Monday, December 31, 2012

Milhouse IS a meme!

Not that it's a problem...
I feel pretty silly about this, but I made a rather random New Year's resolution last year. I promised that in 2012, I would show the world that the Simpsons character Milhouse Mussolini Van Houten is a legitimate Internet meme, by which I meant that I would eventually take the time to compose a fairly thorough analysis of the Milhouse as meme phenomenon. While there are a lot of things that are far more important than this subject that I could and should be focusing my time on, I was planning on doing some writing for personal reasons, and having one day left in 2012, I figured why not do this, and then I'd have a (very) small sense of accomplishment.

C'mon, I swear it won't hurt...
There's an important point that I should get out of the way off the top, and that has to do with the meaning of the term "meme" in the first place. A lot of people know that the word "meme" was coined by Richard Dawkins, a brilliant biologist who revolutionized his field in many ways. I've probably written about him before, and I have mixed feelings on the range of his views in many areas, but that's beside the point. The real point here is that in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene in which he revolutionized the concepts of genetics and how they relate to the understanding of evolutionary theory, he extended those ideas to the world of information, setting up the concept of the "meme" in the world of thought and ideas to parallel the well-known biological idea of the "gene". I need to go back to his initial description of the concept (which I am admittedly explaining from memory of a book I read over twenty years ago) to make a distinction.

This is a longstanding issue.
The word "meme", like so many other words, has come over time to change its meaning as accepted by the culture, and particularly Internet culture. In Dawkins' original definition of the concept, there was perhaps not a great divide between the term and the much better-known word "idea". Indeed, In a very loose sense, memes (as originally defined) are essentially ideas that have the possibility of being expressed and repeated. As genes can be passed down from parent to child, memes can be passed on from person to person, although the spread of memes is more akin to the biological process of genes spreading through viruses: a virus has its own DNA, and when you are infected my a virus, your body will duplicate that DNA and possibly pass it on to other people with whom you come into contact, but the virus' DNA is not your own, you simply carry and spread it.

Anyone can be a meme!
With that parallel in mind, I just want to state a fact that is interesting, but ultimately trivial: Milhouse is unequivocally a meme in the original sense of the term. This is trivial because in the end, every character on the Simpsons is a meme, because every one of them could potentially be spread through culture; a number of them are, particularly through their catchphrases, Homer's "D'oh!" and Bart's "Ay Carumba!" being prime examples. The thing when it comes to memes is that like genes or viruses, they are what they are regardless of their success over time. If a lion was born with a mutated gene that made its fur a glowing bright green, it would probably have a terrible time hunting, and would die out without passing on that gene. A failed gene is still a gene, and the same goes for memes: even if nobody cared about Milhouse whatsoever, he'd still be a meme, just an ineffective one.

He takes failure well.
Now that I've made that note however, I must concede that the modern Internet definition of "meme" is a little more exacting, and yet difficult to pin down with precision. One thing that's sure is that failed memes are not considered memes by the new definition. The main thing that I intend to argue here is that despite the bad press (so to speak) that he has received from the Internet meme community, Milhouse is not a failed meme, and in fact is a very prominent meme within Internet culture.

C'est un fait, non?
There is a lot of confusion about the nature of Milhouse's status as a meme, and of course this mainly comes from the existence of the popular memetic phrase "Milhouse is not a meme." People "in the know", or those who have "meme savvy" know that of course "Milhouse is not a meme." is a meme. Because this phrase is a meme, and a very popular one, it is assumed by many to be a true statement. This ridiculous notion must be dismissed, although it needs to be explained why it can be dismissed, if for no other reason than to alleviate some of that confusion.

Guess one of my favorite websites.
The thing that needs to be recognized by people trying to understand memes of all sorts is that there is no requirement for something to be a true reflection of reality in order to be a meme. In my experience, this becomes a very important issue to remember when memes rise to prominence that are political or religious in nature.

