Random Things, Revisited

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I was kind of hoping last week’s 25 Random Things About Me spoof would be my last expenditure of mental energy on that life-sucking Facebook phenomenon. But then along came Slate with their epidemiological analysis of the 25 Random Things outbreak and I, being the sucker for semi-rigorous sub-Gladwellian pop-social-science-of-the-everyday that I am, found myself obliged to contemplate the damn thing some more. In particular, I was reminded that it’s de rigueur nowadays to think of things like 25 Random Things not as glorified fads and chain letters but as memes, with all the bioscientific conceptual baggage that entails. Whence I was led, in turn, to realize that my substitution of 25 random pop-song lyrics for 25 actual self-revelations was not, in fact, a passive-aggressive attempt to play nice with my tag-happy Facebook friends while at the same time still sort of being a smart-assed dick about it but, rather, an act of memetic engineering — an antiviral intervention aimed at slowing the original meme’s contagion by splicing in junk DNA.

Alas, the delusion was short-lived. What I’d found most interesting about Slate’s analysis was its tracking of the meme’s mutation through various numerical configurations — from 16 Random Things to 15, 17, 35, 100, and finally 25, at which point the meme, presumably having reached its evolutionarily optimal size, went viral. But as I watched my own re-engineered virus drift from host to host, I realized how little that particular variable really explained about the meme’s trajectory. My variant was a list of 25 things, too, but it was immediately obvious it would never spread fast enough to crowd out the original meme. In a way, of course, the problem remains one of simple math: While just about everybody has 25 little personal facts that maybe 25 personal acquaintances will have sufficient personal interest in to click through to and read, there are only so many Random-Things-ready pop-song lyrics to go around. More to the point, though: The key variables here aren’t essentially quantitative or even, strictly speaking, objective, but woven into the web of relationships and meanings that constitutes the life of cultures. And that’s not something you’re ultimately going to make sense of with tools built for understanding the origin of species.

In saying so I am echoing much of what the media scholar Henry Jenkins had to say on his own blog last week, in a long and lucid post that blasted “the idea of the meme and the media virus, of self-replicating ideas hidden in attractive, catchy content we are helpless to resist” as “a problematic way to understand cultural practices,” proposing instead to found the study of memes on the distinctly non-genetic principle that “that these materials travel through the web because they are meaningful to the people who spread them.”  I’m not sure I’ll be heeding Jenkins’s call to replace the term “viral media” with “spreadable media” (I’ll take something that sounds less like it goes on a bagel, thanks), but I’m otherwise down with the program. And whatever life-sucking Web phenomenon next enters my Facebook feed or my Twitter stream or my email inbox, I will try not to let my inevitable ambivalence about it tempt me to believe it’s anything but the most human sort of artifact there is: A token of our need to fashion meaning from a world of random things.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Steven Shaviro  •  Feb 17, 2009 @7:53 pm

    Though I largely agree with you and Jenkins, the one thing I like about the metaphor of “memes” and “viral” media is the way it suggests the William Burroughs idea of desires, beliefs, etc. that get implanted in us despite being utterly alien to us and manipulating us to our own detriment.

  2. juliandibbell  •  Feb 18, 2009 @9:40 am

    I like Burroughs on this too, if only because, again, I’ll still take “Language is a virus from outer space” over “Language is spreadable and made by humans, somewhat like Nutella.” But above all it’s the “outer space” part I like, because if I understand Burroughs’s version of the metaphor (and I suppose maybe Dawkins’s), the meme truly is “utterly alien” and self-implanting — not engineered by other humans and/or corporations to control our minds, as in the fantasies of marketers and the nightmares of Rushkoffs. So yes, web memes, like language, can be kind of perverse and counterproductive in their hold on our consciousness, though I suspect their perversity and counterproductivity are of a piece with our condition as social animals, and could probably be found at least incipiently in monkey troops. The ambivalence we feel about memes, in other words, is just a metastasized version of the ambivalence we feel about other people generally.

    All this to say, I guess, that I may be less of a humanist on this subject than Jenkins (you taught me well, Prof. Shaviro!). What he and I do share though, I think, is a pretty severe allergy to anyone — whether they are self-appointed arbiters of the social good or marketers on the make — who presumes to write off as mindless dupes the people who shape, spread, and wrest meaning from memes.

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