Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Dynamic Meme

A few weeks ago, after playing a game called "Rick Roller," (which baffled me completely) I decided to find out what the heck a Rick Roller is. The Google search returned four types of things: the Rick Roller game, videos and articles on how to Rick Roll, a Wikipedia article on "Rickrolling," and several YouTube URLs of some character named Rick Astley.

Having never been Rick Rolled, I was astounded at how pervasive rickrolling (it's already lost its upper case in some articles) has become. It started as an internet meme, a term or speech (typing?) habit that becomes a catchphrase because of its embodiment of internet weirdnesses (other examples include "Lolcats," quoting random lines from the movie 300 when they make the least sense, purposely making typos like "teh," etc.).

Internet memes carry more signification than it seems. They often self-consciously point to the problems of communicating through a keyboard (PWNED), the problems of communicating at high speed(LOL!!111), and to the reciprocal flow of intertextuality between the internet and other popular media. They are also aware that the internet's system of communication depends on frameworks that do not exist in face-to-face communication, such as routing (and it is this knowledge which makes the rickroll meme, a simple unexpected re-route, so successful as a communication interruption). At an even higher level of self-consciousness, internet memes are aware that they are memes and they are aware of their uncanny ability to spread virally. And curiously, I am not aware of any internet meme that is not funny, or at least meant to be funny. When you consider the dialogic nature of these memes, their embracing of popular culture no matter how tasteless, and the self-consciousness in communication that makes them possible, internet memes seem to be the ultimate postmodern texts.

Some of these memes have moved from the internet into the dimension of speaking people socializing and working in "meatspace" (that should be a technical term by now). Some of them, to be sure, entered the internet from other media and came back out somewhat changed, and certainly better known, e.g. "All your base are belong to us." Rickrolling, however, began as an internet meme that used bad popular culture (music) as the icing on the cake of its genius disruption of internet navigation.

Navigation and routing on the internet, as mentioned above, is part of the internet's system of communication. We depend upon it to function properly, because we seek some meaning based on what a link is called or on what someone says it points to. Not only is the signifier that we get when we click through to Rick unintelligible, but it interrupts the task of information getting. It is a discontinuity in the way the internet is supposed to behave. According to computer scientist Garry Marshall, part of the routing system's goal is "to ensure that the users of the virtual world provided by the data space are unaware of the underlying network." Rickrolling makes us aware of it, as it calls our attention to our dependence on links to "say" what they "mean." What appears to be a communication breakdown is disorienting, but also funny, because of the kitschy content chosen to accompany the confusion.

I must now interrupt myself to mount a defense: Rickrolling, which may be one of the most bizarre and original internet pranks, is definitely heads above the ubiquitous LOLCATS and internet gaming language in its conceptuality. In an article for the U of Alberta magazine The Gateway, a student who shares my awe of the rickroll tears into internet memes that are "teh suck" and defends Rick as a truly positive communication phenomenon.

Rickrolling has, like its fellow internet memes, made its way out into meatspace in several incarnations. It was supposedly used at a college basketball game to interrupt at half-time, but the first instance of this game-interrupting was found to be staged and edited to look like an actual interruption. Even though that instance never really took place, its hoax video has inspired actual rickrolls at sporting events. Unfortunately no one at the Mets game got the joke. Students and young workers have used the song to interrupt their own video and Power Point presentations or broadcast the song through a store's PA system, but again without the desired effect. One of few successful TV attempts at rickrolling happened on a news show when an anchorwoman twice asked for a link on the screen to be clicked, and there was Rick, and Rick again.

I think the only instance of rickrolling that has made a significant mark on meatspace was the 2008 protest in front of The Church of Scientology in Los Angeles, California. Masked protesters (concerned that the Scientologists would attempt to identify them and then work their Scientology voo doo on them) held boomboxes aloft and performed a live rickroll of the church. The message of the rickroll, when used as a protest, is a powerful one. "We have interrupted what you are trying to communicate. We have interrupted what you are doing. We are not listening to you. Your messages are rendered powerless because we are speaking over them with one seemingly unintelligible but unified secret-code-message. Your messages have no more meaning than a Rick Astley video." Just as the rickroll discloses the pitfalls of internet communication, it attempts to disclose the Church of Scientology. Or at least, it makes people ask questions about it. In this instance, the internet meme of the rickroll becomes a cultural meme, carrying with it a kind of irreverence, solidarity, humor, and a more serious demand for disclosure.

Although many of the onlookers at the protest, and the Scientologists themselves, probably had no idea what was going on, the event was of course videoed, put up on YouTube, and linked automatically by YouTube to all the other rickroll-related videos. Rickrollers and rickrollees now know about the protest, and will surely try to use the song in a similar way. As silly as it may be as an internet meme, I think the cultural meme of rickrolling could be a useful, non-violent means of protest and demonstration. Protests often have interruption and confusion as their methods of attention-getting, and the introduction of chaos broadcasts a well-understood message of challenging the status-quo while pointing to the chaos that is a natural function of human life, and in this case, communication.

Rick Astley has been awfully good natured about this whole thing, and has lately done interviews and talk shows all over the world. But linguists or cultural theorists who might write on rickrolling would not really consider his opinion of it. Astley is not really part of the meaning, even if he is part of the chaos of it.

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