Towards the end of 2011, there was a popular image macro meme based on Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly. Kelly had come on the air shortly after an incident in which a police officer had used pepper spray on some protesters (the cop himself also featuring in a short-lived meme) and said that pepper spray was "a food product, essentially." People made image macros of Kelly's face with captions such as "Rape? It's surprise sex, essentially." and "Bamboo under fingernails? It's a manicure, essentially." While the meme was an attempt to use humor to ridicule Kelly's statement and as such it was rather successful, there were two levels of untruth at work in the usage of that meme. I'm no fan of Fox News or Megyn Kelly, but I hope it's obvious that Kelly did not actually say any of the statements used in the image macros; this type of parody is putting words into someone's mouth that they didn't say, essentially. Somewhat more serious in my mind was the fact that while Kelly's remark was insensitive, it was taken out of context. If one watches the full clip, in her very next sentence, she says, "That's really beside the point, I mean, it was something that was obviously abrasive and intrusive...several went to the hospital." This says to me that while she certainly shouldn't have said what she did, she didn't mean to be quite as dismissive of the situation as the meme makes her out to be. (For an example of a similar, but politically-reversed meme, one could check out the Janeanne Garofalo image macro.)

This guy is a giant among memes.
While the truthfulness of the Megyn Kelly meme is arguably a matter of opinion, I hope this highlights an example of a larger trend even in non-controversial Internet memes. Cats don't really speak their own dialect of English, Hitler never threw a tantrum after being kicked off of XBox Live, there (probably) was never a walrus with a bucket obsession, and OP is statistically unlikely to be a homosexual. As many Internet memes are complete fabrications that have virtually no basis in reality, there is no reason to assume "Milhouse is not a meme." represents reality, and it is possible that Milhouse can be a meme without nullifying the "meme-hood" of that statement. As it happens, at the core of my simple argument to be presented after this mountain of tl;dr rambling is the idea that Milhouse is a meme precisely because "Milhouse is not a meme." is a meme.

Won't somebody
think of the kittens?!
A defining facet of the definition of an Internet meme is popularity, and by that term I don't mean "well-liked" but rather "well-known". Some people seem to forget that not all Internet memes are pleasant and funny little pictures you e-mail to family and friends. Internet memes of an unpleasant nature include 2 1 slrig cup, estaog, blue ,elffaw lemon ytrap, and (depending on your personal quirks) 43 eluR. Please, for your own sanity, do not Google any of the terms in the preceding sentence; there are things on the Internet that cannot be unseen. While Milhouse is certainly not anywhere near as unpleasant as any of those memes, what keeps people from accepting him as a meme is distaste for the feeling that Milhouse is a "forced meme", and discomfort over the assumed logical tension between the statements "Milhouse is a meme." and "'Milhouse is not a meme.' is a meme." Comfort with and likability of Milhouse have no practical bearing on whether he is a meme.

Yes he can!
So why then is it that "Milhouse is not a meme." inevitably leads to Milhouse being a meme? Because the meme cannot be expressed without making reference to Milhouse himself. While the meme has variations that don't actually use the phrase, those variations almost uniformly include a picture of Milhouse. It's the nature of "Milhouse is not a meme." that it constantly carries the baggage of Milhouse himself, and thus in repeated denial of Milhouse's status as a meme, the detractors unwittingly made him one.

Milhouse is indeed a meme. Happy New Year, everyone.

Friday, November 02, 2012

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

This is a story/essay/confession/whatever that I already know before I start will be far too long for most people on the Internet to bother to read, but I make no apologies for that. I may take the time to include one of those "tl;dr" summaries at the end if it strikes me to so, so those of you who tend towards impatience may want to find the last couple paragraphs and check.

I'm having a hard time writing this, not because of emotional difficulty, but because I'm being forced for the time being to type it on someone else's computer, and using someone else's keyboard always feels a bit strange. I can't use my own computer because it's gone.

