Meme-spaces

28 Oct

Part 1: I am a weirdo.

There are many good things about working alone in a hidden subterranean workshop. It is cold, dark, dank, and lonely.

But there are bad things as well. At some point you realize it’s been so long since you’ve physically spoken to someone you don’t like, that you would not be able converse with normal office drones even if you had the opportunity. You might not even be able to speak American with an HR director to get a position in which you ever talk to an office drone.

And it’s not just that I watch so much foreign films and television that I’m starting to talk like James Edward Almos in Blade Runner. I forget how much Japanese, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Farsi, Chinese, Polish, Urdu, and Swahili the average person knows. And before you say, “We’re all ignorant Americans. We know none of those languages.” let me remind you that you all know what tofu is, or pierogies. You all know that one sleeps on futons. You all know that cowboys say, “Via con dios” when they part. You all know what RSVP means. You all know what algebra is. You’ve all said “Hakuna Matata” at some point. This is the USA, the melting pot. I’m used to you all using words from foreign languages. I just forget which ones to use. I forget that it’s not currently hip to ask the time in Arabic. I forget that “cuanto” is not yet a common way to ask how many of something. I forget that “khopsurat gond” is not a slick way to tell a bro that you think a woman has a beautiful butt. I say “Oh God” in Arabic, not because I’m a Muslim, and thus refer to God as Allah, but because “Yallah” ends on a vowel sound, so when you say it you can express more exasperation than you do in English. I forget that people don’t know this or are upset by it.

But let’s ignore that for a moment, because these are relatively simple memes. The really complicated memes, the ones that really trip you up aren’t as easy to catch as a word of foreign origin.

To illustrate: Let’s suppose you are at a party. And let’s suppose I am hovering near the drinks because I am a super villain unaccustomed to interacting with hideous inferior human pig-smellies. (Meme Alert) In this hypothetical situation, you approach a beautiful woman getting a drink and attempt to engage her in conversation. And she shoots you down. Then I say “She doesn’t like you. I don’t like you either, and I’m wanted on 12 systems.” What did I just attempt to communicate to you? I attempted to be a good bro. If you also watched Star Wars too much as a child then you know the next line, “I’ll be careful.” And if you deliver that line, it means we are bros. We like the same things. We’ve had the same experiences. If I say, “You’ll be dead.”, and a third dude peeked over your shoulder and said something like, “This little one isn’t worth your trouble. Come, let me get you a drink.” then we would almost be legally required to be best friends for life.

Star Wars fandom is a meme. It is a meme that can get so complicated that people deep in it can deliver dialog in Bachese. When we think of memes, we tend to think of things transmitted through the internet, Boxy, Lolcats, Tay Zonday, Electric Six, Xhibit putting cars in cars, or All-your-base. But a meme can be any idea that people like to transmit to each other. Everything from religious sentiments to interest in specific celebrities can be viewed as memes.

And I often find that hidden here in my subterranean lair, people forget to transmit their memes to me. And the memes that do find their way into my dome are not the ones that the rest of you have been bouncing back and forth. When I go out and spend time in the physical presence of other people, I feel like “the guy at the office who did not watch the game last night”. Whatever you have to say to me, I will not understand.

And I have no idea what you will understand. Working in a subterranean workshop means that most of the people you interact with are on the other side of a chat window. And someone on the other side of a chat window, even a video chat window is someone who has Google Translate, Wikipedia, and Know Your Meme at their fingertips. The amount of things that one can be informed about, or feign being informed about is staggering. When I post on a forum that I put spooky beans in Spooky Beans so you can play Spooky Beans with spooky beans, everyone gets it. When I go to the store on my bike and the cashier offers me a bag, I might say, “No, I don’t like bags enough to take a bag and put the bag in my bag so I can bag while I bag.” and it is an extraordinary person who understands the origins of that statement.

Part 2: Maybe we are all weirdos.

