Monday, 11 October 2010

Memes on the Brain: a braindump

I wrote my undergrad dissertation on Snakes on a Plane. The movie. The movie with Samuel L Jackson, a plane, and a bunch of snakes.

(Incidentally, if anyone cares, I did my postgrad dissertation on the concept of 'ethical power' and the EU's neighbourhood policy. I wrote both dissertations in all seriousness.)

I was pre-warned by my undergrad supervisor that I was taking a risk with the subject matter.

For info, here's how it went, in ten summary steps:

1. Some movies and TV shows are classified as 'cult'.
2. Cult movies/TV shows can be made to be cult or are 'discovered' by fans as cult.
3. Cult fans are not just consumers, but can sometimes be involved in changing the text of their revered show/movie (usually a show with more than one instalment).
4. Cult fans are also productive, by making fanfiction, fan magazines, mash-up videos/songs, merchandise, spin-offs. etc.
5. Cult fans also create a 'shadow text' (a term coined by Matt Hills) by providing commentary on their favourite show/movie (again, usually a show with more than one instalment).
6. Fans are hierarchical - those who produce fanfiction, sell merchandise, or those who comment quickest and most often are alpha fans.
7. The increase in popular use of the internet makes it quicker and easier for fans to comment and be productive and hierarchical.
8. All of the above happened with Snakes on a Plane. Only it happened before the movie was released.
9. The movie was not very successful. Fan activity died down after the movie came out...
10. Therefore Snakes on a Plane was and is not a cult movie. It was an internet fad, exacerbated by the stupid name and premise of the movie, and also in the timely increase in popular use of the internet, and namely the creation of and popularisation of YouTube. Without those elements it would probably not have been an internet fad (or fad, stupid).

I see this happening more and more. And not just with movies, but anything that becomes an internet fad. Or meme. And how they spread across the internet is simply fascinating; Susan Blackmore touches on it here in her TED talk on memes and temes. It's all the more impressive when most of the colloquial terms on the internet are coined on the same site (which, incidentally, celebrated its 7th birthday recently), and then regurgitated on two more sites, that is, Facebook/Twitter.

An IT friend once described the expediency/timeframe of various social media platforms as such: blogging is slow, Tumblr is faster, Facebook is faster still, and Twitter is fastest, being almost instantaneous. YouTube fits somewhere in the middle.

Of course, not only does slang or movie hype travel quickly, but so does news and current affairs, which should be no surprise to anyone. With all these various platforms available to us, with grassroots commentary on news as it happens, we have instant 'shadow texts' on every facet of the outside world.

In Matt Hills' film theory, 'shadow texts' are interesting pieces of literature (for want of a better word) created by fan commentary, perpetuated by what is happening on screen, between episodes, and so on. In the UK, X Factor is one of the best examples of this happening, oh so easily tracked on Twitter whenever it broadcasts. In fact, finding 'shadow texts' is so much easier since the dawn of Twitter, but you find them on forums and Facebook and in fan magazines as well.

Additionally, we have important instances of grassroots commentary on current affairs, such as the famous 'Iranian Twitter Revolution', or the people who tweeted in real time as they attempted to vote in the UK general election only to discover, first, huge lines (sorry, queues), and then eventually that the doors were closed on them as 10pm struck and they were denied their vote.

In Mexico, 'social media' is getting through censorship, and the story of the 'narco-blogger' was seized upon by journalists as an important example of social media activism and reporting:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38684639/
http://www.observer.com/2010/media/journalists-silenced-mysterious-blogger-reports-mexico’s-drug-violence
http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2010/aug/17/press-freedom-mexico
http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/content/view/43152/

If you haven't already read Malcolm Gladwell's article about online activism (where have you been?), then it's certainly worth a thorough read.

It's been doing the rounds on Twitter and the like, along with a torrent of responses:
http://m.guardian.co.uk/?id=102202&story=http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/oct/02/malcolm-gladwell-social-networking-kashmir
http://www.markpack.org.uk/malcolm-gladwell-social-networking/?utm_source=wordtwit&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=wordtwit
http://changeobserver.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=19008
Are just a few of them...

This is an aside though, as I'm not talking necessarily about political activism here, although these are interesting and pertinent stories to follow and respond to and debate. The rapid spread of ideas and commentary certainly carries some of the same themes as online calls to activism, and indeed can work hand in hand, both in theory and in practice - does it make a difference if it's political or creative or pointless?

On Friday the Facebook movie, The Social Network, is released in the UK. This is fascinating to me simply because it's kind of meta: I wrote about how online social networking can affect a movie, and here's the ultimate movie affected by online social networking, because it's about its very inception on the modern internet.

Fellow tweeter and blogger Miss America made this comment that made me giggle:

@: Think they'll make a Twitter movie next? Imagine how confusing it'll be with 140 characters.

To which another fellow tweeter and blogger responded with this amazing precis for a Twitter movie, and whatdyaknow, somebody already made a trailer. All you need is Sam J, and you've a fully-fledged, unstoppable, round the world, instant internet meme with B-Movie to match. Get to it New Line Cinema! Let's see if this time round the power of the interwebz can get active enough to create a whole movie, rather than just add some extra lines of obscene dialogue.

But maybe that doesn't need to happen. Gladwell's article has sparked a number of debates, and one of those is about hierarchies on the internet. The internet is used by everyone for news and marketing. The story is no longer under control, whether it's a case of adding more snakes and the phrase "motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking plane" or telling the truth about drugs in Mexico or rebutting a large corporation's PR campaigns/disaster management skills, 'ordinary people' are responding quicker than ever and getting more exposure than ever.

It's not the case that it could only happen with the internet - we've already had comedy stand-up shows and improv and art and Soviet samizdats (which literally means 'self-published') and Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 group prior to the collapse of Communism. But there is a torrent of it, and it's constant, and it's global (almost - the point in Gladwell's article about Iran and lazy journos reading only english commentary comes to mind here, and firewalls restrict access to certain people, but the reach of a well constructed, well timed, well publicised tweet or blog or youtube video is far wider than a xeroxed samizdat). People are people, but the internet magnifies and accelerates these 'shadow texts'.

So when I think about Snakes on a Plane now, which in internet terms is ancient history (going by the speed of the spread of information, not the length of time the internet has existed - Confused.com ads would have us believe it was invented in 2001, not the 1970s), the length of fad and the variety were still impressive for such a daft movie. It had an end point though, when the movie came out, which I addressed in my original essay as the main failing of the movie's hype. (What if it had it never been released?! How long would the hype have been maintained? Does anyone still Rickroll? Would it be better if a Twitter movie was mooted and never came out?) I received a mediocre grade for my dissertation in the end, unsurprisingly, but I still stand by it as an interesting piece of work. A piece of work that could be built upon proper and probably has, though admittedly maybe not with Snakes on a Plane as a case study.

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