"Pool's Closed." - old internet adage
"Look at these sad trolls." - Charlie Sheen
Another Epic Introduction
Why don't you have a seat right here. We've fallen a long way, haven't we? I'm rather disappointed. Yeah, I know I broke rules 1 and 2 when I wrote my research paper on "the lulz" almost four years ago. I look back, reading it again, and I'm surprised by how naive I was. But I had some good ideas, I was following the right path. Perhaps the internet itself was so young and unknown, as I was, trapped in a shifting world not yet bound by concrete intentions. Things on the internet simply existed, without real intentions, moving along a path we felt was a good one.
Before I start explaining how far we've gone downhill, let me recap a few crazy facts. In the time since I wrote my cute little research paper, internet usage has gone up to 30% of the world's population, almost half of which is in Asia alone. WikiLeaks happened. Justin Bieber happened. There were two ROFLCons. We (the USA) are currently in three wars and a recession. Facebook has 500 million users and a movie. Google and Apple have made some mad bank, and all the neat little tech companies of the early and mid 2000s have been bought and are cashing in on multi-million or multi-billion dollar valuations. Twitter happened. Foursquare happened. Tumblr happened. Chatroulette happened. So-called "internet-fueled revolutions" are happening in northern Africa and the Middle East. Anonymous has gone after a lot of targets (cannons were fired). Moot won person of the year (and other great 4chan accomplishments). There's a whole goddamn list on Wikipedia of "internet phenomena". BitTorrent happened. Major corporations are "actually listening" to people on the internet. We got Obama, the first president who openly accepts the internet as, you know, actually something.
All this, and tons more, and what has come of it? Has the internet become a better place? A cooler place? A happier place? Well, the simple, extraordinary, and delightful gift of quaint early-millenium web-thinking has blossomed into a jaded, capitalized, and totalitarian internet. The democratization of online culture has lead to its wholesale monopolization, to its abandonment. Devoid of the innovative and cooperative spirit that manifested in early ARPANET, ISPs are ready and willing to limit your internet usage by the byte so they can make a few extra dollars, and people "running the web" are simply designing new and ever-stupider ways of monetizing it.
I dare say, should we be surprised by this? Everything is clear in hindsight, but I am not hesitant to say that we should have seen this coming. I wrote in the earlier work that proliferation was the next step, that the only thing our culture had to do was spread. The unforeseen but historically-obvious cost of this would be its normalization and valuation. On the internet today, we exist in a bubble, wherein a large amount of people are trying to capitalize on what the internet may or may not be. A lot of people are making huge bets, again, but based on new ideas. We made a lot of fun promises in the middle-days, but unfortunately some people took those as ones which could be cashed in. (To the oblivious dismay of academics everywhere.)
What has lulz become?
The cancer that killed /b/ has spread. Youth culture has ruined the internet, because it's so easy to manipulate and capitalize on their ignorance. Further, those who made the best headway in pioneering internet culture have grown weary or, worse, complacent. Creativity and innovation have stalled. Some would argue that this is the natural progression as a market matures, but I refuse to accept that it could happen so quickly. The internet is more than just a market, isn't it? Television began as a new and vibrant means of communicating in a one-to-many fashion, allowing a near-instantaneous proliferation of information never before known. But eventually, TV was killed by more channels, more advertising, daytime TV trying to compete with late night programming, shows competing against each other, whether Leno would come back or Conan would stay. A (deliberate) misalignment of priorities. TV is a wasteland with few oases, it's has been dead for awhile; the very same vultures (and new breeds) are now circling around the internet.
The lulz has become stagnant in a similar fashion. It has atrophied. Progress has stopped; it needs vigor and aggression, which is the last thing on the mind of those making money off their blogs and their social media campaigns. Anonymous is too busy trying to fight actual wars than to secure its own homeland. The old men have left 4chan to the detritus of a bunch of 14-year-olds searching only for childporn, showing their penises on chatroulette just for the fun of it. And there are 14-year-old girls on chatroulette who actually want to see it and click "next"; they've been born into a world of desensitized, boring internet-maliciousness. /b/ is just traps and dubs now; all the shock-imagery is ancient. The question has become seemingly apparent: how do we make money from chatroulette and /b/? How do we make money from Digg? More pointedly: how do we make money from services we give away for free? I remember when Facebook didn't have ads, and suddenly there were gifts, and then it started tracking my activities on other sites. The Like button is now ubiquitous (along with retweeting, digging, reddit-upvoting, reblogging, et cetera ad nauseum).
