Original Ideas Frequently Aren’t, Like The Internet For Example

“Rule 34″ is in the same category as “Godwin’s Law” and the verbing of the words “Google” and “friend”. It is in that galaxy of terms that relate primarily to the internet and those who use it.
Sidebar: Occam’s Razor was actually, “Plurality must never be posited without necessity”, essentially ‘a hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is generally the most likely’. This has come to be spuriously summarized as ‘The simplest answer is the best’. Meaning an idea can be modified without actually being all that original, and an original idea can get rephrased to something slightly different and still be relevant.
Godwin’s Law has undergone a similar transformation. Originally stated, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Therefore a discussion of Hitler, the Nazis, or Totalitarian regimes is automatically excluded as the “1″ is redundant. Yet the Urban Dictionary already gives that Godwin said, “…somebody will bring up the Nazis or Hitler”. Again, inaccurately rewritten, but not somehow a brilliant and original idea. It’ll be interesting to see what Godwin’s Law will look like in another several years, like poor Occam’s.
Rule 34, “If it exists, someone has made pornographic material involving it”, is flippant but it is also a reinterpretation of the much older idea of the synthesis of disparate social arenas. Anthropology calls it a Fetishization or Personification, making manifest what is intangible or overrating that which is irrational to the point of representation by an object or giving it human form. Freud is the one who said it always had to involve sex. So Rule 34 is actually about 100 years old at the least.
This is important because there is an implication gaining momentum, in the more casual corners of the Social Sciences, that the line is blurring between producer and end-user in a way that is exclusively contemporary and primarily a product of the internet. This is frustrating to see not just because it is reminiscent of every deceptive market retooling of, “this is new therefore it’s better”. But it is wrong. It ignores patterns of history that are discernible though require an interdisciplinary approach.
Instead much that is written on social media and the social concepts therein smacks of what Robert Anton Wilson called “neophilia”, an ever-present preoccupation with novelty. As though this is the only time that has ever been, and these are the best things that ever were. Until the iPhone 12 comes out of course, then it will be even better.
Which is not to say that Anthropology or Sociology should exist exclusively in the rarefied atmosphere of Latin cognates and grad students. But there should be rigorous research, not pandering. Each new word that appears does not automatically represent a completely atypical, funky, fresh, straight-out-of-the-blue idea that no one has ever had. Phrases and behaviors are part of a norm that can be analyzed. It must help shape theory by incorporation and interpretation.
Even on the internet, overarching social patterns have antecedents. Finding them requires not deferring exclusively to post-internet culturally significant events. Some such as speedofcreativity.org have termed the supposed blurring of creator and consumer as “The Changing Face of Creativity” (to emphasize the irony of that phrase, google “the changing face of” and count how many media ad companies come up). A fairly recent example of the mindset that this is exceptional is available on the blog Themarysue.com in Aja Ramona’s article “Next-To-Normal-Girl: Tumblr’s Ovenight Fandom”.
The article documents a Tumblr artwork contrasting ‘normal’ gamer girls with ‘fakes’. The resulting backlash was for those who disagreed with the original art to post their own, showing the two women in a sexually provocative embrace. This spread quickly, and spawned offshoots involving a variety of dichotomous juxtapositions including ‘normal’ and ‘fake’ gamer men, various characters from separate genres of sci-fi and anime, and even some discussions of radical feminism using a few of the images for a new ad campaign. In each case commentary, support, or criticism was offered, and new groups were formed based on each position.
It started as a simple cartoon, quickly gained notoriety, briefly became a movement, and spawned off-shoots. The author states “As a body, fans have become so good at the production of fanwork, the assimilation of ideas, the collective language surrounding their fandoms, and the overall apparatus of enthusiasm, that they don’t necessarily need a substantial canon to participate in the act of being fannish. Apart from being a fanthropologist’s wet dream, the overnight popularity of this [contrast] definitely contains a hint of defiance… Whether satire and meta alone can fuel [this] without a “real” canon, is… a different question. But there’s a definite advantage and a freedom that comes from working with flimsy source material… And definitely don’t write off the enormous creative energy of fandom to make something out of nothing–and then make it unbelievably awesome.”
Ramona is correct, this is the sort of thing a graduate thesis can come of. But it seems that Rule 34 and the “fannish” behavior Ramona documents is simply a more titillating and provocative analogy to other radical breaks from ‘canon’ that happened long before the internet was even a gleam in DARPA’s eye. One such comparison is the Protestant Reformation.
With the coming of the printing press, and the Vulgate texts, various Christian sects that would never have existed gained massive followings in what was, up to then, the blink of an eye. It could rather easily be argued that there is little difference, as far as obscurity, between Andromeda ‘Slash-fic’ and the Moravians. More to the point, the “collective language” and “apparatus of enthusiasm” is not exclusive to the internet, it has existed since the written word was first put on gigantic Sumerian temples.
