in the Kinkos forest
Sunday, August 27 2000
Well, let's see here. I've had two people (1,2) who figured out how to successfully build their own random phrase generators. I develop a way to provide something unique, distinct from the usual free-email/messageboard/horoscope you find on every other community website, and only two people besides its author actually manage to get it to work. I suppose I should be happy that anyone did. But I'm not discouraged. I'll be making plenty more database battleships to float in the bathtub of my membership. I'm in a pretty rare position, actually, being able to come up with any sort of interactive system that crosses my mind and immediately trying it out with my web readership.
I think everybody of any intelligence wants (or has wanted) to change the world. No matter what your views are, with all the obviously bad things going on, how can you help but have this feeling? The problem with this desire is that no one person can do but so much. To accomplish real change, you have to foment a movement. You have to tap into an existing desire in the minds of millions and catalyze them into action. The only problem with this is that the vast bulk of people are very, well, mediocre. To get many people to resonate with what you have to say, you have to boil all the nuance and complexity out of it and serve it as a limp mush. This accounts for the rapid proliferation of such memes as N'Sync, Britney Spears, and the Backstreet Boys.
This is not to say that intelligent, nuanced memes don't occasionally spread through mainstream culture, often misleading its champions into thinking that a utopia is finally dawning. The spread of such memes is almost always based on a widespread misunderstanding of the content of the meme. Take, for example, the sudden popularity of Nirvana in the early 90s. While many people such as myself were saying, "It's about time we had something good on top 40 radio," the truth of the matter was that most of the people enjoying this "new" sort of music couldn't make out the nihilist social commentary wadded up in the lyrics. This was demonstrated by the increasingly evident baseball cap meme at Nirvana stadium shows as the early 90s wore on. Those frat boys just wanted to rock, AC/DC-style. Similarly, such REM songs as "The One I Love" wouldn't have been nearly as popular if mainstream Americans had understood they weren't actually love songs.
Many of its early firebrands were convinced that the web represented the last great hope for the intelligent message. Throughout the late 90s, all sorts of "alternative" sites sprung up, hoping to serve the radical, the marginalized, the odd, the intelligent, people who, we all knew, were being underserved by the mass media.
But not long into the web era people began to realize that quality web ventures don't come cheap. And though venture capitalists were, for a time, lavish with their cash, the cash came with demands. The principle demand was traffic. To a venture capitalist, an excellent website without much traffic isn't any different from a lame Geocities site. Unfortunately, the easiest way to drive traffic is to appeal to the great American common folk, the fastest growing online demographic. To reach these eyeballs, you can't continue to feature intelligent, nuanced material. You have to go low. There have been two interesting articles in Salon recently exploring this phenomenon. One concerns the lost dream of ass-kicking sites for women. The other explains how viral marketing on the web is most successful when it features content by and for average Americans. We can call this the pink flamingoification of the online world.
As a side note, I'd like to give my interpretation for the wild success of viral marketing schemes featuring the butts of naked babies (one of the more memorable examples given by the Salon article). My interpretation starts with the premise that there is a lot of discomfort in this country with the notion that children might be viewed by some as sexual objects. Like homophobia, this fear is probably rooted in the fact that many of the people having this fear actually themselves have a subconsciously sexualized view of children. While I'm certainly not a pedophile myself, I can imagine how a repressed Puritan mind might fantasize about such things. Little kids are soft and smooth and have big eyes. They're little bundles of innocence just waiting to be sullied. My feeling about all the naked baby butts replicating through the networks of Iowa Christians, Michigan Grandmothers and Ladies of the Heart is that this represents a form of repressed and barely-acceptable child pornography, titillating people having subconscious pedophillic urges. Psychologists have long known that revulsion is simply id fascination buried under superego guilt.
I'm only just coming to grips with the fact that, if I ever want to say anything meaningful, my words will only reach a smattering of people. There was a time when I thought viral marketing could work to spread the irreverent, the subversive, even the radical. But the truth is that the vast bulk of humanity don't get the jokes I want to hear. I remember the failed FlashFlicks project at CollegeClub, championed by VP of Marketing Adam Jacobs as a way to get something a little more interesting happening in the dullard CollegeClub community. But guess what? For the most part CollegeClub members weren't interested in (or even understood) the craziness of those Flash animations we featured. The project couldn't reach a critical mass among the members of that community. And while it's true that some extremely funny Flash animations have proliferated on the web, in order to do so they had to be introduced into just the right sort of community. Just the process of registering on the numbingly bland CollegeClub site, it seems, was enough to damp out any viral momentum behind that noble effort.
In the afternoon, Kim came over because we had some business to attend to. For whatever reason we'd failed in an earlier attempt to transfer the domain name Bathtubgirl.com to her name. So today we drove down to the Kinkos at the corner of Olympic and Bundy to meet up with a professional notary public so we could do everything in a super-legal way. I don't know why Kim was making such a big deal over it, having the transfer presided over by a Dan Reitman, but whatever, I played along.
This particular Kinkos is in a brick building so densely covered with leafy vines that you feel like you're entering the impenetrable forest when you go through the front door. But once inside it's unmistakably a Kinkos. The people are the usual sadly solitary individuals you always find in Kinkos. The women all look like working moms and the men all have the lonely dejected look of the recently-divorced and not-so-recently shaved.
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