Of course, "gone" isn't quite the right word for it, but I don't have a better one at the moment. I can see my laptop from where I'm sitting so it's "here", which would seem the opposite of "gone" and therefore a very poor word choice, but I'll stick with it for now. You might think I'm saying it's "gone" in the sense that my cat is "gone". My cat died this week, and while the physical substance that made up her body is still present on the earth, I think you understand, regardless of what you may believe about the afterlife of house pets, that she is gone. The only relation that has to my laptop is the not logically explainable (but hopefully understandable) regret that I was not there with her when she left this world, being instead about 500 miles away. Before my laptop was "gone", I think there was an important sense in which I had not been present for some time. A distance of 500 miles from home certainly can't qualify for "here".

This week has had some of the most personal and difficult-to-explain moments of my life, but I'll shoot for telescoping them to key details. Monday evening, I was using my computer to perform a very simple task, one that anyone could reasonably expect to take in the neighborhood of thirty seconds to complete, at most. I was trying to save a file and upload it to the Internet. Click save, switch active window, click upload, choose the file, tap Enter, and given that I was using a broadband connection, the whole thing would be done before I would have the time to close the lid of the laptop. Somewhere around 20 minutes later, I was still waiting for the Save dialog box to appear, I couldn't switch to another window, and even the old standby Ctrl+Alt+Delete had nothing to give me. It was towards the end of a very long, unpleasant day, which itself was towards the end of a long, unpleasant year, which was several years into a long, unpleasant period of my life. And something in me snapped.

I took my laptop and actually flung it away from me with far more force than I'm sure I ever threw a computer before. This was actually intended to protect it, because I realized had it stayed in my lap another five seconds, my fist would have been through its screen. I don't say that hyperbolically. While I'm quite glad that I haven't lost my temper in years, in the far past such occasions have led to me putting a fist or two though walls, windows, and even once, a two-inch thick dining room table. It's the sort of thing that people do on stage in front of audiences to garner applause, but I don't remember applause in any of those cases, only a great deal of embarrassment after the fact.

Eventually when I got home, I lay on the floor and went to sleep...for about a day and a half. Many of my closer friends know that I've been struggling with depression and ADD for quite some time, and at that moment I hit the floor, I was convinced that I had lost the battle.

Wednesday, I woke up at what must have been a very early hour of the morning, since a little bit of light was coming into the sky, but far from enough to indicate that sunrise would be any time soon. I wasn't angry, sad, or really any other emotion. In that emotionally serene moment, I started to think.

I know a lot of my Internet friends and acquaintances are nearly as much--if not more--Internet junkies as I am, so you may relate to the first feeling I did feel. I realized with astonishment that I had gone well over 24 hours without checking my email, and yet I was still alive, and the world continued along with no indication that anything of meaning had changed. I hadn't checked Facebook, read any web comics, watched any YouTube videos, or looked at a single picture of a cat asking the viewer if she "can haz" anything.

Within that 36 hours or so, somebody had posted a joke that would surely have amused me if I'd read it one of the 3,586 times someone had pasted in onto their website. A politician had said something either genuinely stupid or at least that appeared stupid when context was removed, and flame wars had raged bitterly over the fallout. A celebrity had been photographed with a strange expression on his or her face or perhaps standing/sitting/walking in a strange manner that by now had been photoshopped a thousand times. Several hundred "fuckyeah(fill in the blank)" blogs had launched. Warring factions of editors on Wikipedia had battled valiantly to protect the proper spelling of the name of a pile of rocks (one so barren and desolate that not even a single spider or sand flea called them home) and which country could rightfully claim ownership of them. People in discussion forums everywhere had insightful news concerning the destiny of "The object to your left...", which you'd better employ quickly because after all, You Just Lost The Game.

Like the "real world," the World Wide Web continued to spin with or without me; I hadn't checked whether any claims I made in the last paragraph are true, and still haven't, but there was never any doubt.

Last week, I had said to someone, "You know what I think my biggest problem is? I am an information addict. Realizing that I have this problem doesn't even begin to address how to solve it, though. It's like what they say about people with eating disorders, ‘If you're an alcoholic, you can say you'll never touch a beer again. If you're a heroin addict, you can say you'll never shoot up again. But if you're a food addict, you can't say you'll never eat food again.' Likewise, as an information addict, it's not like I can gouge out my eyes and plug my ears and then go on to live a normal life, so I'm stuck with no solution."

