Stone Age Memes: Videos Just Want to Have Fun

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Video provides an excellent vantage point for studying the Internet phenomenon, though it is also, oddly enough, where the Internet disappears. Hackers believe “information wants to be free,” but the suits have by and large been happy to charge for it, control it, own it. Case in point is the experience of what has been called the Kafka Lego video incident.

When I was little, we found it exciting to get flip books in our Cracker Jacks and watch the figures become “animated” as you rolled the pages with your thumb. Big whoop. In the eighties, there was a kind of “new era” when families often had camcorders and kids began to make videos for fun, unsupervised and after school. The rest, as they say is history, or else if you prefer, it is what populates the Internet’s YouTube and its lesser known kin. That’s when amateur video got creative, and we are the beneficiaries of all that weird, wacky stuff. YouTube is an excellent source for amateur videos of all sorts, and there is a kind of subgenre of stop-action videos made by kids (and others) with Legos.

As the New York Times notes, there’s something about the wholesome nature of Legos that invites mischievous youth to plunge them into gritty scenarios like those taking place in a Lego gun store, or, my personal favorite, Lego Jail Break, which dramatizes an armed rampage and features extensive creative use of ketchup. It has over a million viewings, several by me showing it to my friends. There are also “how to” videos, including those that show you how to make a Lego toilet, thus filling an important gap in the authorized use of the product. How else could you reenact scenes from Pulp Fiction?

One of those funky Lego videos was made by fourteen year old Coleman Hickey to the tune of Spinal Tap’s “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight.” The band saw the video, liked it, and used it in its latest concert tour. There was also a plan to include it in a tour DVD. Here come the suits: Lego denied permission for the use of its product in the DVD, citing the “inappropriate” lyrics of the group’s songs.

For those who have been hiding under a rock for three decades, Spinal Tap was incarnated for a parody movie and has gone on to achieve popularity beyond its fictional origins. You would think that the band’s parodic lyrics are protected speech, but the Lego spokesman was quoted in the Times as saying, “we are a trademarked brand, and we really have to control the use of our brand, and our brand values.” Spinal Tap decided not to pursue the matter, because of the expense.

Now I’ve always thought there was a kind of wtf divide between the English professor and the business executive. The Kafka Lego video incident confirmed that I needed a different mindset to grasp what goes on in corporate America. For example, I am no longer surprised when I see business types discussing “effective cultural change” on the Internet. Turns out what they mean doesn’t involve throwing teacups at the Mona Lisa or even convincing people who would rather watch Angelina Jolie to read Beowulf.

Apparently, to a business person, your culture determines whether you are ready to adopt social software, at least according to Elizabeth Bennett in Baseline, an online IT publication. And social software is one of those terms like customer service that turns out to have little to do with what it sounds like. Social networking software like Facebook can be an instance of it, but only insofar as it’s a business.

Social software actually refers to computer programs that allow you to share information with the people around you. Think about product rankings on or even the entries on Wikipedia: settings where you give and get information. An organization’s “culture” is not ready for such software if the people in it think information transfer should be all in one direction, or if the organization encourages them to hoard. And there are a lot of organizations whose instincts are to play it safe.

It’s not really their fault: ours is a litigious society. I wouldn’t put it past some parents to sue Lego because their child reenacts Columbine, and blaming the massacre on the viewing of Lego Jail Break. The company could be a target because it “allows” subversive use of its products: to its credit, Lego has not tried to shut down the YouTube videos I described, just the inclusion of the one video in the DVD version of the Spinal Tap tour.

All the same, it’s interesting to watch the business of the Internet conflict with the anarchic nature of the product itself. I went online to see what the business folks thought about the role of video. One of the main models used to determine the business value of a technology is Gartner Inc’s Hype Cycle curve, which is updated yearly. Here is the 2009 model:

You see, the curve represents technological advances with a dot coded to the time when money can be made from them. Notice that “Online Video” is on the downside of the big curve, moving from the Bunyanesque “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and soon on to the “Trough of Disillusionment.” The model predicts that from there, it will enter the “Plateau of Productivity” in two to five years. But, as I suggested, there’s a “culture factor” that needs to be taken into consideration.

