Weekend Reading : The Meme Generation
A hat tip to Andrew Sullivan who brought Matt Labash’s fabulous article The Meme Generation to my attention.* It’s one of those “Damn, I wish I’d written this!” kind articles, where Labash went to this year’s ROFL conference. (If you’re like me and you’ve never heard of the ROFL, it’s a convention where the people who are featured in viral videos gather, like the kid that complains that Charlie bit his finger, or the double rainbow guy. Basically, it’s like the Weezer Pork & Beans video, if the Weezer Pork & Beans video was a weekend in length and had a no-host bar.) If you have some extra time on the couch or hammock this weekend, I highly recommend it. It’s long for a web-article, coming in around 8,000 words. But it is fascinating, hilarious, and hammers home a point I often make to other new media champions:
You can only comment on recycled content in a finite circular universe for so long before you begin to lose all meaning.
For Labash this point is driven home by the meme-y world of mashups, photo captioning and the gajillion photos of cats on the internet. He sees these things not as a sign of a creative culture, but rather a culture that is OK with recycling crap over and over at the expense of creativity. While I suspect that he slightly oversteps, I see his point. I have similar feelings about the direction of journalism. The early promise was that the new media would provide millions of reporters and fact checkers, but it seems to me to have quickly devolved into a world where less and less value is placed on the expensive and tedious tasks of reporting the news, and more and more time is spent discussing what one pundit said about what another pundit said about this other thing this other pundit said.**
Here’s a quick snippet for your tasting pleasure:
I hang out with Tron Guy, aka Jay Maynard, from Fairmont, Minnesota. Maynard became Internet-famous for wearing an electroluminescent leotard modeled after the suit worn in the 1982 sci-fi filmTron. After photos were posted in an online forum that he “expected about 500 people to see,” he shot up the media food chain, pictures of his costume proliferating on sites like Slashdot. This resulted in juicier pop-culture plums, like making appearances on Jimmy Kimmel and being parodied on South Park.
Maynard has the same model of hockey helmet used in the original film. The rest of the costume, which lights up like a futuristic Christmas tree, he had custom-made at Renaissance Dancewear, a retailer where he used to buy tights for his Renaissance Fair costumes. He painted Kmart boat shoes to match. A swatch of Lycra on his chest is frayed where he errantly cut it. But he’s proud that eight years later, it still fits. “My weight’s been pretty constant,” he says. “But it stretches. As long as I don’t gain 30 pounds, I don’t think it makes any difference.”
It was difficult being famous at first. As anyone who spends time on the Internet knows, it’s an ugly, ruthless place, a snakepit where anonymity absolves people of responsibility, not to mention human decency. It’s a place that can bring out the inner troll even in your kindly, genteel grandmother. True, as the tech triumphalists often crow, everyone now has a voice. It’s become an article of faith that this is an advance we should all be grateful for. Yet about 50 percent of those voices, at any given moment, seem to want to say nothing more than, “You suck.”
At first, Maynard says, all his attention was troll-fueled: “It was, ‘Look at that guy in spandex!’ It wasn’t any fun.” But with the Kimmel appearances, he achieved a modicum of respect, even if he only ever made scale, moneywise. “They gave me the chance to talk about who I am.”
Who he is these days is an old meme, no easy fate to swallow. The folks at ROFLcon still love him like you love your eccentric uncle, but he doesn’t even rate a speaking slot. If you think regular fame is fleeting, Internet fame can move much faster, as the culture thrives on disposability, our overstimulated appetites for novelty now as boundless as our attention spans are short.
Maynard’s had a bad run lately. His computer consulting business dried up in the Great Recession. The Kimmel spots disappeared too, causing his agent to ditch him. An amateur pilot, Maynard had to give up his single-engine plane, and he’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Disney wanted nothing to do with him, promotions-wise, when Tron: Legacy premiered in 2010. And the capper: Maynard was banned from seeing the sequel at his local theater in costume, for fear the Tron suit’s lights would distract patrons.
He’s philosophical about what’s happened. When his visage first hit meme-spreading websites like Slashdot and Fark, “I learned a lesson from Star Wars Kid,” says Maynard. Star Wars Kid may be the most famous of all viral videos. A plus-size kid made a video of himself in a very intense light saber fight with an imaginary opponent, which unkind classmates uploaded without his consent, scarring him for life. The video is hilarious, of course. But imagine the most embarrassing thing you ever did as a 15-year-old. Now imagine a video of it getting 25,522,542 YouTube views, which is what Star Wars Kid’s video garnered. “There’s no getting rid of it,” Maynard continues. “You’re not going to be able to clean it off the Internet. So I’m sitting on a tiger. I have two choices. I can either jump off and hope he doesn’t turn around and eat me. Or I can grab his ears and enjoy the ride.”
But after riding the tiger, there’s a problem with his Internet fame, Maynard says: “What do I do with it? I’ve never really come up with a good answer to that. I really understand why movie stars get hooked on drugs. While you’re big, everybody wants to tell you how wonderful you are. Then all of a sudden, nobody wants to talk to you.” A young conference volunteer asks us to move. We’re blocking the registration line. I tell her to show some respect. This isn’t just any schmuck she’s dealing with. This is Tron Guy.
Pull it up on your reader, sit back and spend 20 or 30 minutes with this gem. You’ll be really glad you did.
*(Mind you, it appears that Sullivan had either misread or maybe not read the entire article, but still… plus an extra hat tip to him for being the one to post Labash’s pointing it out.)
** I’ve been thinking more and more about this subject, and as a result this weekend I intend to do one of the existentially scariest things I have ever done before. I have TIVOed the top three rated shows from both FOX and MSNBC, and in an effort to see what partisan cable TV is really bringing to the table will be watching all six (holy mother of God, six!) hours of the stuff and write about what I find. Pray for me.