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Meme moments

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

At Murketing, Rob Walker notes the rise of an ironic T-shirt, “Three Wolf Moon,” which looks like something that Brett from Flight of the Conchords may have worn. As Walker explains, lots of people wrote silly reviews praising the shirt, and sales took off. If you look on Amazon, you can see the gallery of images Photoshopped to show celebrities wearing it, and so on. Very creative and fun, a contemporary collective experience. So why does it creep me out?


Here’s Walker’s analysis of the shirt phenomenon:


This is an example of an object acquiring a narrative, and meaning. At first, it was simply a bad T-shirt. Then it became that bad T-shirt, the one that attracted a reviewer-flash-mob. If you were wearing it, and someone asked, you could tell them a story. In fact you could tell them the story even if they didn’t ask—it’s a good story!—particularly if you submitted a funny review which you can then recount.
The object becomes a souvenir of a moment and an experience: The time we all got together and made fun of this T-shirt.


I can’t tell how serious Walker is about this being a “good story” that anyone would want to hear—I guess I found it interesting, which is why I am writing about it now, but I would think anyone who was wearing the shirt telling me that story was sort of annoying. I’m sure there are scads of opportunities for this sort of pile-on participation online at any given moment, which seems to rob them all of a significant ingredient of serendipity that would tip the resulting personal stories from lame to not lame. That is to say, the fact that this occurred online on a retail website makes the whole event seem contrived, even though it probably wasn’t. The network effects, the rapid scaling-up of online viral phenomena, generates the air of contrivance—for me at least—which makes all such spontaneous events seem feasibly pre-plannable. It seems as though there are always enough bored yet clever people out there on the internet to latch onto memes.


But what I most fear—and maybe I shouldn’t—is that these sorts of experiences may be the only sorts of experiences we will have in the future. For those of us used to different experiences, the transition may be painful. I think this was what I had been feeling at Yellowstone. All our experiences may come with this prepackaged feeling of being contrived, of being designed to be reported on, if only by ourselves. The moments that don’t seem worth blogging about or “sharing” will become harder for us to fathom, undigestable, sitting in our minds like the stones in a bird’s gullet.

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