Tag Archives: internet

Slaying Shakespeare’s Holofernes with a series of tubes (and cat pictures)

“Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years. How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors.”
– Stephen Fry

 

During our morning commute, my wife and I discussed – what else? – internet memes, because we are those kinds of people, I guess. I mentioned how a friend on Facebook wrote a status asking anybody else if they have also felt the feeling of reinvigorating enthusiasm in an art they had long become complacent in. I left a reply with a picture of Pikachu patting a Caterpie on the back with the caption, “I know that feel bro,” because I am that kind of person, I guess.

I proceeded to tell my wife how “I know that feel bro” is one of my new all-time favorite Internet memes, how it seemed to perfectly encompass that feeling of deep resonance with someone else’s obstacles, plights, or victories. I struggled to capture the words in describing this to my wife, when she patted me on the knee and told me straight-faced, “I know that feel, bro.”

This is why I love my wife.

But on to more meme-ish matters, what about “I know that feel bro” captures my heart so? A lot of people have complained that the Internet has broken English, and no better place to see this than the battlefield known as Internet memes, wherein lies a hundred thousand million broken letters, words, phrases, and sentences, where weapons of mass grammatical destruction are deployed on a regular basis. Or, that is how the pedants wish to portray the state of the English language on the vast plane we call the Interwebs. But I would beg to differ.

What is it about terribly written English and the Internet? One cannot blame simple ignorance – while the leakage of Internet memes into places like Facebook have certainly diluted the demographics, for a while now, the vast majority of people who created memes were 20-30 years old and educated, if not a bit cynical as a whole and underachieving. The use of broken English may have originated in the first of the memes – cat photos with captions – because the idea of a cat (and, subsequently, dogs, frogs, penguins, and honey badgers) mastering the English language is only slightly more absurd than their daily adventures and mishaps. But there is something joyful, even pleasurable, in manipulating the English language, in breaking it and bending it and reshaping it to fit your own whims. This activity is what poets have enjoyed for centuries.

In a way, the Internet has become a collective Shakespeare, not that epics of masterful insight into the human condition are regularly produced from the keyboards of a million bloggers (though the Internet has certainly produced some epic things, see also: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, The Guild, the Woot.com product descriptions, et al). Rather, the Internet collectively imitates arguably Shakespeare’s most lasting legacy on the English language – the popularization of completely made-up words. Some words he just mashed together, some he stole and bastardized from other languages, and others he just made up completely. That’s the kind of English maverick he was. He didn’t care about the current rules; he broke the rules constantly and made you like it.[1]

But back to the Internet – over the course of a decade, it’s spawned a cavalcade of new words. Email, for example, or log on, blog, and (shudder) webinar. But the meme community has also spawned some very sticky catchphrases that have, (perhaps) against all odds, conquered the general American English landscape. Perhaps most noticeable is the word “fail,” once a verb, now nouned into existence (often found with the superlative “epic” attached to it). This new usage of the word “fail” has become the new “-gate” for many journalists (think goodness). Even people who have only a perfunctory access to the Internet are familiar with the term. And now, as memes continue its expanding pervasiveness, an entire generation of high school students now say things out loud like “I can has x?” or “y all the z!” or “like a sir” or “why you no x!” Even popular phrases such as “true story”, “I lied!” or “oh God why” have taken on new meaning thanks to the Internet memes of the world.

Yes, some people will look at this as some wholesale genocide against the English language, but I would counter that the pure joy and appeal of using such phrases is its subversive nature against the English language. People began employing terrible English because they well understood the rules of language. It’s why turns of phrase like “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” or “The play’s the thing, to catch the conscience of the king” or “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try” tickle the fancies of English lovers everywhere. These sentences bend and break the general syntax structure; they play with grammar and vocabulary and connotations of words. They defy general expectations of what English is supposed to look and sound like. And that’s why poorly written English memes have become so popular as well.

