Book excerpt: The Age of the Remix
|May 7, 2012||Posted by Sophy Bot under Internet culture|
It’s fun to find something cool on the internet.
It’s even more fun to share it with somebody else.
Such is the ethos behind the wildly popular Reddit community, a social news website where eight million active users[i] submit content and vote it up or down in popularity and site ranking. With over 111,000 topical “subreddits”[ii] and a voting-based comment system that encourages witty and relevant conversation, Reddit has drawn a fiercely devoted user base known for both its individual and group participation. The voting system that underlies Reddit encourages users to contribute their own comments and iterations of popular jokes and memes, rewarding those that make it to the top with thousands of views and a not insignificant amount of praise. The same system downvotes content that is facetious, disingenuous or malicious, keeping hooligans at bay and making it clear that such behavior will not be tolerated. Though individual participation is highly encouraged and rewarded, the Reddit community also has a keen sense of when it’s time to band together as a group. Whether it’s raising $70,000 overnight for a troubled orphanage in Kenya,[iii] organizing a 40,000 participant-strong Secret Santa gift exchange[iv] or just playing around with the Scumbag Steve meme,[v] the high level of user involvement spurred by Reddit has at its core a simple fact of human nature: it feels good to be in control.
Ask me anything (AMA)
“Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)”
—1969 book by Dr. David Reuben
Now here’s a novel concept for your modern, internet-connected Digital Native—once upon a not-so-long-ago time, racy and taboo knowledge was more than just a mouse-click away. There was, in fact, no easy way to find answers to those questions you were “afraid to ask,” nor was there an easy and safe way to discuss such questions with others. The answers to those questions, provided you could find them in the first place, came from tightly controlled official sources, usually in the form of books, newspapers, TV and radio broadcasts. Though the then-prevalent hippie subculture encouraged you to question everything, it was vague when it came to how you could actually go about doing so. Therein lay a twofold communication conundrum of the pre-internet era: (1) how could you find answers to questions that were too taboo to ask? and (2) how could you be sure that the official story about anything was true when all you could access was the official story?
“IAmA guy that hasn’t pooped in the month of August yet. Ask me anything about my extreme constipation.”[vi]
—Reddit, August 2011
“I am national correspondent for the Atlantic (and long-ago speechwriter for long-ago president Jimmy Carter) AMA”[vii]
—Reddit, February 2012
From the curiously gross to the politically relevant and with a little bit of everything in between, the popular “Ask Me Anything (AMA)” subreddit is just one example of the kind of internet-fomented forum that breaks down the pre-internet barriers to communication and knowledge. Those previously unanswerable taboo questions can now be addressed not only through the static pages created on the early internet, but also through the active conversations fostered through the increasingly interactive modern internet. The ability to participate in such conversations anonymously means that being “afraid to ask” is pretty much a thing of the past.
More relevant to our cultural evolution is the modern ability to question the official story of companies, governments, teachers, parents and other authority figures. That old symbolic phrase touted by many a hippie—”Question Authority”—has now become a physical reality in the open world of internet communication and research. We are no longer willing to take big media news stories at face value, preferring instead to hop online and reference multiple sources to get the whole story, warts and all. We discuss them on social networks, share feedback on blogs, and generally do our best to get involved with the stories that interest us (now that it’s actually possible to do so). And at a time when the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Whitney Houston are hitting Twitter and Facebook before they’re hitting CNN and Reuters, the purveyors of the official story are no longer able to hide like the wizard behind the curtain. The ability to communicate freely online has empowered us as a society in a way that is, as with so many cultural trends spawned by the internet, a first in human history. Not only can we now find out the whole truth and everything but the truth; we can actively participate to change official policies for the better.
Take the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), for instance. Boy, did the internet hate that one. As news of the freedom-curtailing act made its way from Facebook friend to Facebook friend, many of us bounded together to spread knowledge, sign petitions, contact politicians, and finally to participate in an unprecedented blackout that stretched to some of the most popular sites on the internet (Reddit and Wikipedia included). The day before the blackout, SOPA had only 31 opponents in Congress. The day after, that number more than tripled to 101.[viii] Two days after that, SOPA was declared dead in the water and the battle was already over. While many declared that the internet had won out, in reality the truth stretched deeper than that. It was we the people who had won, and it was the ability to freely communicate online that had tipped the scales of justice in our direction. Perhaps Time Magazine put it best when it declared you its 2006 person of the year: “The new Web… is a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter.”[ix] Underlying that fact: freedom of communication.
Read only –> read/write
“No mommy, let me do it.”
Perhaps no phrase is as indicative of the fundamental need for control that seems to be hardwired in the human brain[x] as is this common childhood utterance. Our first experiences with control take the form of actions without a framework—touching things, grabbing them, shaking them, kicking them. As our minds mature and we gain control of our motor functions, our actions become more complex. We put the round peg in the round hole and stack the small ring over the big one. By the time we toddle our way up into childhood, simple movements transform into structured play and games. We quickly learn that while moving things around aimlessly might be interesting, taking the time to learn the rules is what really makes a game fun. To learn we must first observe, temporarily relinquishing our control in the process. Once we’ve understood the rules, we gain a whole new level of control and suddenly Hungry Hungry Hippos becomes more than just a collection of things to shove up your nose. Is it any great surprise then that, after taking some time to observe and learn the framework and rules of the internet, we’re ready to regain the control that comes so naturally to us?
“Today’s audience isn’t listening at all—it’s participating.”
