Monday, February 28, 2011

Loss-making in internet jokes. Honestly – do you recall all the things that make you laugh on the internet? The vast majority of them would give you just a few seconds of enjoyment before you close the browser tab and move on. Perhaps you'll play them again, joke about them in person, and perhaps you'll pass them on to your friends, but after a week? A month? A year?

The other day, someone on Twitter urged someone else to make a mashup trailer for the imaginary film Uncle Buck Who Can Recall His Past Lives. But the trouble with this request is that the capital of this joke has already been spent. You've had your few seconds of enjoyment at the incongruous juxtaposition of a lyrical Thai drama and a slapstick family comedy starring John Candy.

Why would you spend your time downloading footage of the two films, snipping bits out and editing them back together again, and putting intertitles and a soundtrack on? Even if you're a really experienced editor, it'd still take you a minimum of, say, an hour to do it, upload it, and tell your online mates about it. The finished trailer might get that extra few moments of enjoyment that someone has actually made it happen, but not that many more moments than you might have got from pondering the original idea.

A mashup trailer is a relatively simple internet joke. But think about the ones that are more time-consuming and elaborate – stop-motion recreations of music videos in Lego; recreating iconic music videos using TV cartoon characters; combing an old TV series for moments of sexual innuendo; live-action recreations of the game Guitar Hero; even putting a T-shirt on your cat and manipulating its front paws so it appears to be playing a keyboard.

Many of these come about because people just think, "Wouldn't it be funny to do this?" and then they do it. That's an attitude I can respect, because I have always tried to follow through on stupid ideas wherever possible, and I am always annoyed at people whose dismissive response to these things is, "Boy, you must have had a lot of time on your hands."

But I do feel sad about the amount of effort that goes into producing a nibblet of pop-culture that is quickly superseded by the next little nibblet. All your effort – your cost of time, skills and imagination – for very little payoff.

Also, I am increasingly weary of meme-driven cultural production. If you are a major producer of online jokes, such as the Gregory Brothers, then you can actually create memes and make things 'go viral'. But even advertising agencies – people whose job it is to create cultural nibblets that take root in your head – can find it difficult to catch a genuine online spark.

Otherwise, there's the sub-meme industry in which ordinary (non-professional) cultural producers tumble over each other to get to the same punchline first, to riff a new joke and an old one to create something just a little bit more original. This strikes me as an impoverished kind of cultural expression.

The memes drawn from existing footage – home video snippets; things from the news; bits of archival gold – perhaps provide the most value. They cost nothing to produce; they're already there. Instead they are just curated. They seem to match the transience of the jokes they encapsulate.

Hey Mel, I see what you mean about the very short life of some of these elaborate clips. But it also seems to me that if you consider how many millions of people can access these clips via the internet, that is still a major payoff. They burn brightly, they just fade fast.
But then whose reaction matters most to the maker? Which will give the maker more joy? I was writing primarily from the perspective of a maker, and while some makers aim only to please themselves (external praise is just incidental), others deliberately set out to please others (whether for their own professional benefit or, increasingly, to get a pat on the back for how funny they are).

If millions of people like your thing, I guess you do feel validated, even if it doesn't last long. But what if you go to all that effort… and nobody watches your video…?
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