Sure, over time, the memes will lose their punch and soon people will use them as everyday language, even when they don’t understand where the phrase derived its meaning, or why it was so popular in the first place. Many of Shakespeare’s manipulations and innovations within the English language are also duly employed by many everyday English speakers everywhere without a second thought to their originator. Many strange phrases in English are like that, such as “turn of phrase” or “bee’s knees” or “between a rock and a hard place,” employed by many, its history and implications understood only by a few. That’s the way English evolves.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Internet memes is the accidental nature of it all. I doubt that the very first person to utilize the nounified version of the word “fail” did it deliberately, savoring in the delicious, poetic deviance of it all. In fact, this very popular usage most likely was born out of ignorance or, ha, an English fail. But the English speaking community in turn appropriated it for their own as a flagship of Internet speak, if you will, a dialect that created a sense of identity and belonging that mutated into a widely popular new usage of a very old word. The War on English that the Internet is waging (which many assert is happening) is not necessarily a wave of barbarians beating on the Hadrian’s Wall of the English-speaking Rome (this metaphor just got weird). Rather, it is the age-old war between dialects, a verbal rebellion against the authorities-that-be who seek to control and preserve language for their own purposes while rarely understanding why.

But sweeping, romantic linguistic ideology aside, if anything, the vast popularity of the Internet meme (and its ability to invade the English langauge offline) has proved the old adage that a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the works of William Shakespeare. While, perhaps, we have not seen the exact wording of Shakespeare produced by the incessant pounding of a billion bloggers at their keyboards, we have seen the spirit of Shakespeare and his adventurous, subversive use of the English language emerge from the ruthless environment of billions of memes competing against each other until the very best (or, at the very least, the most infectious) rise to the top and proliferate into our language. It is, you could say, an almost beautiful accidental poetry.

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[1] In fact, that’s how you could term all of Shakespeare’s career – a giant love affair with the English language. In his first play, Love’s Labours Lost, he fires the warning shots with the character Holofernes, a side act for the main story, involving a bunch of over-educated pedants dicussing the English language and how horrible everyone is and how awesome they are. Holofernes, the most pretentious of them all, talking about someone else’s English speaking:

He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer
than the staple of his argument. I abhor such
fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and
point-devise companions; such rackers of
orthography, as to speak dout, fine, when he should
say doubt; det, when he should pronounce debt,–d,
e, b, t, not d, e, t: he clepeth a calf, cauf;
half, hauf; neighbour vocatur nebor; neigh
abbreviated ne. This is abhominable,–which he
would call abbominable: it insinuateth me of
insanie: anne intelligis, domine? to make frantic, lunatic.

The true irony (which Shakespeare may or may not have intended) is that Holofernes’ practice of pronouncing the ‘b’ in ‘debt’ and so forth have fallen mostly out of favor, even though he would swear up and down until he was blue in the face that we are mangling the English language. Such is the way language goes.

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Embracing Our Evil Overlords

We often have a tendency to rhapsodize the past while lamenting how we’ve somehow lost something essential to humanity in the present.

For example, I talked to a friend of mine seven years younger than me. He eulogized on how the Internet had killed the personal relationship, and how it’s so much harder to actually maintain any “real” relationships with anyone nowadays because of the Internet.

I laughed.

I remember the days of America Online, when you would receive tens upon tens of CDs in the mail to try this new “World Wide Web” thing. I remember the days when my mother would carefully schedule phone calls home in order to get the best rates in long distance. I remember upgrading our rotary phone to a touch tone phone, when we upgraded our corded phone to a cordless and the freedom it provided during a phone call, when we got our first answering machine and how dependent we grew upon it, how if your sister was talking to her friend on the phone you had no choice but to wait or yell at her to get off so that you could talk to your friend on the phone. I remember the past, calling my friend’s home phone and letting it ring six times before giving up and deciding they weren’t home to answer it.

I remember when the best way to keep in contact with my friend in Sandy, Utah was to write hand written letters. We communicated perhaps once a month at best. Snail mail used to be the standard procedure for communicating anyone with whom you didn’t want to pay long distance to talk to on the phone. When we got America Online for the first time, I remember how maybe a total of twenty websites existed commercially. The first time I logged into a chat room (remember those), I marveled how easily it became to connect with people who had the same interests you did.

I could go on.

No, maintaining relationships is so much easier with the advent of the Internet. I can follow friends who I otherwise would have no real feasible physical contact with, peering into the minutiae of their life through Twitter, talking with them on Google Chat, and commenting on their photos with Facebook. My friend Quinton and I remained great friends despite never living in the same state for seven years straight. My friend David and I have started a collaborative project together collecting Mormon folklore despite the fact that we live over a thousand miles away. And my missionary brother and I can send emails instantaneously, even though from time to time, my brother doesn’t even live in the same day as me.

In other words, life is awesome.

