This is one of those posts that I’d probably be better off writing a thirty page paper on. Instead, I’ll over-simplify and under-explain!
The Internet is leaving behind a trail of destruction as it burns through each day’s newest fads and memes. Traditional mass media no longer serves as a standard of humor or a source, but as a supplement: Conan or Colbert are (technically speaking) nothing but thirty-minute Youtube sketches. Realistically, this is an exaggeration as these figures hold far more clout than your average Youtube sketch comedy. But for how long?
As these figures of cultural stability have declined in power and prominence, humor on the internet has become anonymous. Authorship for entertainment on the Internet is mostly disregarded. Nobody makes claim to having created the lolcat meme, nor does anyone seek ownership over any macros generated by this meme. It is its own entity that lives and dies regardless of the efforts of any single person or group. By contrast, a dip in popularity for Letterman’s show could be fixed simply by hiring new writers. Internet fads last only as long as they are fresh.
Take, for example, the Star Wars kid, or the Numa Numa guy. Released today, they would be lost in a sea of equally ridiculous Youtube videos and what’s more, no one would deem them even slightly entertaining. When they first went viral, however, they were immeasurably popular, and held universal appeal. Their landmark status and the associated nostalgia preserves some of that today, but strictly speaking they are not as amusing as they once were. Rickrolling, likewise, has lived and died in a matter of but two years. The humor of it was strangled simply by its popularization. Veterans of the internet were sick of it before it even reached the widest masses.
Nothing about the nature of humor has changed. A good joke is only good so long as no one’s heard it before. Humor relies on originality, upon being fresh. The Internet is a viral entity; it does nothing but communicate information from person to person as quickly as possible. It induces, if you will, a quick high with a very extensive hangover. The aforementioned anonymity also leaves us with fewer landmarks to think back to, meaning the videos and memes we laugh at today are simply being lost in the ever-expanding network of the tubes.
The problem worsens as this cycle of consumption quickens. In the space of five years, a whole new generation of consoles has lived and died. Multiple televisions shows and cartoons have been produced and canceled. Entire genres of music blossomed and wilted. Generation gaps have always existed, but I believe these gaps are not just widening, but becoming more frequent. Twenty years ago, there was already more media available for consumption than any single person could take in – and this was before the dawn of the Internet. Despite this immense growth of media, we’re also spending more time inside single pieces of entertainment, like World of Warcraft or Halo. The opportunity cost of a thousand hours in WoW is that much greater, when so much else is happening elsewhere.
Part of me sees this exponential growth of media, and despairs. The nature of consumption is such that once an item is consumed, it is no longer worth anything. If the Internet is merely a tool for consumption, the only possible outcome is quite grim: we’re eventually left with a giant mass of worthless one-hit-wonder media.
It would be ignorant to see the Internet as only that, however. It’s easy to look backwards and label any change from the norm as being unwelcome, especially when the Internet has created such a giant generation gap. Some have likened this void to what rock and roll did in the 70’s, but on a much more far-reaching scale. I can certainly attest to this gap – if my teachers, parents, or therapist are any indication, my generation is one that is not particularly well-understood outside of itself. I’ve tried to breach that gap with my parents, but I know they’ll never see my computer usage as anything more than just a passion or a hobby, rather than a way of life.
It sounds cliche and arrogant to call it a way of life, but what else could it be? My generation would be wholly different without the presence of this technology. It’s tempting to exchange ‘different’ with ‘better’, but we don’t know what things would look like otherwise. This is what we have, and despairing over change is worthless.
I recently discovered that much of PBS’ library has been put online, and in particular, its Frontline series of social documentaries. One in particular, Growing Up Online was pretty brilliant, and went through a wide array of examples for how the Internet impacts the lives of adolescents. It ended with the notion that it’s useless for parents to fear or fight the Internet, but that acceptance and understanding will get them much farther in their relationships with their children.
It’s hard for me not to be nihilistic about where the Internet is taking culture at large, but that feeling is silenced when I realize that I get to be a part of defining this century’s culture. That, ladies and gentlemen, is badass.