“And then I was like FUUUUUU”. This is how stories end nowadays. I dare to make a claim about the flow of stories because I believe the ontology of stories follows a predictable and stable pattern and it is this: I present to you a situation in which I was involved, usually as the protagonist. The story is semantically segmented and usually sequenced in sets of 4-6, which culminate in climactic revelation of emotion. Do you know what I meme when I say emotion? I mean forever alone guy, Y U NO guy, Trollface, rage guy, and the others from the gang.
If you’re “in” in digital culture you know I’m talking about rage comics, a distinctive unit in the meme universe. That’s the subject of this blog entry so here’s my question: Have you noticed how memes are reflexive? By reflexive I want to say that they say something about themselves besides the “what.” Actually rage comics integrate and fuse meta-information into the “what”: They tell you about the emotions of the author as part of the story. In fact the affective state of the author is positioned as the punch line of the story; so and so happened and this is how I felt because of it. The feelings of the person behind the medium are not to be uncovered by interpretative work and they’re not negotiated hermeneutically, rather they’re part of message and in the medium itself.
So if you’re into staring at visual arts and speculating about the author’s reasoning rage comics are not for you. Rage comics tell you explicitly how the author felt, and boy are they explicit: This transcends traditional symbolismin my opinion – they are literally the faces contorting with sadness or exploding with rage.
I wonder about the culture where if I want to tell about a situation which made me sad I include an image of a sad face at the end of the story. We are all surely not emotionally challenged, but there might be something to explore in online communication. Particularly since rage comics work, as in they are really popular and for the vast majority they are useful to tell a story. In Science and Technology Studies (STS) there is a research heuristic of understanding socio-technical systems when they work fine in addition to whenthey don’t work. We tend to only pay attention to the mechanisms and attitudes of a system only when they break down or stop functioning well; in reality much work takes place to make things run smoothly.
The question “what do you mean?” is very important in this case. I am drawing inspiration for this blog post from an art exposition I saw at the Deutsche Guggenheim Museum in Berlin last week. The exposition was titled “found intranslation” and it was about those rare moments of synchrony scattered throughout the unbelievable mess that is global capitalistic culture. Focusing on what does get across in translation as opposed to what is lost is akin to the STS heuristic I mentioned above. “What do you mean?” is not the same as “Sorry I don’t speak English” or “no comprendo”: “What do you mean” says “I understand linguistically the words you are saying to me, but what do you mean by them?”
The answers to this question might lead us to understand why so explicit and reflexive ways of meaning-making became the norm for online stories. To set a background I should say we are all constantly in struggles to communicate meaning. To think that information easily jumps bridges or it diffuses from A to B is simply naïve. Insights from Science and Technology studies have shown that it takes lots of work to make knowledge “move.” Knowledge is situated, grounded, embedded even, in social, political, cultural and even historical webs. For you to truly understand what I mean I can’t simply just “tell you” – the particular context in which my understanding of the world makes sense has to be at least conceptually available to you. This is not easy.
That said we do manage to establish intricate and complex patterns of communication. Humor for example is ridiculously complex and intriguing to me. So saying“communication is complex so let’s make everything very explicit and simple and direct” is not a valid explanation. After all, much of the pleasure of communication lies in those crevasses between the understood and the not; subtle references, innuendos, sarcasm, double-entendres, reading between the lines and flirting just to name a few.
It might have to do with the technical aspects then. Online communication is mediated physically by this whole keyboard-screen concoction, digitally by protocols of communication and by interfaces and ontologically by the historical purposes for which it was developed (did anyone say the internet was made for the effective telling of stories? It is clearly for porn). Oral storytelling relies on the facial expressions, gestures and actions as much (some would say more) as on the textual parts of speech. Academics in cognitive science have pointed out since the mid-nineties that human-computer interaction developed historically in way in which all the ways in which we make sense of the world through our bodies was not represented.
In fact, since then various attempts have been made to “re-embody” human cognition; thinking is not some abstract activity of the brain people like Edwin Hutchins, Andy Clark and Lucy Suchman would say, it is rather done with a human body, in a particular social context, within a particular culture. Still, for the most part our human-computer interaction interfaces were developed within a dualistic paradigm which would make Descartes proud – and therefore online communication can be rather blind to these considerations. Thus stories which emerge within it need to be very explicit to counter the limitations and get a message across.
Or it could be demographics. It is true that online culture is historically at the point where most of its constituents are rather on the younger side of the balance. Discerning intricate gesticulations and picking up on subtle messages is a learned art. I can personally attest to it: when I was a teenager I was completely oblivious to anything that was not laid out in front of me in thick letters, underlined and in captions (dude – she is holding your hand and leaning in for a kiss, I’m pretty sure we can say she likes you). I should also add that men are less apt at this whole business of figuring out meaning than women - Our communication style is linear, sequential, logical and orderly. The online world is still for the most part a big sausage fest, so maybe there is something to say about its mode of storytelling being very direct and explicit.
Lastly, it it could be that critics of anything and everything with an IP address have been right all along: This generation is doomed. We have spent so much time staring at screens and not hazelnut gazes that we have become terrible at telling people’s emotional states from context and their actions within it. In this scenario, to such a degree is mine and the upcoming generation’s social ineptitude that we literally need a repertoire of human faces with which we “tag” stories a la web 2.0. This is the most simplistic alternative and I would opt for a more critical explanation, but there might some truth to explore here: As in, without assigning normative values to the changes and saying that this is worse or better than that, there might be changes in the way we construct meaning from stories.
Maybe picking up on slight changes in coloration in cheeks is simply not as useful as before, and other skills such as being able to imagine a whole social scenario from a few (often poorly) drawn sketches is. If this is the case, rage comic faces are cultural markers themselves; sources of meaning that need to be understood as part of new practices and judged according to their own value systems.
Whatever the reason, rage comics are very popular cultural items and manage to be sources of recreation and at times inspiration for the digitally inclined.Their explicit and reflexive nature makes them very interesting, particularly in relation to human practices which do make use of the under-determination of language in itself to convey meaning. Think of flirting for example: The passing glance, an ever-so-light graze of two hands, even just lingering on one syllable for a second longer than expected are constituent part of the lover’s arsenal.
And so, what does the digital lover do to conquer his cyber-crush? How does she tweak, adapt and re-invent what is available in her cultural universe? How does she use rage comics to find someone who overclocks her processor, know what I meme?