Why do we care about money? Where has the lulz gone? The simulacrum (the lolcats, the goreporn, the status updates) has merged with reality into a new interweave of meta-reality, capable of generating both monetary and social capital, consuming the world of everyday youth. There are people whose careers started on the internet as just average bloggers and are now "celebrities" in the real world. How do we, as a subculture, reconcile the fame of a few in the context of the nameless? Would Anonymous stop being anonymous if they were given enough capital? The lulz, for all intents and purposes, has evaporated into the thin air of reality-consciousness, or it's been relegated to such small corners of the internet that it's no longer freely accessible in any feasible way as it once was. There's no longer any fun in doing shit for the lulz.
The beauty of the Original Internet was its unending openness; the tragedy of the New Internet is its walled cities. Even the guy who made the internet is saying this. Not only are we limiting our user-bases (when once we had no real user-base), but we're limiting how the very packets move which make up the internet's existence. The questions we have to ask are simple: can the internet exist if we limit these fundamental pieces? The system was built with the explicit agreement of neutrality, treating everything contained within as equal. Is the ultimate joke of the internet - the grandest of lulz - the very extermination of interconnected networks by the creation/expansion of self-perpetuating closed-wall systems, keeping their gates "open" with APIs and market shares? Can the internet survive its own self-commodification, or will it turn into TV in record time, unbeknownst to the masses?
Cashing in on Internet Memetics and Fads
I wrote about a number of internet meme types and fads from 4chan and YTMND. Have there been any new ones? Have they evolved much at all? Nope, they really haven't. It seems like God sat down on the seventh day and said, "post some fucking cats". (Even though caturday is on saturday.) Nobody has incorporated new ways of making memes. If anything, only one meme-delivery-method has soared above the rest, mostly because it's the most easily understood by those coming from TV land.
I didn't really emphasize too much in the original essay the simple condition of mere video as meme, which has skyrocketed over the last few years and given rise to many interweb celebrities. Some of these celebs have even crossed over into "mainstream" culture, as I mentioned. However, the distinction between those worlds, in terms of video content, online culture vs mainstream culture, has been largely obliterated (however not solely) by Rebecca Black. (I'm not even going to link to her video, I shouldn't have to, which illustrates my point.) The cracks first formed and the initial punches we made by the rise to power of Justin Bieber. Rebecca Black somehow swooped in out of 13-year-old nowhere (with her parent's money, in true anti-lulz fashion) and made the distinction between online- and real-life-celebrity obsolete. (I find similarities between Ms. Black and the acceptance and integration of indie music to the mainstream, something which happened so subtly and precisely, that perhaps Black herself was accepted into mainstream as a means of the mainstream itself willfully creating celebrity.)
Other memetics, like image macros, TYPING IN ALL CAPS, etc, have all largely been assimilated into the mainstream culture by anyone under 25. You can't ask many people in the developed world between the ages of one and twenty-five for a favorite lolcat, or their favorite video of a cute baby, or how many friends they have WITH SERIOUS INTERNET ANGER ISSUES. There are too many to count, and they won't see a difference between something that's on the internet and something that's in real life; they are the same world now. What happens on their Wall is as important as what happens in fourth period study hall. There isn't a kid in America who doesn't have a Facebook page; there are more people on Facebook than there are people in America to begin with.
We've gone from the question "how can culture not spring forth?" to "how can a unique culture survive?" The first stabs at internet culture were rather apparent and blunt: the selling of various popular, formerly "underground" blogs to the likes of AOL, etc. The cashing-in of Digg. Selling the user data of Facebook, making it hotter than Microsoft in terms of valuation. Sites that exist solely to cash in on memes, like Know Your Meme. Even I Can Has Cheezburger is an owned subsidiary of some bullshit corporation. Anybody using Foursquare should know that they're just willingly providing location data to advertisers. But who really cares?
