Over at Quartz last week, Kevin Ashton revealed a simple truth: “you didn’t make the Harlem Shake go viral – corporations did.” He chalks up the idea that the viral phenomenon – essentially an endlessly replicated video of a solitary dancer in a room full of people gyrating alone until the beat dropped and they were instantly surrounded by everybody else, who were also suddenly dancing like maniacs – was spontaneous is a “myth.” Basically, the Harlem Shake meme (Ashton disputes that it even was one) was the product of savvy marketing, wherein corporations hopped on the bandwagon early in an attempt to score revenue from the ads YouTube places prior to the start of videos. The endless replication was just that, but the primary spark that got the whole thing was very familiar: a revenue opportunity.
Since I’d written about the Harlem Shake back in February, a couple people sent me the article. I responded to one, from my colleague Sonya, saying that it all makes one wonder whether there will ever be a true viral meme in the future. She replied simply that the real question seemed to be whether there ever was one in the first place. Which, frankly, is a very fair point. I would argue that there have been, probably. Things like Epic Sax Guy don’t seem to have the same kind of commercial potential as the Harlem Shake, but then again, who knows? I could be wrong. After all, as Sonya noted not long ago at Maclean’s, many of the viral Tumblr blogs were, in fact, either established or promoted by familiar entities like, in one case, media megabrand, ClearChannel.
What all of that means is possibly nothing more than the simple fact of there no longer being a dichotomy or confrontation between the ‘mainstream’ and subcultures or, more generally, counterculture. It seems that all that’s left is what Andrew Potter called the “hipstream,” wherein the “mass media ecosystem has disappeared,” only to be replaced by the random, quirky, “unpredictable and idiosyncratic mashups of cultural elements that bear no meaningful relationship to one another” – only, it would appear, with the most successful ones still owned and operated by the same old crew of cool hunters we’ve always had around.
There is a difference, though, from how it used to be, and that’s the filter.
Ashton points out that it was YouTube – or Google, really – that made the “Harlem Shake” a no. 1 Billboard hit. And while a top spot on the music charts is essentially a verification of sorts of success, he also points out that Google’s “claims about viewership are not audited.” The figures, he writes, “are not verified by anyone who does not profit from higher numbers.” It’s an interesting new paradigm in media and advertising, and the power Google yields in that case is somewhat astonishing. In the past there were a number of outlets producing and promoting content, the popularity of which could be (and still is) measured by outside auditors. In the case of YouTube videos, it’s not. That is a new phenomenon. But, perhaps more importantly to the rest of us who aren’t necessarily concerned so much with the hits a video on YouTube is getting, but rather with the wider effect that has culturally, it means something else. Simply, that rather than having multiple centres of mass popular cultural content production and promotion, more and more, there is just one.
Maybe that’s not as scary as it sounds, because after all, there are literally billions of people producing content all over the world and feeding it into their computer for mass dissemination across the internet. Except, again, that content is filtered (or promoted, in other words), by and large, by one company: Google. So, what Google tells us is suddenly very important.
Over at the BBC this past week, author Tom Chatfield pondered the significance of Google requesting that the Swedish Language Council find a different word than “ungoogleable” (or “ogooglebar” in Swedish, which he rightly points out is a much more fun word) to describe not being able to find something via an online search. Chatfield points out that Google is not only overtly shaping language as it did in Sweden, but also by acting as a default definition tool for billions of people. In its request to the Swedes, Chatfield describes Google as presenting a “very particular kind of binary claim. Either you use “Google” their way, or you don’t get to use it at all.” But since we don’t need official approval of English words, we’re faced with an interesting scenario, which Chatfield puts this way: “Given that most of us are likely simply to type a word into Google if we want to check its meaning, this puts the company in a curiously invidious position. Should it describe words as people are using them, or suggest in certain cases how things ‘ought’ to be?”
The Harlem Shake, whether it’s a true meme or not, still behaved like one on the surface, and thus is still subject to all the weirdness and eventual nothingness that comes with one. That is, it rose in popularity exponentially, reached a point of total saturation and now exists in a meaningless state – just a cultural blip, ready to be appropriated as necessary or simply rehashed as a slice of web-kitsch in a year or so. But Chatfield raises a key question that, in generally accepting that the internet is a sea of pure flat democracy, we have rarely asked. Simply, what are we being told that we ought to see? And if we don’t what to see what’s on offer, where and how do we exercise our choice?
In 2011, Eli Pariser told a Ted Talk audience about what he called at the time “filter bubbles” – the idea that we’re limited in our online searches by computer algorithms that limit us to seeing only similar things to those we’ve looked at before. His presentation might lead us to believe that we’re being manipulated, or that we’re no longer in control of what we search for on the internet. That assumes, of course, that we ever really were, but the immediate reaction is one of fear – the fear that we’re being controlled secretly by corporations, mostly, but that also we’re powerless to do anything about it.
So, can we choose what we see online? To a point. We can expand our personal horizons and go out of our way to search for things that might work to push Google’s parameters for the next time we’re online looking for something. We’re not totally powerless. The computer and the internet are tools, and we can choose how to use them. Though, one might wonder what we would be saying if Google and others didn’t go out of their way to filter results specific to our desires. Likely, we’d be upset about it. So, perhaps the question is really this: If we’re handing over so much power to one centralizing filter, do we actually even care? Generally speaking, the answer seems to be no.