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[berkman] Tim Hwang

Tim Hwang (twitter: timhwang), one of the founders of ROFLcon, is giving a talk at the Berkman Center. The talk is titled “The LOLCat-hedral and the Bizarre: A Memescape Manifesto.” [Note: I'm living blogging which means I'm missing lots, getting things wrong, not correcting mispellpings, and generally making the world worse.]

ROFLcon is an attempt to get everyone who’s ever been famous together in a room. E.g., the Tron Guy, Tim says. He also works with Yochai Benkler who is working on the nature of collaboration. He also works with freeculture.org. He’s also shooting a documentary about the Goatse photo; he is going to find the Goatse guy and those who have been affected by his hideous photo. [Note: Don't Google the image unless you want to see a guy holding open his own ass. The link in the previous sentence is to a photo-less Wikipedia article.]

He says that as you look at Internet memes and fads, it looks like a random collection of odd things. But this intuition is wrong. “There’s a reason certain memes emerge and when they do.” There should be a relationship of these memes across time and among memes at the same time. Tim calls this the “memescape,” which is a way of saying that the emergence of these memes is not entirely random.

The 4chan paradox: Memes form where people can communicate and share content. E.g., Facebook. It’s a big thing. There we can share ideas, events, comments, chat, etc. etc. “It has every single doohickey you could want.” Now look at 4chan.org. It has many few social tools. You’d think that more memes would emerge on FB. In fact, 4chan is a bigger meme generator. E.g., LOLcats came out of 4chan, as did Rick Rolling and chocolate rain. Memes do come out of FB (e.g., 25 things and the Beautiful truck), but there aren’t sustained communities around these memes. LOLcats on the other hand has a community site (icanhascheezburger.com). LOLcats respond to one another: Ceiling Cat calls forth the Basement Cat. The meme contains its own memes and becomes a self-referential universe. And it spills past its boundaries, unlike Beautiful truck. E.g., the LOLspeak translation of the Bible, LOLbama.com, etc.

Why? It could be just an accident that memes arise more on 4chan than FB. Or there might be a relationship among memes. In Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet,” he says the PC won out because it was open and generative. Generativity means that tech that’s open to third parties allows for explosive innovation. Tim suggests that generativity applies to social systems as well as to hardware. FB is closed in that it tells you what the basic areas are, the info is siloed among friends, and there’s so much there that it’s hard to master. In contrast, 4chan is simple and just a blank space into which you can put any type of content, and the content is open to everyone (not siloed).

The future? Over the next couple of years we’ll see Net culture infiltrate into the mainstream. The global recession will help the Internet culture boom. Net culture is made of supply (people creating content, back and forth) and demand (money, interest, participation). Unemployment gives people time to create memes. He points to a 2007 study that shows that YouTube usage peaks right after lunch before people come back to work. Shirky’s “cognitive surplus” really means a lot of people with time on their hands (Tim says).

Demand: Do I contract with a real celebrity or with a Net celebrity? E.g., Rick Astley showing up on a Thanksgiving Parade float. More is going mainstream. E.g., Christian Lander has a book called “Stuff White People Like” that is a bestseller.

There are also people. If you’re out of work, you can spend all day online being entertained for free. You can buy cheap goods through Etsy.com. He points to some data that seems to correlate unemployment with Net creativity, although he says that it would need much more research.

The decisions made in code and hardware influence the social space. This suggests some projects that could be undertaken. 1. Environmental advisories: Look at the consequences of behaviors, especially when lots of people do them. E.g., symmetrical info streams: If I see your data, you see m. ineIf people are friending back indiscriminately, what happens when this scales up? Does that dilute FB? 2. Bug tracking. Internet culture is hackable. E.g., Digg. The top 100 users have contributed 50-60% of the stories on the front page. Might be interesting to track these sorts of “bugs.” Could you use this to create an EPA for the social Web, that reports on its health?

Q: [chris seghoian] Most of 4chan is porn. It works because it’s anonymous. The postings there would get you banned from Facebook. 4chan is the primordial soup of the Internet. I’d argue that it’s the freedom to be horrible that enables the memes to grow.
Tim: I agree.

Q: Digg was distorted by companies trying to get their stories promoted.
Tim: That’s an argument for an EPA for the Web. I’d like to make this sort of distortion public.

Q: [ethanz] I like the environment metaphor. But what’s optimal? The EPA says that lead in drinking water is a bad thing. How does the Web EPA figure out what is desirable? And you’d be trying to model something that is changing so rapidly. I don’t believe in your correlation of stock market and creativity, but I think you’re right that it correlates to economics; you might do better with case studies. But the environment is all about homeostasis, whereas the Net has no homeostasis.
Tim: Yes. But thinking of memes as a system rather than as random jolts online might be valuable.

Q: [jason] Is the audience expanding? Or are those who are involved getting more active?
Tim: The population is expanding. And the audience is growing.

Q: [me] So many of the memes are distortions of mainstream culture. Chuck Norris, LOLcats, Marmaduke Explained
Tim: Yes. Some are more distinctly their own, e.g. XKCD.com references mainstream but is its own. It’s still a game that it has yet to be resolved.
Ethanz: People are now coming out of this fan culture with their own culture. This is the nascent new crop of natives. They’re mastering their craft.

Q: [judith donath] With LOLcats, if you didn’t keep up, you lose track. E,.g., if you didn’t know Ceiling Cat, you wouldn’t get the Basement Cat joke. There’s already this tension between being non-obvious (so they are a boundary between those who are in and out) and being obvious enough. LOLcats changed rapidly to keep that boundary at the right space.

Q: [chris s.] You mentioned good memes. But there are also griefers who post flashing jpegs at epileptic forums, Anonymous actions against Scientology, the Sarah Palin hacker…
Tim: There’s a universe of evil of memes that parallel the good memes. Even in the days of BBS, there were communities online that did bad stuff. Benkler talks about the Net aggregating fringe things and making them a big thing at the center.

[lokman] How do the economics affect the culture?
Tim: Clay Shirky points to the Power Law distribution of blogs. True for Net culture. The celebs who think of themselves as big celebs had the most trouble at ROFLcon. The Numa Numa guy won’t show up for less than a few thousand dollars. Will Net culture maintain its character?

Q: [jason] How do you decide when something becomes a meme?
Tim: We battle with this. We take “meme” really broadly.

Q: [eszter hargattai] How does this energy and time could be turned to other activities? E.g., let’s have people learn more about Africa?
Tim: There’s a code of honor on 4chan: You should do things for the luls, i.e., for the fun of it. I haven’t seen good models for channeling the energy towards something socially productive. Still, you might be able to use the mechanisms/lessons to produce something more useful.

Q: [elsa] Net culture lends itself not only to LOLcats but also to more political and global news. But, do you have thoughts about the generational issue. Our gen was the first to grow up with the Net. Is there a shift in cultures?
Tim: Are we only talking about the geek universe? There’s a whole universe not captured by this. So, when you zoom out, it’s hard to tell if Net culture only applies to a relatively small pocket.

Q: Why do some micromemes become popular?
Tim: Most social media experts are either talking about one case they know about or they’re completely anecdotal. There isn’t enough quantifiable work being done.
Ethanz: MediaCloud is trying to figure out what political memes come out of the blogosphere. Could you do research that would enable you to spot, say, 4chan memes that are about to take off?
Tim: A recent paper said that some pairs of memes are in a predator-pray relationship.

Q: [joel] PennyArcade was just two guys in Seattle and is now a business. The professionalization is interesting. Can we reverse engineer what might become a hit? [Tags: ]

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