Over the last four years, another internet "bubble" has formed, thanks to shit like the App Store and Facebook. Average people these days think that they can come up with some stupid idea for an App, get some dumb kid to make it, and then make millions on App Store sales. (Sadly, for awhile, they were right.) Chumps in suits think they can make millions doing "Search Engine Optimization" of existing websites. (Protip: SEO just means adhering to standards, whether they're set by Google or the W3C, pick your corruption.) Social media campaigns have had a scorched-earth philosophy through whatever avenues they decide to invade (even the ones they create) all for the sake of shameless self-promotion. Nobody is as stupid as all of us, following CNN on Twitter, Like-ing the Wikileaks page on Facebook.
We keep buying it because it's free. Moot recently gave a talk about how awesome being anonymous is, but here's two points he missed: the loss of not just our private identities, but our private information, and the den of lions he was giving that talk in. We don't even need passwords anymore, we can trust Facebook to log us in to websites. (And hand that website any information Facebook has on us - like our addresses, who our friends are, etc.) Funny that he gave this talk at SXSW, which over the last couple years has become the go-to place for asshole marketers on the internet to get together and rub dicks. (Moot himself is trying the dick-rubbing game with canv.as, let's see how far that goes.) "Venture capitalists" show up just to shit gold bricks and throw them at 20-something social media experts.
The trick they play is pretty simple, and admittedly one of the genius moves of late-capitalist American imperialism. (We no longer conquer countries, we conquer individuality.) Facebook has over 500 million users (and yet no friends), therefore Facebook has collected the information of over 500 million users who are more than willing to hand it over to Facebook for free. The popularity contest has killed the collective individuality of an entire generation, and instead fed it to the corporate-machine, who is very happy to digest it in the form of millions of targeted, customized ads. Instant money, right? What would you do if you had information about 500 million people? There is no such thing as a free, popular app which doesn't sell your information.
This is the bubble that will burst, both the actual money-bubble and the perception-bubble. Color just got $41 million dollars. For what? Location-based photo sharing, because we all have friends that are constantly taking pictures of every moment of life with their iPhones. We're seeing not only the degradation of the internet, but the internet-methodology's encroachment, distortion, and destruction of real life. It was bad enough when MySpace and Facebook told us we needed friends, but now they're saying we need spontaneous friend-happenings in real life, and it all needs to be documented, tagged, exported, and shared, not only for your other "friends" to see, but the all-seeing eye of corporate marketing. The perception we've created of a free, happy simul-world which exists alongside and is as important as reality, which anybody can tap into and make a million dollars on, is one that may never be removed if we are raising our children from birth to accept it. (We will never be free of advertising until we stop buying things, but even that's not true anymore.)
We have turned into not a monolithic Orwellian totalitarianism, but the totalizing force of populist self-consumption. We have destroyed ourselves through our collective pursuit of what somebody else tells us we need, because it makes us feel "happy", because we see how everybody else is doing it via their photo-sharing, and it makes everybody feel the same kind of special. What will happen when this bubble bursts and the checks don't cash? This question may be irrelevant, as the money-making itself is now all digital, and a company may continue to be "valued" at a certain unrealistic amount forever and never need to actually sell anything. Perhaps what I'm waiting for is the bubble of capitalism itself to burst; when there can be no more demand for things that are infinite in supply (because they are inherently non-existent in supply), as internet products are. Right now, information itself, stored in databases from millions of users (their names, their current locations, their Likes and tweets), is the only thing in America worth huge amounts of money (besides oil). The question that was once absurd must be asked: are we selling humanity via bits of information? We're certainly selling individualism in bulk, proving just how conformist all of us really are.
Someday the pool will be closed.
