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Rajiv Naresh Headshot

Meme Wars and the Death of the Underground

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In the past week, college rivalry took a surprising turn when college-centric memes went viral. From London to Scotland, Warwick to Ontario: Universities around the world started creating groups on Facebook that consisted of reinterpreting standardized Internet memes with a localized university feel. Much of this involved taking pot-shots at their historical rivals. The phenomenon continues with memes being posted daily, however the quality of effort and creativity has definitely subsided. Nevertheless, a casual sojourn to your university meme base on Facebook is a welcome method of procrastinating while procrastinating. Moreover, the fun is amplified when you can identify with the situations and people that the memes aim at parodying. This is obviously impossible if you belong to one of those educational institutions that have not jumped on the meme bandwagon. If so, get with the program.

As the meme wars subside and people lose interest, what is fascinating is how the Internet and social media have colluded to transform the nature of how culture is transmitted. We've shifted gears from the 'viral' era. Culture's now going pandemic. And there's just no way to stop it. There was a time when Internet memes were relegated to a small coterie of Internet geeks who cherished their exclusivity, played lots of massively multi-player online role-playing games, and shared images, ideas, jokes and phrases within their community. A new metalanguage was created and cherished by those who could talk the talk. Then the unthinkable happened, memes went mainstream.

As a university student there is often that moment of realization, an epiphany if you will, when you are both amazed and appalled at your ability to procrastinate. There might've been a time when technology was not as accessible and where people actually got some learning done. This time has passed. Then came along Mr. Zuckerberg with his massive social network, and all hell has broken loose. Social media has created a viable climate for the dissemination of content in myriad ways. All of this has been the climate in which the internet meme has grown into a force to be reckoned with.

As many self-styled hipster friends of mine rung the death knell of exclusivity, a strange thought occurred to me. The Internet in its all-encompassing way, combined with the force of social media has created a cultural economy where exclusivity is impossible. As a society, we've always had underground elements of culture that some of us have intimately known as the majority of us trudge through mainstream society. The establishment was always challenged in smoke-filled rooms filled with artists and intellectuals forwarding ideas to battle mainstream discourse. Or so I think.

In his piece entitled "Death of the Cyberflaneur", published in the New York Times, Evgeny Morozov laments the demise of a certain freedom that a digital and networked future, brimming with hope, seemed to promise. The Internet was to be the resurrection of bygone vestige of culture, "what the city and the street were to the Flâneur, the Internet and the Superhighway have become to the Cyberflâneur." The flâneur was an emblem of modernity, a man who strolled in the shadows of Parisian arcades, absorbing and giving, yet faceless. The cyber flâneur was to be his digital cousin, exploring the liberated domain of cyberspace. There was a sense of idealization that came with the Internet era; a sense of an escapist digital fantasy where one could retreat into their own identities and be wistful, pointless and aimless individuals.

Social media has tended to excavate any possibility of an underground cultural community. The world is connected and networked to every nook and cranny and there's apparently no where you can be alone, sit in your exclusive circle, and develop your own subculture. Once you do, it's soon going to be found, proliferated, and corrupted. We cannot stroll through the Internet and don various effigies. We must consolidate a singular identity. With 845 million users worldwide, Facebook has decided on behalf of the cyber universe that everything MUST be social. And the tyranny of a compulsorily social world is that it negates the possibility of the underground and the alternative. It inverts and subsumes any subcultural unit that aims to proliferate outside it bounds.

When Richard Dawkins coined the word meme he spoke about a soup of human culture where cultural units leap from brain to brain by processes of interpretation and imitation. With the Internet and social media nexus, we're evolving a totalized and unitary cultural vocabulary. You can't just walk aimlessly through cyberspace anymore. You must have a purpose and it must be negotiable within certain restrictions. Your social media entity is your Internet passport and it grants you access. The basis of human interaction has changed irretrievably and solitude is becoming increasingly impossible.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't me forwarding some cyberpunk ghastly vision where the Internet is the reason the world is an awful place. This isn't me choosing to go renegade and abandoning my cyber self. Its ironic how social media will be the reason you come across this article. I'm just questioning the lack of a choice. There was a time when you could easily choose to abandon mainstream discourse and you had access to stroll unnoticed through the Internet and do your own thing. That's no longer possible.

Some will say I'm getting carried away. Some will say I'm an alarmist, leftist, anti-technology and then proceed to unkinder labels. All I'm saying that maybe we're living in the era where the underground is about to kick the bucket, or maybe I'm just too mainstream to think otherwise.