I posted the above yesterday, with a link on Facebook saying only “This.” I received a comment from my friend Debbie Blue, who clicked on it hoping to find a rant, to which I reply that it was a rant — and a very pithy one at that.
But just to be a good friend, I decided to follow-up by editing this post into a more thorough rant on the Internet, the meme, and the slavery to fashion that infects our doomed age.
In case you missed it, “this” has become an Internet meme. You link to something and type that one word, which is shorthand for “This is the coolest/funniest/stupidest/most interesting/relevant/earth-shattering thing I’ve EVER SEEN on the Internet IN MY WHOLE ENTIRE LIFE (in the last five minutes).”
It’s trendy, and therefore annoying and boring.
This. has. also. gotten. old. You’ve probably seen it just as often. It’s another shorthand method of accentuating the importance/relevance/humor/stupidity/coolness/earth-shatteringness of whatever it just took you five seconds to type.
Then there’s “2” for “too/too” and “4” 4 “for.” Don’t tell the tweeters of my generation, but they’re the only ones still using texting shortcuts. The kids have figured out that if you can’t say it in 140 characters without abbreviations, you’re not trying hard enough.
Coined by the famous evolutionary biologist, atheist, and Internet celebrity Richard Dawkins, a meme is a cultural idea or phenomenon that spreads via imitation. In other words, it’s a trendy word for “trend,” a fashionable word for “fashion,” a description of a cliche that has become a cliche. In other words, “meme” is a meme.
Using memes violates the first of George Orwell’s six rules for writers (still the best advice a writer can receive): “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
The unfortunate reality of the Internet age: As soon as a trend is born, it is everywhere, and therefore old. Call it a type of Benjamin Button syndrome: Everything on the Internet is born old, but instead of getting younger, it just keeps getting older. If something is repeated once, it will be passé by the end of the news cycle.
And yet we scroll and click and post and tweet and read and type in desperate hope that something we see or say will not wither and die as soon as we log on or hit send. We’re slow learners. There was nothing new under the sun three thousand years ago, and even if something new were to appear today, it would be impossible to find in the dung heap of the Internet.
On the other hand, it is a charming characteristic of our culture — the way we Americans can always find a new rebellious fashion, even if it requires covering our bodies with bad art, stretching holes in our earlobes the size of silver dollars, wearing a dress made of meat, or toddling around with our pants around our ankles.
Traditionally, individuals outgrew their preoccupation with trends and fashion between the ages of 18 and 25, when most would realize that no matter how hip they tried to be, someone else was one step ahead.
Try as we might, we can never discover or invent the next big thing. We were into that band way before everyone else (but after all those other idiots). The sad irony of cool is that it’s always more about following than leading, more about being a white sheep than a black one, a trendfollower rather than a trendsetter.
I can relate because I was one of the best. In high school, I showed up at a party in a poor imitation of a Joe Ely album cover, wearing a pair of wraparound shades, a Stetson cowboy hat, a bolo tie, and a tweed sport coat. As a freshman in college, I had a New Wave proto-mullet and wore a trench coat with Army fatigues, and I once attended a dance wearing tie-dyed thermal underwear — tops and bottoms.
For me, the revelation came at age 20, when I caught a glimpse of my sophomoric self in a mirror wearing an orange mohair v-neck sweater and a pair of zipper boots I’d picked up at Goodwill. I exchanged my unique thriftstore duds for what at the time was the least original outfit I could think of: Levi’s, a t-shirt, and a plaid flannel — which in 1983 was not an ironic statement but simply the way Minnesotans dressed.
Apparently many others of my generation in the Midwest made the same discovery around the same time. In the mid 1980s, when I spent a few months in the Bay area, it was all blue hair, black leather, Doc Martins and The Smiths, but back home in the Twin Cities, after a short-lived punk era, it was flannel shirts and The Replacements (though to be honest I never cared much for them).
My generation was uniquely situated to become suspicious of trends. We had watched our older siblings — the hippies — morph from flower children into Reaganite yuppies. When we finished college, all the jobs were taken by the boomers ahead of us, so we were the original underemployed slackers — not by choice but by necessity. We were cynics with temp jobs and finely tuned poser detectors.
Fewer and fewer Americans are outgrowing the desire to be hip or cool, and the Internet is just one of many examples. On a drive across South Dakota and Wyoming last summer, I saw countless old fogies tooling around on Harley Davidsons, wearing Harley Davidson t-shirts and Harley-Davidson bandannas and leather jackets. I ran into a Harley grandma at the grocery store just yesterday.
I want to tell all the old guys sporting earrings that it’s just not working. The poor fellows don’t seems to notice that they’re screaming, “Hey! Look at me! I may appear old, but I’m cool too!”
I remember as a young man imagining Mick Jagger doing his thing with the lips and elbows at age 40. We all assumed that The Stones and Dylan and the Beatles would fade away like Douglas MacArthur, because that’s what people did back then. They grew up and put away childish things (to quote one of the fuddy-duddy writers they read). It never happened with Mick, though, and it never will. Something changed forever with the rock and roll generation.
No wonder the Internet generation, the millennials, have a permanent ironic stance (or limp). They can’t risk sincerity for fear that their true confession was interesting ten minutes ago. Every statement is like brand new blue jeans already faded and tattered by a machine in a sweatshop somewhere.
The youngsters’ desire for something that lasts can be seen in the retro revival, but when the old is the new style, it’s just another exercise in peeling onions. When you get to the end, there’s nothing there. God bless them, but it’s hard to find authenticity in a warehouse of theater costumes.
It may be that growing up is simply giving up relevance and renouncing fashion in favor of the timeless. Lately I have been thinking about my mom, who died a year ago, and the fact that her generation has almost expired, leaving us with a nation of eternal teenagers desperately seeking relevance.
With the short half-life of today’s memes, we are unable to notice — much less focus on — the only things that matter.
It may seem like nothing, but our obsession with trends is a symptom of a fatal disease. As we buzz from one dead flower to the next, we don’t notice the world ending.