Which is why I laugh when people complain about targeted ads.

Do people not remember how advertisements used to work? How ad agencies would have to dilute their ads to the lowest common denominator in order to placate as many demographics as possible? Remember how we used to only get coupons if we checked in the mail, how 99% of them didn’t apply to you (and still don’t today)? Remember how the only way you could figure out what was on sale at your favorite store was to either physically check the brick-and-mortar storefront or to sign up for a newsletter  that they mailed to you?

Today, I get Borders coupons straight to my email inbox. I print out the ones I want and bring them in. Best Buy lets me know what discounts are available this week without me ever leaving the house. I sign up for newsletters from various small companies that would normally never be able to broadcast their services if we still needed to push information through some form of physical medium. For example, every month, a small organic farm in Carnation, Washington lets me know scheduled events. Every week, the Farmers Market Alliance lets me know what’s currently in harvest. My wife gets JoAnn and Michaels coupons, comparing which are better. Instead of just sending the mainstream music I abhor, Amazon carefully analyzes what I download for free and lets me know which indie bands released what this week. Usually, it’s pretty spot on. Meanwhile, my wife recently bought knitting needles through Amazon – she now gets notices that such and such knitting product is on sale.

In fact, it’s gotten to the point where traditional marketing irritates me. When Facebook ads are completely off the mark (and they usually are), I roll my eyes and huff a little. Whenever we have to sit through another asinine car commercial while watching Hulu, my wife and I groan and move on to something else. But whenever an ad is specifically targeted at us, our eyebrows raise, we look at each other, discuss the pros and cons of purchasing the product, and then make a decision. If we decided it’s useful (and we try to exercise caution in our consumer habits), then buy it and usually, we get some value out of it. If we decide it’s not useful, we ignore it and move on.

I find the whole opposition to more and more precise marketing research through the collection of demographic information somewhat hilarious. We spend our entire lives carefully crafting a self-image (a brand, if you will). We willfully choose what we wear and what we eat and what we read and what we buy and what we use and what sports we play and what music we listen to in order to send a message about ourselves. Even those who “don’t care” often will carefully craft their nonchalant attitude towards consumerism. This we do to communicate Who We Are to our friends, family, and even strangers. But when big bad marketers decide to help narrow down our product searches, instead of viewing it as a symbiotic relationship, we cry foul. Strange.

Does it really matter whether or not someone in a corporate office knows that you like ABBA and Ikea’s Swedish meatballs?

And how come nobody seems to care that the previous Republican president illegally wiretapped American citizens?

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Handyman, 2.0 – A story in five short acts

I.

I’m a freshman in college, opting to avoid the dorms. I live in an apartment with several roommates. Over the course of six months, not only my roommates but also my various friends demonstrate skill in some kind of repair. My roommate repairs a cabinet and unclogs a sink; one of my friends repairs a broken down car; another can fix a bike with a blindfold on. Growing up middle class and suburbian, I focused more on SATs than car repair. I had no idea where the breaker switches were in my house, but I could tell you all of the different strategies for passing an AP test. But for some reason, knowing the different ways DNA is replicated or what a caesura is didn’t make up for the “man skills” I was supposed to know in the predominantly conservative Utah environment.

“What are you going to do when you get married and have to help around the house?” was the common question. I murmured something under my breath about how I was learning slowly this and that, and I would become proficient when necessity struck, but I knew as the months of my life passed by, I still didn’t know the proper way to paint a room or how to lay tile on grout for a new kitchen floor (I would learn these specific skills years later, helping a friend remodel his home during an especially brutal Oklahoma summer).

So as I walked out of the humanities building with my friend that crisp night, and we ran into a fellow student who needed help jumping his car whose battery had died, I felt helpless, standing on the sidelines as my friend expertly pulled out his jumper cables and attached the right clamps to the right battery socket-things and charge the anonymous student’s vehicle. The first emotion that ran through me was resentment. How come I never knew about any of these things? Why didn’t my father teach me any of this? The second emotion quickly following on its heels is guilt. I felt like I had lost out on some real hands-on learning, but most of it really was my fault. My father had tried several times to interest me in cars or lawn care – I refused to learn. After all, I was too busy studying and hanging out with friends to learn how to change the oil in a car. And that night, not feeling very handy at all, I regretted it.

II.