But I have to wonder how much of my disconnectedness is the result of my work conditions, and how much of it is just a sign of the times. True, I have no idea what is popular music today, but you might not know it either. You ride the subway listening to your MP3 players, walking past posters that you totally ignore, because you are reading a book. Or you drive to work listening to your CDs or your MP3s. Maybe you have satellite radio in your car, and if that’s the case you probably listen to it. After all they have so many stations of satellite radio that you could spend your whole life listening to your favorite radio stations without even knowing who Lady GaGa is.

(I chose Lady GaGa because I honestly don’t know who she is either. I mean I know this is the stage name of a pop star, but between Pandora, Soma FM and my own extensive music collection, I don’t recall ever hearing her music and wouldn’t recognize her if she were sitting on my lap.)

Do you even own a TV anymore? You probably still watch television shows. Even I still do that, but watching a TV show on Hulu or from a torrent is different from watching television where even the advertisements and scheduling of shows is structured around building up ideas and associations in us to make us easier to manipulate consumers.

This is actually a big concern among marketers and advertisers (my previous career, before I became a Stationer and CHUD, provided we can change the C to mean Creative or Crafty). In fact, as a stationer, I kind of face the same problem. I may not be convincing you to donate to a cause or purchase a product anymore, but my job is still partially to convince you to go to someone’s wedding, corporate event, baby shower, non-profit fund-raiser, etc. And try convincing anybody to do anything when you don’t know anything about how they spend their time or make their decisions. It’s a big challenge. It’s the death of mass market, the death of mass media. Everything is niche market. Everything is niche media. If you are advertising on Buttersafe, you could conceivably be reaching a significant portion of your market or intended audience.

A few years ago, a friend of mine tried to talk to me about a meme she was infected with, a product that she was interested in. Coach Bags. In case you don’t know this, and I’m willing to bet that most men and some women do not, a Coach Bag is not a bag that is appropriate for a sports coach. Coach is actually a brand of ladies’ purses. They are apparently a big deal if you’re into that sort of thing, so much so that someone who likes Coach Bags can entirely forget that they are talking to a dude and will likely need to explain that a Coach Bag is not a bag for a coach.

My point is that while I know I am finding it more and more difficult to communicate with people who do not share many of my memes, I am willing to bet that many of you are in the same boat as myself, not that you are super villains with subterranean lairs, but that you are normal working stiffs who just can’t keep up with all the crazy things that everyone is on about. I mean seriously, when there were five TV networks, you might be able to go to work and hear someone say, “Did you see the show on last night?” But now that there are hundreds of networks on television, and thousands of websites where one could conceivably kill an evening, nobody has that conversation anymore. Finding someone who likes the same shows as you is kind of a special thing nowadays. It is finding someone who will get your references and jokes, someone who you can communicate with freely.

Part 3: Isn’t it awesome?

Now, if you have enough money to not work anymore or you are in the business of keeping money concentrated on those people, meaning, if you are anything like I was when I worked in marketing and advertising, then you are thinking that this is a bad thing. How can we keep people obediently consuming when they are so different that they can speak the same language but still have trouble communicating? This isn’t just a problem for consumerism, you may be thinking, but a problem for society. We are so fragmented as a culture that we find it difficult and unpleasant to talk to people who are this different from us.

This is the end times. The country, heck every country is too split up. Your hippy niece is delusional for supporting the Occupy Wall Street protestors. She isn’t only ignorant of the issues, she is ignorant of the Fox News programs that inform patriotic Americans about the issues. She hasn’t even heard of them. She thinks that the government should provide health care to the citizens. She thinks that the government protects the lives and property of it’s citizens, and since we have an army and navy and whatnot, we should also be protected biologically. Sure, we may have an army and navy and whatnot, but doesn’t she know that Americans will never become the victims of biological weapons? (Giving disease ridden blankets to the Sioux doesn’t count since they weren’t really Americans.) We can’t agree on anything anymore. We’re operating from totally different sets of “facts.”

(Do I need sarcasm markers on the above paragraph? Is it obvious enough that my own point of view is that those fighting against paying taxes, those fighting against government health care or government services like Social Security are fighting against America? They might as well call up Al Qaeda for paychecks. They certainly couldn’t be hurting Americans more or providing better service to the terrorists.)