On Wednesday, I recalled that conversation, and had perhaps one of the greatest epiphanies of my life. If you have an eating disorder, you can't just stop eating, but here's a great idea: No more trips to the all-you-can-eat buffet, because you don't know when or how to stop. And here's the thing: the Internet in general, and my laptop in particular? They were my all-you-can-eat buffet. The author of xkcd once put it very well in a comic reading

Morning Routine:
1. Wake up.
2. Check on how my friends all over the world are doing.
3. Get out of bed.
(Note: Laptops are weird.)
Note that I am paraphrasing, since I'm writing this while offline and have no intention to visit to check for accuracy, as much as xkcd may be one of the cleverest and most insightful web comics of all time. Besides, the point I'm trying to make is far stranger than that.

On a fairly typical day, I wake up, grab my laptop, and check my e-mail. I respond to e-mails that were personally addressed to me, delete all the spam (taking note of what current trends prevail in my own spam box; today I didn't get any offers for "V1A6RA and C1ALI5" from "a reputable Canadian pharmacy", but I see that I have inexplicably managed to win three lotteries in Europe; there's someone waiting at the airport with a briefcase full of African money they're hoping I will hide for them; women of various ages, ethnicities, and even marital statuses are looking for no-strings-attached sex in YOUR AREA!; and a handful of banks I don't actually do business with need me to re-verify my account name and password.), and flag messages that I probably should double-check later. It seems I have messages for me on Facebook, G+, tumblr, Blogspot, and Twitter, as well as notifications that articles and discussions of interest to me have been updated on Wikipedia, KnowYourMeme, LiveJournal, and HuffingtonPost, so I've got to check out those. Looks like there are new videos on my subscribed channels on YouTube, Vimeo, and Revvit, too, but should I watch them now, wait until later when I have a better connection, or maybe set them in a queue to download and watch later? Personal messages to me on just about any site can't be ignored, right? Better check every one of those, wherever they are. But wait, it looks like has a new article on the "Top N things that you won't believe relate to subject X!" That was not only a very interesting article, but there are links to seven similar articles that I might as well read while I'm here. But some of these are doubtful; I wonder what Wikipedia says about it? Sure, it's not a 100% trustworthy site, but it's a great tool to find an explanation of something and then point you in the right direction for more info. If I'm going to read that article, I really should scan this related article to get more insight; wait, there was a movie made based on that? What does IMDB have to say about that? Does RottenTomatoes agree? On the other hand, I think TVTropes can lend some insight in this matter. But where was I? I can't remember what it was that brought me here... Maybe I'll clear my mind over some comics. Yeah, I already read xkcd today and forgot. PvP? Penny Arcade? Order of the Stick? Darths&Droids? Hark! a Vagrant? Wait, when's the last time I caught up with Dinosaur Comics, Diesel Sweeties, Medium Large, or uh, that one with the weird name, something about Breakfast Cereal? Crap, I don't have time for this; I haven't even answered all my e-mails, and I still need to download that app I saw the other day that will help me in my Japanese studies which I've undertaken for no reason other than the fact that Japanese is probably the second-most-popular language online, and if I can learn it, just imagine what new worlds it could unlock for me! What? It's dinner time? But I haven't gotten out of bed yet, and I'm sure I had some actual practical things to get done today!

That Wednesday morning, I woke up and got off the floor. I made myself some breakfast and showered, following which I took time to disinfect and bandage my bloodied knuckles (did I mention that after leaving my laptop, I did manage to find some inanimate objects that were much tougher than my hands?) and shave for the first time in over a month. I got dressed, went for a walk, read a book, and then stopped by a few local thrift stores to see if they had any old typewriters for sale. No luck, although upon spotting an object with a keyboard in one shop, I was briefly tempted to buy an accordion. So I went home, had dinner, and read another book. It was a refreshing, Internet-free day, and that night, I went to bed having gone three full days without touching a computer or cell phone and had the best sleep I've had in three years if not more, probably because when I turned off the light, my brain was done for the day.