In English class my freshman year in high school, we took a mandatory career test so lovingly sponsored by the school counselors (one of which who would also lovingly misplace my entire student record senior year, almost causing me not to graduate). I wondered what results I would get – while many of my friends had some form of vision in their minds of the various careers they wished to pursue, I had not yet picked on out. An entire decade later, at the age of 24, this subject would continue to be a thorn in my side.

My friends got their results first – for some reason, I made a lot of friends whose first names began with letters in the first half of the alphabet. They quickly tore open the crisp, white envelopes. They came in envelopes to protect the student’s privacy, but the contents would quickly disclose itself to everyone around the student anyway. Computer programmer. Scientist. Lawyer. Doctor. Nurse. I almost trembled in anticipation – finally, a test that could tell the future, declare to me the path of which I should take! The envelope soon came to me, and I opened it almost reverently (though quickly, still) and unfolded its mystical contents.

Handyman.

The first option sat very forebodingly on my paper. Handyman? My friends (some of which would go on to become material science engineers, lawyers, and doctors) laughed it away, saying these tests are anything but fact, but I still remember the shame to this day. I didn’t even know anything about fixing doors or replacing window screens. No accounting, entrepreneurship, chemistry, or writing jobs for me. How did this test acquire such a result?

III.

“Did you ever notice,” my friend drawls to me as we sit in our friend’s kitchen, “That when a girl wants to impress a guy, she goes all domestic on him?” He jabs a finger at my friend, busily beating some eggs for brownies and humming happily, baking her tokens of affection for a certain lucky boy.

“Perhaps it’s a sign of eligibility for marriage. You know, ‘I’m really good at keeping house, an essential aspect of a relationship.’ You’re showing off your skills,” I reply.

“So what do guys do to show off? We’re not exactly supposed to be all domestic and cook and clean a lot, unfortunately for you.” He raises an eyebrow at me.

I mentally brush his pointed comment aside. “Earning power. Able to fix things, I suppose.”

“Yeah, I can see that. Most people in lucrative majors get married quicker, and those people who major in something less lucrative usually don’t get married at all.” He’s watching with amusement at our love sick friend, who rarely exhibited this side of her before.

“You could say that.”

My friend shrugs, then looks again in my direction. “So where does that leave you, Mr. English major?”

My face doesn’t even flinch, and I shrug back, but inside I’m flailing my arms around. I had never considered this prospect before.

IV.

I don’t remember exactly why she needed to bring it. But my girlfriend (whom I would later marry) had to bring it over for some reason, and after I saw it, that’s all that dominated my mind.

“Wait right here,” she told me, when the problem arose in my apartment. The next sentence she says quite smugly. “I’ve got a toolbox.”

This declaration came right after her incredulity that I didn’t even possess a single hammer to my name.

She arrives moments later with a bright red toolbox brimming with tools, similar to one my father owned. Pulling out all kinds of tools, from an entire wrench set to a power drill, I stand there somewhat flabbergasted. She had always been very quiet, possessing a very demure type of competence as an accounting major brilliant at numbers and organization. Suddenly, this same girlfriend stands before me, nimbly figuring out ratchet heads by feel and memory and affixing them to whatever that handle thing is called. As she shows off her tools one by one, she asks me condescendingly (in a cute way, I suppose), “Do you know what a screwdriver is?”

“Yes,” I reply exasperated. “I know what a screwdriver is.”

“How about the difference between a Phillips screwdriver and a flathead screwdriver?”

“The Phillips has the nub thing, and the flathead is all…well, flat.”

My girlfriend rolls her eyes, then pushes a lock of hair out of her face (in an incredibly casual-sexy manner) as she continues to fix the problem.

“Fine, fine. I think I might need a level. Can you pass it to me?”

“The what?”

V.

For about sixteen hours, our household lay completely paralyzed. Constant construction on a new road nearby often resulted in brief, temporary power outages and, even more devastating, a momentary lapse of Internet. We had just experienced one of these blinks, and now the modem refused to follow our simple instructions to connect with Gmail. And thus, we wandered through the deserts of Sinai, without direction or aim.

The lack of Internet meant death for us – my work relied on a constant Internet connection, and my wife required the Internet extensively for school. Her capstone project ran completely on the Internet, and she communicated endlessly with her classmates for the never ending stream of group projects she needed to complete during her last semester in college. We needed the internet dearly.

