Saturday, September 08, 2007

Boom Goes Miss Teen South Carolina: Why Internet Memes Attain Prominence

If I ever have the time or inclination to write a book, I might be interested in researching the history of Internet memes, also known as Internet phenomena or viral phenomena. I'd be interested to learn if there is a common thread that connects those images and videos that have "gone viral." Most dauntingly, I'd like to try to discern if there is a formula for becoming a phenomenon. From a very cursory analysis, I'd say that if there is a formula, it might be found in the intersection between the concepts of failure and bathetic self-promotion. In other words, we like to see people who try to puff them self up make fools of themselves.

Consider the case of the Boom Goes the Dynamite guy. There is a whole genre of youtube clips of TV anchor meltdowns, with this one being the most spectacular failure. Applying a McLarenesque reading to this phenomena, I think it can be argued that the TV screen (in ways the computer screen hasn't yet) automatically creates a hierarchical dynamic, with the mere presence of a figure on screen assuming a position of superiority (if that is not the case, how to explain the people outside the windows of the Today show?) . Consequently, it is satisfying to see such a figure stumble and sometimes burst into flames, assuring us that they are no better than we are. But what of the Boom Goes the Dynamite guy, who is obviously not a professional TV figure? Wouldn't we be more sympathetic to him? I maintain that this clip would never have become the phenomenon it did, if not for the injection of his eponymous phrase. By trying to emulate the Sports Center anchor with his catchphrase, he aspired to more than he deserved, and a Greek sense, was punished.

This moves into the province of William Hung territory, of course. The concept of the American Idol wannabe is fast becoming a contemporary archetype. Many of these have become viral phenomena, and disturbingly, there seems to be a racial component to many of them. Foreigners, minorities, and curiously, children, seem to make up the majority of meme subjects. Is the dominant culture bringing attention to what might happen to those who don't know their place, by substituting ridicule for violence? The classic example of punishing a subject for hubris would be the "Impossible is Nothing" video resume (again targeting a foreigner).

Speaking of Greek philosophy, there is something cathartic about most Internet memes. In the pre-Internet days, I remember a couple of general interest magazines that would carry a regular feature called "My embarrassing moment." With this new medium, we have found a way to circulate the actual embarrassing moments for our cathartic needs.

The most recent example is the Miss Teen South Carolina contestant. This 45 second clip has all the components discussed so far. We've got a reinforced stereotype, as viewers can be content that the blond cheerleader is really as dumb as we've always hoped, and we don't need to be insecure if we can't be her or date her. We've got a contestant for a crown exposed as a sham (come to think of it, mocking royalty in entertainment goes all the way back to Moliere, if not before).

But what struck me the most about this clip was the cathartic potential, as we see a bare naked stream of consciousness unfold before our eyes. It is a dizzying inchoate collection of words and ideas, but it unfolds slowly enough that we can actually see the tenuous connections and the free associations. Much as we disguise it, and we're so well practiced that we are able to repress it, this is the substance of our thoughts. Underneath the veneer of coherence, our minds are a frightening stew of words, pictures, and associations. On some levels, it is a relief to see this exposed.

Lost in all of this is that she got a really tough question. I might be able to fashion a theory for what makes an Internet meme, but I'm still struggling with why 20% of people apparently can't find the U.S. on a world map.


Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

No offense, but not many people from the US that I know of are that great at geography. I was watching Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader, and in the category of first grade geography, the question was "Which country is north of the US?" She had to ask a 10 year old for help.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

And then there's the guy who thought Saskatchewan was in Russia.

12:49 PM  

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