The Shallow lulz
As I mentioned, there were not one but two goddamn ROFLCons since I wrote the first essay. ROFLCon being a convention (held in Boston at MIT) of people who made or were involved with the creation of popular internet memes. A crazy idea, right? I went to both of them. The first was in 2008, and the second was in 2010. They were both awesome, and I can't wait for the next one, but they were strange and eye-opening events. The first one could be summed up as "oh my god, it's full of stars!" and the second one could be summed up as "what the fuck have we done?" Another way I can put it: the first conference was about those who made (past-tense) memes, the second conference was about those who are making (present-tense) memes.
This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it follows in line with everything I've been saying about the general erosion of internet culture. Memetics, like genetics, is a study (a made-up study, lol) of the evolution of a thing (whether it's a species or a lolcat) and what makes up the basic conditions of its existence. It is at the least a study in hindsight, at most a form of anthropology. It can be a predictive or exploratory science, but not a science of influence. When it becomes the creation of forms or the influencing of the forms studied, it is no longer observation, but a practice, or an act of forced mutation/corruption. Genetics becomes eugenics, and memetics becomes social/viral marketing. Milhouse-style shit.
People at ROFLCon 1.0 were scratching their heads at how many people actually showed up to the damn thing, how many of them were actually reasonably cool and intelligent people, and the insights they gained by looking back on their "internet celebrity status". The second ROFLCon was fueled more by what people were doing now, what was popular in the exact present, because the internet had suddenly become a large part of the mainstream. While the honesty and integrity of the real internet was still largely represented at ROFLCon 2.0, the convention itself was highly populated by people looking to get a score on the new social media "scene". The first ROFLCon had raised a few eyebrows at internet culture, the second convention only made the bet a sure one. I hesitate to speculate as to what will be happening at the third ROFLCon next April, but I wouldn't be surprised if Rebecca Black was there, and there was a seminar on Angry Birds gaming.
One thing I will say is that internet culture sometimes can't beat the absurdities of real life culture, and has to bow down to true epic win. Case in point: Mr. Charlie Sheen, troll extraordinaire, who I feel could be an excellent spokesman for Anonymous. It's strange how something so lulz-worthy originated offline. Sheen has epitomized the fail of old media (TV) in general, and has ascended to a higher plane over the bloated corpse of media-fallacy. He is a symbol of a constant and undying defiance against the machine that created him, a strong reflexive check against the star-power of mainstream celebrity. The man isn't even on drugs anymore, and why does he need to be? He has created himself as a central god in our pantheon of role-models, our own postmodern cultural replacement for Zeus. He really does have tiger blood, of this I have no doubt. Charlie Sheen represents the death of mainstream culture as we knew it. Media companies are used to pouring billions into the collective lives of celebrities, whether they were real actors/musicians or fake celebrities whose claim to fame is just homemade porn. (It's interesting to wonder how much Paris Hilton owes to the internet for her celebrity.) But perhaps those media companies had it wrong - they don't need to spend any money if they simply crowdsource the celebrity-worship (see: TMZ, reality TV).
What's most interesting about Charlie Sheen is how the media-corporation-entity has responded to him. First, with polite dismissal, firing him from his show and disavowing his existence like this were some kind of 90s secret agent movie. A typical, "moral" response, the same kind a politician would give when they're caught getting blown by a hooker. Then, seeing Sheen's net worth increase thanks to being a buzz-generating device, negotiating with him to return to showbiz, utilizing him as the reason to watch interviews on every network where he could go on and just rabble at the camera for an hour. In this equation, who is the pusher and who is the addict? Who is representing who? At the end of the day, the bottom line is not how insane Charlie Sheen is, but how much money he can generate. This is the late-capitalistic/opportunistic plague that has always existed within media (and banking, as we've seen), and now it has permeated with all due speed into the internet. With it, we can assume it will carry the same attitude, and pollute culture wherever it travels, in an effort to exploit and monetize.