But since I am out of the business of controlling your ductile minds, I find that this (our inability to agree on basic facts necessary for the security of our country) no longer upsets me. Instead, I find myself cherishing the instances in which I am able to find those who agree with me. It’s like we’ve all become super spies. When I go to a party at an apartment where one of the walls has been painted red, I know that I have arrived at the contact location. The code phrase is, “I need to keep the wall moist, so things don’t come through it.” My contact in the agency will then laugh and say, “Dude, I thought I was the only one who was thinking of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.” If the person I’m talking to responds with anything that does not refer to the Jhonen Vasquez comic, then I know they are not the person I am supposed to contact for the next part of my mission.

People may complain that communicating in movie quotes and song lyrics and scraps of poetry is not communicating but spouting up someone else’s thoughts. But they only complain because they don’t have the cultural background to understand the depths of ideas we communicate using these simple rote phrases. If I was listening to music with someone and I asked how they got the music, and they answered, “I paid for it with my eyes.” that means like 5 different things. It means, “I acquired it through piracy.”, “I am a huge fan of Cathy Acker.”, “Something about you makes me think you have also read Pussy King of the Pirates.”, “If you haven’t read Pussy King of the Pirates, I am uninterested in telling you how I got this music.”, and “Please respond with something along the lines of, ‘Well, that’s what dead pirates use for money.’ to indicate that we are allies.”

There was a time when the only memes complex enough for these sorts of secret agent interaction were religions. You might say to someone, Shalom or Salam or Namaste or Jai Jinendra, in order to indicate your allegiance. In ancient Rome you might draw a crescent in the dirt to surreptitiously indicate you are a Christian. (A fellow Christian would draw another crescent to form a fish, to indicate that he or she is also a “fisher of men”, and a non Christian would likely ignore it as a doodle on the ground.) But today our pop culture memes are of such richness and complexity that they are often more important in our lives. To some Star Trek fans, being able to speak Klingon is respect-worthy. If someone addresses you in Klingon they are either saying, “I expect you will be someone as worthy of respect as I, and you will be able to understand this and respond.” or “I am showing off that I am more worthy of respect than you, since I expect that you will be unable to understand this.” Also, they are saying whatever they said in Klingon.

It’s like communicating in hyper-speach. In hypertext you can add links to a body of text. You can make the phrase “You’re the man now, dog.” point to another hypertext document that explains the significance of that phrase. In hyper-speach you cannot add such links, but you can imply them, and people who are familiar with the topics can understand the implication anyway.

We’ve known for a long time that the actual content of verbal communication is actually only a small part of what gets communicated in any conversation, but people tend to think that all the rest of what’s communicated is through body language or dress or some other aspect of physical appearance. But I think that communicating through cultural references is actually a huge aspect of communication, often communicating more than the actual words spoken or body language or style or appearance.

I got a job once that I showed up tired and disheveled to the interview. I apologized and explained that I had been up late the night before making Scottish Potato Leek soup. The interviewer looked at my Polish name, decided that I probably wasn’t Scottish at all, and gave me the job. It was a job doing market research, and being able to communicate with people from different backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities was important to the work, and if I was interested in trying food that had nothing to do with my background, I was probably a good fit for the job. The cultural implications of what I said were more important than the content, or my body language, or my appearance.

And as we get more and more information in our collective access, this type of communicating through cultural references will only become a more and more obvious part of our everyday lives. It’s gotten so that my wife claps her hands in a way that identifies her as a fan of Ouran High Host Club. It’s the dawning of a new age of human communication, and I couldn’t be more excited by it.

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One Response to “Meme-spaces”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The one topic of this post is the numerous things about which I want to blog « Sheikh Jahbooty - 28 October 2011

    […] I am finding it increasingly difficult to communicate with people who do not share my meme-space. I find that even simple sentences go awry. For example my wife might say to me, “Eekyo”, […]

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