sic]. Those of you who aren't illiterate should be groaning right now. Naturally I could not let the incredible stupidity of this apostrophe misuse slide (though I did let him off the "n", because sometimes three letter words are too much effort even for the best of us), and I pointed it out to him. For this I was called a Grammar Nazi.

Don't worry, this isn't going to be a long complaint about someone calling me names. And it's not going to be a thousand word exploration of the phrase "sticks and stones". The intent - though misplaced, and we'll come to that in a later post - doesn't bother me in that way, mostly because it's exactly the sort of response I was aiming for. I'm not going to pretend that I spent the rest of the message thread pointing out his grammatical mistakes and telling him that he should stop being wrong because I was trying to teach him a lesson or because I deeply cared about his mastery of the English Language. I was doing it because I knew it was annoying him and I knew he'd keep rising to it and, well, it was too funny to not do it.

But I'd like to look at the phrase "Grammar Nazi". A term that - to the best of my knowledge - originated on the internet* and has been picked up by web users to become a commonplace term for anyone who takes it upon themselves to point out spelling and grammar errors made by other people. The earliest definition on Urban Dictionary - as reliable a place as any for web-based phrases - comes from November 2002 and describes the Grammar Nazi as "someone who is addicted to the correct usage of the English language...". Since that time there have been thirty-one more definitions added to the term, because Urban Dictionary is ridiculous. Not one of those definitions explain what the word "Nazi" is doing there. There is no etymological information to let us know when "Nazi" became synonymous with "addicted to the correct usage of...". It is objectively a meaningless phrase and this is where my issue lies.

This is not an unusual case. As a society we adopt the language and terms of our peers, picking up colloquialisms and accents along the way. Now that the internet has increased the range of people we interact with every day by an incredible degree, terms and phrases such as this are picked up by more people at a quicker rate than ever before. Soon they become part of the daily lexicon of people who have never considered what they're actually saying. And phrases like "Grammar Nazi" become commonplace.

It shouldn't be unusual to consider the meanings behind these things. It shouldn't have to be pointed out to someone that a term they use on a daily basis doesn't actually make sense. And it especially shouldn't be common practice for someone to ignore the literal meaning of what they say and continue to use it in the same nonsensical way, regardless. The internet gives us new words and phrases every day. It's time to start thinking about them before using them.

Why is someone who corrects grammar a "Nazi"? Why is a night out "cheeky"? Why the person responsible for something you approve of a "lad"? Why is "fail" now a noun? And why, why, why does a picture or description of your dinner have to be followed with "omnomnom"**?

This is the age of parrots. And it will continue until we learn to think about what we're saying. 

In Part 2 I look at the way the age of parrots has affected our creative endeavours online, from original works to viral videos to memes.

*Feel free to let me know if I'm wrong about this. It would be interesting to see if the term was in use before the internet.
**This is something that especially needs to die. Mostly because of the image it conjures of the person who wrote it opening their mouth as wide as possible between chews as they spray their greasy, mushy food all over the table while inviting you to stare down their throat at whatever stayed in being digested in their swollen, flabby stomachs. Just...stop it.