LOLcats and Victorian Serialized Novels
How We Become Familiar With New Technology
‘Memes don’t exist, tell your friends’ read one of the many novelty t-shirts my boyfriend owned when we first met. This was more than a decade ago and back then I associated the word ‘meme’ with evolutionary biology and the work of Richard Dawkins. I also thought that Java was just a type of coffee. This has changed with the advent of social media, and memes are now linked with spelling-challenged cats, which is probably not the evolution Dawkins had in mind. But LOLcats are definitely a step up from those HILARIOUS chain letters with which an elderly relative used to spam your hotmail account. And those of his coworkers, because back then if you wanted to share something, you had to know people’s email addresses. Crazy, I know. There was no ‘like’ button, no ‘retweet’ icon that allowed you to share it with your nearest and dearest and the 300 other people that had accumulated like layers of sediment in your account. And because it is so easy and fast to share the latest meme, LOLcats are positively fossils in the many Ages of the Internet. In the last couple of years, moving memes - animated GIFs - have become increasingly popular as pithy little replies that encapsulate a specific mood. They are like the internet equivalent of representing our feelings through the Medium of Dance.
‘What’s the point of memes? You could spend that time reading a book’. This is true, but everybody is familiar with the book as a medium, less so with the internet. Of course, this has not always been the case, and for most of human history the 1% referred to those people who could read, and the 99% were the ones who couldn’t. This all changed in the 19th century when education increasingly became the priority it is today and literacy rates started growing significantly. Additionally the Industrial Revolution saw the introduction of new technologies that made printing cheaper and more efficient, as well as new modes of transport that made distribution faster. Add a confident and burgeoning middle class perennially on the lookout for new business opportunities and you have the boom of the publishing industry that characterises the first decades of the nineteenth century. Suddenly books meant serious money, in that they were still considered a luxury item for most people, but newspapers and magazines were accessible and this became the golden age of the serialized novel. These were stories aimed to thrill their readers and the cliffhanger endings of each chapter were a hook that would guarantee the purchase of the next issue.
As literacy was becoming less of a sign of social distinction, some cultivated minds, particularly budding authors interested in exerting social influence, started to actively demarcate the line between art and commerce. The distinction between high and low culture thus became deeply entrenched in social discourse. Because more people could read, aspiring writers in the second half of the century became increasingly eager to present themselves as producers of original stimulating works as opposed to the mass-produced expressions such as the shilling-shockers and penny-dreadfuls that were by now being so enthusiastically churned out. Influential literary critics and other arbiters of taste accused serialized novels of being conventional, stereotypical, cliché-laden. And so they were, but this was not a flaw, this was the aim. Authors, publishers and readers were initially not interested in aesthetic innovation because there was frankly very little to innovate on. The novel was still a relatively new genre, shown in the confusion of terminologythat surrounded it. How long was a novel meant to be? Was it just a very long tale in print? Most potential readers had no genre expectations because being able to decipher printed symbols on a page was a relatively new business to begin with. The aim of all those archetypes, conventions and repetitions that populate these early forays into mass media can be viewed as a grammar with which people gradually became familiar. After some exposure, readers would get a thrill from spotting patterns, from recognizing clichés and feeling part of community, a growing community that had got to grips with these new - frankly intimidating - things called printed words.
All new technologies are scary and people are generally averse to change. That is, until you show them the basics and then they will latch onto it like crazed marmosets onto a banana cargo. Which brings me to this new scary technology called the internet. When I met my boyfriend he was part of the (internet) 1% and I was part of the 99%. He is of course still more technologically literate than me, but now even my 91-year-old granddad has a Facebook account and emails me enormous multi-megabyte photos of his holidays. And who am I to lecture about file compression? When he was born, ‘talkies’ was common term, not just one employed by people doing Film Studies. Now I can talk to him in Denmark from this little square that also carries all my music and can take pictures, even record videos that I can instantly zap to him. For all I know magic pixies riding on invisible unicorns are carrying these moving images up to Copenhagen. It somehow works, but I have no idea how. And it’s changing all time. The internet is still a pretty daunting place and most of us have this nagging feeling that we are bluffing, that we deep down have no idea what’s going on. It’s still a new technology and we don’t know what to expect in much the same way that our newly-literate ancestors didn’t know what to expect from the printed media or its future possibilities. Memes in this way can be seen as the internet equivalent of serialized novels. Memes are meant to be repetitive, archetypal and easily reproducible and remixable. New memes build on or reference this archive that we have accumulated over the years. Recognizing the patterns gives us a sense of belonging, that we belong to a growing community that feels comfortable sharing cat pictures with captions, even moving pictures, like GIFs. Or uploading talkies to YouTube. It’s a way of easing us into this new world and familiarizing us with intimidatingly sophisticated technology (magic pixies!) in a seemingly trite and simplified manner. The future is bright, the future is scary but Nyan cat will help us.
And no, this should not be read as a particular wordy excuse for my undying love of kitten videos.