Eight of those empty hours occurred while we slept. So our Internet blackout extended over an evening and a morning. Finally, in the morning, I sat down with the laptop, hooked into our modem, and without any real training or knowledge, armed only with a tissue paper wherein my brother-in-law had scrawled the modem password when he set it up for us ten months ago, I tinkered with the controls and settings, relying completely on luck and intuition. A few prayers and false starts later, I had got the Internet up and running within fifteen minutes.

“Ha!” I exclaimed excitedly, pointing at the achievement for my wife, who graciously thanked me for not requiring her to rush to the library before class to finish her projects. I felt wondrously proud of myself, as if this small act of maintenance vindicated something. I just couldn’t figure out why.

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Lost in translation

I’ve never really given much thought to how American internet culture could be making waves in other cultures and languages, until I noticed a YouTube video where the first comment merely said, “Primero.”

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Never gonna give him up (for now)

The riproll? Srsly, internets? Are you that bored?

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The future of writing

In my Introduction to Journalism class, back when I thought my calling in life was to help protect democracy through freedom of the press, my teacher told us bluntly that print journalism is a dying business.

However, he pointed out the fact that journalists will never go away. At the moment, the Internet (the biggest culprit squeezing the life out of the newspaper industry) basically steals articles for free from newspapers. Someday, when all the newspapers are dead, Google and Yahoo! and other news aggregate websites will need to find the journalists who were recently laid off. Though employers may change, the craft will never die as long as humanity thirsts for the latest news.

I’ve been thinking much about the future of writing. One of my old Scoutmasters growing up was a ghostwriter. One of my college friends is a ghost blogger. And, as I was checking my Twitter feeds, will the future soon yield the ghost Twitterer?

Twitter is a huge internet phenomenon, equal to Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. It’s helped break news stories as well as spread panicky rumors faster than ever before. But there is still the perception that Twitter is just getting a hundred inane text messages a day on your cellphone about what your friends ate for lunch. For some people, that’s exactly what Twitter is, but for companies, they realize this is a huge business opportunity. Many companies now have their own Twitter feeds and will send product information, advertisements and general information right to people’s cellphones. It’s more efficient than canvassing a demographic, because those who are the most likely to act on your information are willingly signing up for it. They are literally asking you to spam their cellphone’s text message inbox.

Whenever I mention the idea of the professional Tweeter, however, a lot of people scoff. Will companies really have to hire professional Tweeters to write their own tweets? How hard is it for people to convey information in 140 characters? The answer is very.

One of the most difficult aspects of poetry is fitting to the form. Don’t believe it? Try writing a traditional petrarchian sonnet, “which falls into two parts: an octave of eight lines and sestet of six. The octave rhyme pattern is abba abba (two sets of four lines); the sestet’s lines are more variable: cde cde; or ced ced; or cd cd cd” (DiYanni, 746). Now make it actually sound good

It’s the same thing with a commercial Twitter. You have 140 characters. That’s your form. Now write an advertisement about a Samsung HDTV. What do you write about in such a confining form? Do you write about the size of the screen? The resolution? The price? Which ones do you specifically select and sift until your 140 character advertisement is the most efficient but also the most effective writing to convey the right information and the right motivation?

Chances are, if asked to, the average person could not distill a lot of information into 140 words. That’s where the professional comes in. Technical writers are trained to explain information simply and efficiently. Marketers are trained to write statements that have a powerful rhetoric to motivate customers to the company’s advantage. Combine the two together and add a dash of a poet’s spirit, and you have the professional commercial Tweeter.

Is it really necessary to distill everything about our world into 140 character segments? Could this be a bad thing? Maybe. However, writing styles have always changed, from Dickens’ flowery language to Hemmingway’s more direct, sparse diction, and commercial writing was never meant to be literature anyway. Instead, our ability to disseminate and process information seems to become more and more efficient as time goes on. The internet has given the average consumer an edge in information, and as the old saying goes, knowing is half the battle. Twitter has given corporations and companies a direct conduit to the consumer, but applications like Twitter has also given a direct conduit between consumers themselves. Just as fast as companies can produce 140 character advertisements, so can one piece of information or scandal bring down the company as it flashes across the Twitter network.

And as far as our attention spans go, Harry Potter and Twilight have broken the golden rule that our generation hates to read big books. Writing (and subsequently, reading) will never truly go away, no matter how much the world may change.

Moral of the Story: The future of writing – the professional Tweeter. I called it first.

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