So, touching story, but what's the point, Brucker? Are you leading to one of those bizarre Luddite rants that the Internet is evil, and we have to reject technology to make the world a better place? Not at all! The Internet is a wonderful place full of boundless possibilities. I love the Internet and all that I've seen there; even the stuff that I probably should have considered evil. I've played video games on NewGrounds and JayIsGames that have changed not just the way I think about gaming, but the way I see the world. I've perused storehouses of information from and Wikipedia to Encyclopædia Dramatica and Fark and expanded my view of the nature of humanity and the world we live in. I watched video clips and read the blogs of a thousand philosophers and scientists who showed that even if the world has an objective nature of its existence, everyone experiences it in vastly different ways because of our personal beliefs, histories, and points-of-view; and I've seen just as many clips of dogs crashing into walls, cats falling off furniture, and skaters spectacularly smashing their faces into pavement. In the half of my life spent exploring the world through a browser window, I've made friends not just from all over the country, but from all over the globe. I don't refer to mere "friends" that you get by clicking a button, but people from England, Germany, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, The Netherlands, Finland, Japan, India, Australia, and New Zealand who, if physical distance were not an issue, would just as soon invite me over to their house for a beer as link me to another remix of "Я очень рад, ведь я, наконец, возвращаюсь домой".

All of those things--from every aspect of the 'net in the above ramblings to uncountable unmentioned items I could have written about for days; from the moral and upstanding Bible studies I facilitated with BlueletterBible to the twisted, epicurean, yet somehow glorious forays into the depths of /b/ (sorry for breaking Rule #1, but I have done my best to uphold Rule #2!); from the moral crusaders of every stripe (some as many as five stripes!) for whom The Internet Is Serious Business to the Dadaist artistry of every YTMND page ever; from the simple utility of the Trojan Room coffee pot to the unlimited power and possibility of; furries, bronies, hipsters, trolls, grammar Nazis, site admins, vocaloid lovers, Deviants, pirates, ninjas, goths, Rickrollers, weeaboos(です), shippers, Pokéfans, code geeks, Anonymous, Whovians, minecrafters, meme elitists, newfags, oldfags, summerfags, waifufags, and actual fags (and somehow not a single girl among all of those groups!)--are what makes the world go around in the 21st century. What's more, I adore every little bit of it.

However, I am about to turn 40, and I got my first email address when I was about 20, which means, as mentioned before, that I've been on the Internet in one way or another for half of my life. I still remember that address: It had personal meaning to me; I've always been obsessed with phoenixes (my first tattoo was a phoenix) not because I was a big fan of fantasy or mythology, but because there was rich symbolism there of power yet vulnerability, death but rebirth, a fire that somehow simultaneously builds as it destroys. More than a few times in my life, I've felt like I could use that sort of power.

In the end, like so much of my own writing that I allow to ramble like this, I don't really know if this makes sense. The Internet goes on and so does my life, but for the sake of my sanity, my life is going...I don't know, somewhere else. As much as I love all of this, in my mind if I take all of the Internet friends, all of the YouTube subscriptions, all of the social sites, and all of the fascinating information that daily fills me with wonder (and if it doesn't fill you with wonder, my reader, that is the only reason I would pity you for staying behind and enjoying it all without me) and put it on an imaginary scale to weight it against the value of something as simple as just one more day with my cat? It cannot measure up. I don't have a cat; not anymore. I do have a wife and children--as well as extended family--and I've given far too much of my personal time over the last 20 years to the Internet when that time belonged rightfully to them. Most things in life are better in moderation, but me and the Internet? We're like that obese man and the all-you-can-eat buffet. There's nothing wrong with the buffet, but maybe you, sir, would be better off going home and having a salad? I'm setting down my tray and walking away from the building without looking back or (with the exception of this sentence) saying "goodbye".

Now if you'll excuse me, it's dinner time, and I'm eating at home tonight.