Anonymous Frequently Forgets
Anonymous itself, once the lonely soul-child of the lulz, has become separate and wholly its own. The once-apparent and original beauty of Anonymous was its liquidity within the porousness of the internet. Formless, without spokesmen, without agendas, the locust-chaos of a whimsical god. Old Testament stuff. This has changed in the last few years, starting mainly with Operation Chanology, the attack on Scientology. For some reason, Anonymous decided to actually formally target something. Doesn't it defeat the purpose of an anarchistic entity to publicly target things? To put substance and claim behind action? I'm not saying Scientology doesn't deserve attacking, but why the political fuss about it? Why the reason?
Since then, Anonymous has been busy, shifting targets frequently. Whether the targeting itself is all by the same group or whoever decides to carry the banner does not matter; none of the Anonymous has stepped up to stop it. Anonymous has tried to claim legitimacy in a world of uncaring political powers. Nobody will take Anonymous seriously as it tries to legitimize. Most of Anon's power was kept safe behind a wall of secrecy and immaturity; nobody would care to seriously inquire about the child who acts out at random, facelessly, without pattern. Nobody would even know it was Anonymous.
But they've decided to take themselves seriously, so the mark they've made has been readily reported on by the media, making Anonymous an actual body of people. They've made themselves known too openly; played their cards quite prematurely, before any great need really arose to suit the oft-mysterious Anonymous. The better aggressor is the unknown one, attacking from not one location but all locations. Anonymous's power was always greatest as the silent objector, a wizard in the dark, a wildcard. The media no longer misunderstands Anonymous, we've all caught up to their game. As soon as Anonymous decided to "stand up" against something they found "amoral", they became just another campy politicized force, like PETA or the UN.
You can't make your attacks personal if you are not a person, Anonymous. There was once strength in your nothingness. The absence of your form made you invincible, and the rallying-cry of "you cannot kill an idea" no longer applies.
Proliferation, Expansion, and Collapse
After all this talk, I still have a little bit of optimism. The bubble will burst, which may be good or bad. It is unfortunate that it now hinges on a few real-life decisions. Net neutrality being the obvious one. If it costs me $5 a month to surf on 4chan, or $1 per gigabyte transferred, or anything like that, then we're in big trouble. The innovation won't just stop, it'll die completely. We'll have to wait for the next major wave of technology. The only websites you'll be allowed to go to for free will be ones either made by the corporation controlling your internet or the ones who have agreed to share all your personal information with them. That's the bad part.
The good outcome, as I see it, is still kinda bad. It could be a world in which net neutrality is upheld, and nobody can tell you what website you can go to, but the money will dry up. Facebook will reach a peak, (sometime after oil does,) or a competitor will come along. Or, they all merge (Facebook, Foursquare, Google, etc) and become the next AOL. Computing becomes so ubiquitous that it is no longer even known as computing - we no longer think in terms of internet versus reality. Reality TV becomes Facebook drama. Twitter feeds replace news tickers wholesale. All news becomes social news; and whoever can control the masses by market share (by knowing all of their locations and thoughts) is who makes whatever money is left.
But there won't be some information-revolution, at least not an apparent one. The efforts of anonymizing the internet, of securing your information from closed-wall systems, have all been lead by uncharismatic and unpopular (and unfunded) nerds. You're not going to get Rebecca Black to use Tor. You can shock people by showing them how easy it is to get into Facebook accounts, but that won't stop them from using it. Maybe that won't matter when the money stops, but even that won't make the nerds any more popular. The average user can be told how much of their information is sold every time they check in to somewhere on Foursquare, but that doesn't mean anything to us as a collective if the individual doesn't care.
The only answer, regardless of outcome, is to keep building things on your own, and keep surfing. Don't just accept the world Facebook gives you, or what your followers on Twitter are telling you. Keep hacking shit. Log off of your social media platform and do something with your life. Perform some social disobedience. Keep breaking down the monolithic services we exist within. They will collapse for one reason or another, and we'll all move on to the next thing. Every empire falls. There is no fighting the mainstream, there is no forced smartening-up of the masses. There is only the continued struggle of the nameless citizen who sees through the bullshit. The only difference now is that they fight not for freedom, not for glory, not for popularity, but simply for the lulz.
An Epic Conclusion
This article was writ by the Honorable Sir Cyle Gage Esq. Ph.D., Interweb Memeticist