Ramona states we should not discount fandom’s ability to “make something out of nothing”, and “they don’t need a substantial ‘canon’ to participate”, as if this is unique. The Millerite movement which lead to the 7th Day Adventists demonstrate this simply is untrue. Or the Gideons, whose entire dogma is a single chapter in the book of Judges in the Bible. And “Fanthropologist”? The apparent derivative would be an Anthropologist who studies fandom, people who form a group with similar interests and behavior. Which is an Anthropologist. Perhaps Ramona was attempting to be tongue-in-cheek with the usage, but it betrays a neophilic sensibility, an implication that there’s Anthropologists and then there’s the people who really understand.
Of course, the other issue TheMarySue brings up is the speed and therefore heightened passion of the exchange. But even that is not new. The True Levellers (nicknamed the “Diggers” based on a cartoon) was a group of Anabaptist Communists who published several pamphlets in reaction to The Levellers, who helped fill out the ranks of The New Model Army. They lasted less than a year and their influence is still with us, and they happened in 1649.
They were immediately suppressed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces, other cartoons were issued, other pamphlets, commentary, support, and criticism. Several recognizable names were influenced by their work, including Karl Marx, and a hippie group which used the name in the 60s while helping to give the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco its reputation. Meaning a group of Mennonite Farmers, in the middle of the 17th Century, that lasted for 6 months, helped to spawn Marxism and Woodstock and influenced modern Radical Feminism.
In this is all the trappings of what Aja Romano has documented of her Tumblr feeds: An immediate in-group reaction, a derisive image leading to factionalization, suppression from ‘authority’, eventual counter-protest, and new group formation and institutionalization, all based on text and cartoons. When compared to a Revitalization movement that took place 350 years ago, Occupy Wall Street was stodgy and plodding.
It should also be noted, it is not accurate to say that moving the arena from religion to Dr Who somehow changes the correlations. In other times and places religion garnered vociferous support and derision, it is what was recorded. The pattern is key. Equally valid comparisons could be made with political movements such as the Cherokee Nation during the U.S. Civil War, the Creek “Red Stick” Rebellion, the English Round Heads, or the Luddites. The Boston Massacre is called “The Boston Massacre” because of a cartoon. Also, we in the privileged Online West have a cloyed view of religion and politics and are less likely to see direct parallels in our much more nuanced appreciation of fan-fic. Precisely why Social Science exists, to discern those patterns.
This attitude of exclusivity should be noted by Social Science but not fostered. Cultural Relativism asserts that each community be taken on its own terms. This does not mean that Behavioral Science should share them. Advocacy and appreciation are not the same as reverence. Privilege easily leads to pity, and pity is not far from contempt. If “Fanthropology” and the “Fannish” people are any indication, the language demonstrates the exclusivity and passive contempt already exists. We may live among the head-hunters, that does not mean we must become them.
None of this discounts that something noteworthy happened. Every thing is new to someone. Every exhibition of collective behavior is appropriate to Anthropology. But to present it as devoid of context, exclusive of precursor, somehow purely from the laptops of the interwebs, is misleading and pretentious. It denies any old idea validity, or any historical parallel. It makes our parents an alien species, not ancestors. It renders Anthropology obsolete. That is a very lonely position to take. It doesn’t make us the narrator of our own story, it makes us capricious.
More importantly, if everything we do is original, so long as it’s done on-line, then those who control the network control our minds. In that case, we are no longer the driving force of culture, they are. And anyone not on-line becomes backward at best, irrelevant at worst.
It is a cynical view of history to say that we are immaculate. It is a petulant view of ourselves to say that every thing we do is singular. It is a dangerous view of the internet to say that it is a world unto itself that we have brought into being.
As an Anthropologist, I cannot accept that touch-screens and baud rates are the metric of culture. As a human being I refuse to be told that we’re pristine, it places us in a very child-like state of entitlement. If we perpetually assert that we are the most important thing ever, that no one can understand, then we must recognize it’s the same message everyone else is getting. And that far too easily that rationale becomes the justification for unspeakable cruelty. As it has so often in the past. There is culture on the internet, but it’s not exclusive. There is innovation on the internet, but it is not exceptional.

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The Piebald One

The Dark Fool dances like a harlequin, like a rabbit in a field when no one is watching. His diamonds are so deep they’re embedded in his very skin. He spirals and hops and he makes jokes that hide and reveal more and less than he knows. Here he records some of what plays in his mind, his own little mark upon the stones, like those who came before and have left us with as many questions as answers. Oh, and there’s gonna be a lot of sarcasm, some irony, and way more than enough absurdity to go around.

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