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.