—William Gibson, science fiction writer[xi]
Ours has become a world of mashups, a world of memes, a world of remixes and fan fiction and ubiquitous blogs and Tumblr reposts, all of which allow users to create something new within the framework of something that already exists. While our first online experiences involve observation—learning the rules of the game, watching how others play, thinking about what we would do if it was our turn—the fun doesn’t really start until we join in and start playing for ourselves. We get our feet wet by joining user-friendly social networks, posting simple content like status updates and photos and commenting on other users’ posts. On a site like Reddit, most people start as lurkers, observing but not participating, before finally feeling comfortable enough to join in on the conversation. Once we’ve dabbled in adding our own content online, we get more brazen. We leave more comments on more sites, post videos as well as photos, and start reposting the content we find in our daily observations. The more we participate, the more others participate with us, drawing us further in and making us search for still newer ways to contribute—and there are plenty of companies out there lining up to help us do just that.
As more and more internet and software companies hit the market, we’re provided with more and more ways to interact with content, and that interaction is getting easier with every passing year. Most computers now come pre-loaded with basic music-, photo- and video-editing software, giving everyday users access to tools that cost thousands of dollars just a couple decades ago, and tens of thousands a couple decades before that. Combine the availability of production tools with the ease of posting and sharing content online and it’s no wonder that there are literally billions of posts, videos, photos and status updates added to the internet each and every day. And now that those production tools are making their way into our mobile devices as well as our home computers, those figures are only likely to increase.
The upshot of all this new content we’re adding is an explosion of productivity, innovation and self-expression. Sure, there may be hundreds of silly new meme photos added to sites like Reddit on a daily basis, but there’s also that one guy who decided a new tool was needed to house those photos and created Imgur, a site that now attracts 16 trillion views a month.[xii] And yes, though most of the 60 hours of video added to YouTube each and every minute is bound to be junk, it’s also the site that gave birth to the Justin Bieber phenomenon and arguably gave tween girls one of the more wholesome role models it has seen in some time. Hearing those success stories gives your average internet user all the more reason to chip in her own talents, and even if they never do reach beyond her own circle of friends, the ability to freely express herself and receive positive feedback from those close to her will have made the experience worth it anyhow.
The internet has thus fueled a shift from what media theorist Laurence Lessig called a Read Only culture into what he calls a Read/Write culture. It is a version of culture that encourages more than just the passive consumption indicative of classic media including books, television and music. With the tools of production increasingly at hand, we’re free to throw our own contributions into the pot, ad hoc and at will (like this self-published book, for instance). Whether we’re creating something from scratch or altering pre-existing content, most of us now have the tools to produce and publish readily awaiting at our fingertips, and they’re pretty much free to boot.
Just as a kid might initially enjoy watching his older brother play video games, we know the real fun doesn’t start until we have the controller in our own hands—which, culturally speaking, we already do. And just as that kid might then enjoy playing the same games his older brother did, he’ll quickly realize that he’d much rather choose the games for himself. Playing copycat may be fun at first, but it’s a bit like playing a game without knowing the rules in that it’s really only half of the fun. It’s not until we move beyond copycat and create something worth copying that the real fun begins. And once we do create that something, we’ve got an instant audience ready to test it out on—our Facebook friends.
Or Twitter, or MySpace, or LinkedIn, or Pinterest, or Path…
The above is an excerpted chapter from my new book, “The Hipster Effect: How the Rising Tide of Individuality is Changing Everything We Know about Life, Work and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
[i] Jeremy [jedberg]. “Your Gold Dollars at Work.” Web log post. Blog.reddit. Reddit, 26 July 2010. Web. <http://blog.reddit.com/2010/07/your-gold-dollars-at-work.html>.
[ii] Metareddit. Web. <http://metareddit.com/>.
[iii] Hopfensperger, Jean. “Kenyan Tale Shows Power of Online Giving.” StarTribune. 6 Feb. 2012. Web. <http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/138617664.html>.
[iv] “Statistics for Secret Santa 2011.” Reddit Gifts. Web. <http://redditgifts.com/statistics/secret-santa-2011/>.
[v] “Scumbag Steve.” Reddit. Web. <http://www.reddit.com/r/ScumbagSteve>.
[vi] Nopooshallpass. “IAmA Guy That Hasn’t Pooped in the Month of August Yet. Ask Me Anything about My Extreme Constipation.” Reddit. 19 Aug. 2011. Web. <http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/jo5at/iama_guy_that_hasnt_pooped_in_the_month_of_august/>.
[vii] Jfallows. “I Am James Fallows, National Correspondent for the Atlantic (and Long-ago Speechwriter for Long-ago President Jimmy Carter) AMA.” Reddit. 8 Feb. 2012. Web. <http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/pged2/i_am_james_fallows_national_correspondent_for_the/>.
[viii] “SOPA Supporters Before And After.” WeKnowMemes. WeKnowMemes LLC, 20 Jan. 2012. Web. <http://weknowmemes.com/2012/01/sopa-supporters-before-and-after/>.
[ix] Grossman, Lev. “You — Yes, You — Are TIME’s Person of the Year.” Time Magazine 25 Dec. 2006. Web. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1570810,00.html>.
[x] Gilbert, Daniel Todd. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage, 2007. Print.
[xi] Gibson, William. “God’s Little Toys.” WIRED Magazine July 2005. Web. <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.07/gibson.html>.
[xii] “Site Statistics.” Imgur. Imgur, LLC. Web. <http://imgur.com/stats/month>.