(Note: I wrote this for a university extension course about writers and the internet. The assignment was to look at and discuss a web series of some sort.)
Researching this assignment was sort of like trying to find “there” on a map. Internet series tend to go everywhere and nowhere, with characters like Fred, the guy we learned about in the lesson, whose personality seemed to upstage his own story.
I started by poking around, pumping my kids for leads on series that contain actual stories, but came up empty-handed. The sites they mentioned led me to either open-ended games or to characters who worked outside conventional plots. For example, I found Mr. Pregnant, a fat guy with fake bad teeth who stages bizarre adventures starring himself. Each episode features Mr. Pregnant walking into some situation where people are surprised to be confronted by a fat guy with fake bad teeth and a cameraman. That’s all there was to it! My luck was as flat as a bad demotivational poster.
I wanted something more educational, so Know Your Meme looked like my perfect show. It’s a YouTube series that’s been cataloguing internet memes since 2007, put together by a website called RocketBoom. RocketBoom is an authority on internet culture, and hosts a database of memes, which are something like cultural genes. Anyone can post a meme to their database, but only the best (and cleanest) get episodes of Know Your Meme, where actors with lab coats and a white board explain the intricacies of such phenomena as Numa Numa and LOLcats.
It struck me that this is science masquerading as pseudoscience. Yes, they’re playing it for laughs, and no, I don’t think anyone spent too much time working out the calculus that defines when “fail” turns into “epic fail.” Still, everything online is so changeable and decentralized, and none of us knows where any of it will lead. In ten years, internet history may well be a serious topic of study, and its students will be glad to have a chronological record of online phenomena. And in fifty years, it may be the only way to research all the little bits of cultural history that will by then have been long forgotten. Scholars scratching their heads and saying, “What does it mean, this ‘All your base are belong to us’?” will have somewhere to turn.
I tried to research characters profiled in Know Your Meme to find some kind of plot line, but the only themes were of a very basic nature: Average Person makes video of self or someone else acting goofy, posts it online where it gets passed around, video hits 1,000,000 views, and Average Person gets their own YouTube channel, advertising contract, and appearance on a talk show. Success! Let lesser persons riff and remix! This story keeps repeating, because we have such an appetite for Cinderellas–especially awkward, shlubby, tone-deaf Cinderellas.
About the only thing that can go wrong is if the person is found out to be an actor, which equals being a fake. And that taint of fakeness is brought up against Know Your Meme itself. Because of RocketBoom’s high profile, the more anonymous forces of the internet accuse them of astroturfing–creating pseudo-memes instead of watching out for spontaneous ones. Whether there’s any truth in this on not, it’s the more organized elements of any society who tend to write the (virtual) history books.
So my planned Saga of Boxxy went epic fail. Likewise any attempt to identify a narrative arc for David After Dentist, Creepy Chan, Magibon, or Techno Viking. The most popular internet phenomena consist of spontaneous, over-the-top characters doing their thing without any script or plot, the more unproduced the better. There is no map. It’s all just . . . there.