It comes as no surprise that, except for the graph, the Gartner people are not offering us their findings for free. I looked up one of the reports they produce and its cost was over $1,500.00. Nevertheless, I think the idea of the Hype Cycle is very useful. For me, though, it represents a concept rather than a predictive tool that can govern how I will invest my money. In the latter vein, there are people who want to modify the model to their own purposes. A blog from Tippingpoint Labs, for example, argues there is another curve under the Gartner curve that can be used to better explain what happens when “investors start to inquire about how they can monetize the new platform or channel.”

According to Gartner’s analysis, online video lags behind the degree of acceptance achieved by the tablet PC or corporate blogging: this seems incorrect to me. I think that the analysis is able to appreciate an innovation more if it seems more orderly and manageable. The Hype Curve also has critics, unlike me, who actually seem to know something about business. Sarah Lacy, writing in TechCrunch (“a weblog dedicated to obsessively profiling and reviewing new Internet products and companies”), call the Hype Cycle “one of the most destructive things about Silicon Valley” and says that in its thirteen years of being documented, it has “spun ludicrously out of control.” Of course these are all people who think monetize is a word, so it’s hard to choose between them.

The thing I think these pundits miss is the energy of YouTube and other Internet video. Lego Jail Break one has four responses, including the less sophisticated, more talky JAIL OUT BREAK. This one is not so much a fine creative product as a young person experimenting with an idea. It’s much less watchable, with too little action, and a more meticulous effort at psychological motivation, a kind of Lego Lars von Trier.

Every popular video is part of an intertextual multimedia conversation, the whole comprising an enormous multidirectional (not hierarchical) flow of creativity. One of my favorite such threads involves showing people lifting, or claiming to lift, weights (or ladies) with their penis, Jackass style. Now that’s using your head. But wait, that’s actually not a thread; it’s just a group of videos I found amusing, though the playlists in YouTube suggest that other viewers saw them as a group as well. That’s the energy of the user, and that’s part of the YouTube universe.

Another great place to see online video is on current tv, a cable TV network founded by Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, a businessman. The network is available wholly on the Internet and its programming consists partly of short programs (“pods”) created by users (“VC2 Producers”). The pods are then winnowed on the network’s website by the vote of registered users. The content on current tv is so much fun!

As I write this, there is a series of VC2 pods on hair: “Why We Wax Down There,” a “Flick Knife Haircut” (a haircut with a switchblade), “Le Tigre Haircut” (an interview with a musician who also styles hair). This is followed by an Infomania (that’s a current tv-produced show) short based on an ad for a Chia Obama. The plant comes in two forms, a happy face, and a determined face. You can watch the programming on TV; on the Internet you can see comments, and click away to related videos, or other work by the VC2 Producer. And there is a page on how to make and upload your own pods.

As you look at current tv, you are actually seeing the disappearance of the Internet. It doesn’t matter whether you access this content on your computer, your TV, or, like Maxwell Smart, on your shoe. It’s not a show, not a website. It represents a different model entirely. This is what I always loved about folk music. You go to a concert at a smaller venue, you’re likely to find yourself on the same line for the Port-A-Potty as the talent. We are all talent. Well, maybe not all, but a lot more of us than you’re going to find on NBC. Yet. Put that into your Hype Cycle, please!

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One Response to “Stone Age Memes: Videos Just Want to Have Fun”

  1. Eva,
    Thanks so much for linking to my New Media Life Cycle stuff.

    This is a great post. I agree, the Gartner Hype Cycle can be really helpful.

    I also recently released a more in-depth report we’re doing once a week.

    Here’s one for live mobile video streaming.

    Have a great weekend!

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