Tim Hwang explains net memes at the Berkman Center

Tim Hwang is a researcher at the Berkman Center who works closely with Yochai Benkler on his research on cooperation. But he may be best known for his role in organizing ROFLCon, which David Weinberger describes as “the first gathering of internet memesters”. Tim’s work is important, Weinberger posits, because he focuses on “people who don’t often make it to Berkman, i.e., most of the internet.”

Tim describes himself as “a long-time listener, first-time caller,” and introduces his talk, “The LOLCat-hedral and the Bizarre: A Memescape Manifesto”, with an apology for the obscure pun. (It’s a reference to Eric Raymond’s legendary essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar.) Tim’s interested in the propogation of memes on the internet, and is taking early steps towards a model for studying how these ideas spread. (In a terrifying turn, Tim promises us that he’s working on a documentary about Goatse, hoping to interview the model in the infamous images, as well as internet experts regarding the importance of the phenomenon.)

2008 was a year when internet culture and mainstream culture became profoundly entangled, Tim argues. Several successful books were published based on internet memes, including “Stuff White People Like“, which Tim reports is now in its 15th printing. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade featured a float for the TV show, “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” – midway through a song, Rick Astley appeared on the float, singing “Never Gonna Give You Up”. In other words, the Macy’s parade included a rickroll, bringing an Internet meme to an audience of tens of millions.

To understand the spread of these memes, Tim uses a model offered by Benkler – he understands the internet as a physical system, which supports a system built of code, which in turn supports a set of content. This suggests that these memes – a specialized form of content – have a relationship to the hardware and code of the internet, not just to each other, or to past internet memes.

This analysis leads him to posit “the 4chan paradox” – why is 4chan such a fertile birthplace for internet memes? Facebook has a larger number of users and a wealth of tools to allow memes to spread – status updates, chats, abilities to “friend” other users. Given this wealth of tools (Tim describes Facebook as the “stealth bomber” of social networking, given the arsenal of tools at its disposal), we’d expect to see more memes like “25 Things About Me” flourish, and cross from the internet world into mainstream consciousness.

4chan is no one’s stealth bomber or swiss army knife. It’s a brutally simple site – post an image, and people respond with their own images and text. The community encourages anonymity, and there’s not even a profile system to make it easy to see a user’s contributions. In other words, “Facebook should p0wn 4chan in terms of memes created.” Despite the apparent “poverty” of these tools, 4chan has been an extremely fertile environment for memes – Tim traces LOLCats, Rickrolling and the various parodies of “Chocolate Rain” to the 4chan boards.

Tim offers a useful distinction between memes that spread on Facebook and on 4chan. Memes on Facebook are constant – your Wall may be decorated with a piece of ASCII art and a message that “you’ve been hit by the beautiful truck”… but while this message spreads across Facebook, it hasn’t spawned the beautiful motorcycle or the ugly speedboat. 4chan iterates memes – the appearance of ceiling cat leads to the birth of basement cat, and eventually to the LOLCat bible, where LOLCat afficionados are translating the text of the Bible into LOLspeak.


Ceiling Cat creats teh universes and stuffs

LOLCats has expanded to include a programming language, LOLCode and a political movement, LOLBama, which wants us all to know “Yes We Can Has“. 4chan memes spawn communities, like that around the LOLCat Bible or I Can Has Cheezburger.

Tim believes that Jonathan Zittrain‘s idea of generativity can help explain the comparative fertility of 4chan in generating internet memes. In his book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It“, Zittrain addresses the comparative success of the PC to dedicated wordprocessing machines, or the victory of the open internet to “walled garden” services like AOL. He argues that technology that’s open to third parties allows to an explosion of innovation which increases the value of the core platform.

Tim speculates that generativity applies in social systems as well. Facebook’s uses are defined and unchangeable – your status update is for telling people what you’re doing, your favorite books go here, your collection of virtual flowers is here. There are multiple mechanisms, and they’re non-trivial to master. (She just threw a sheep at me. Now what do I do?) And because Facebook allows communication within groups of friends, but constrains communication to all users, memes become silo’d – they spread through one set of friends, but perhaps not through another. 4chan has no silos, and no defined uses – it’s fertile ground for creating new uses as a result.

Over the next year, Tim predicts that “internet culture is going to do really well because the economy sucks.” He suggests that with lots of people out of work, we’ve got a high supply of potential attention, the critical commodity necessary to create internet memes. Since the collapse of the US stock market, Tim sees increased activity on sites like Twitter, and wonders whether we can see a correlation between more free time and participation. (He wisely notes that correlation is not causation and that there are lots of explanations for this trend. While I think the relationship between site growth and economic collapse is far from causal, I do think there’s an argument that bad economies can lead to increased creativity. See my recent post on economics and maker culture in Argentina.)

What’s next? Tim suggests that we start thinking of the social web as an ecosystem and proposes an early environmental movement. This might involve basic environmental advisories, warning people that certain aspects of their behavior are likely to cause damage to the environment – “If you followback everyone who follows you on Twitter, you will likely make Twitter unusuable.” Other warnings might attempt to document known bugs, like the fact that the “user-generated” Digg site has 60-70% of front page material contributed by 100 users. He suggests we might need “an EPA for the social web” which would “research and distribute information on the health of the environment of the social web.”


As so often happens, David Weinberger has even better notes on the talk, including questions and answers from the audience.

I’ll briefly expand on my question/observation to Tim. I agree that the social web needs to be thought of as an ecosystem, but I’m not sure that environmentalism is a useful paradigm as of yet. The main reason – when we study the natural environment, we’re usually interested in systems that have strong homeostasis effects – we worry when systems are out of balance and take steps to correct them, removing the mercury from the water or trying to prevent CO2 levels from rising.

There’s no homeostasis on the web yet – we don’t know what a stable, creative web looks like yet, which makes it very hard for us to offer warnings or suggestions, even obvious ones, like “Don’t follow everyone on Twitter”. (If you do, you’ll need to use special tools to manage your feeds, and they might actually make you a happier Twitterer…) Until we understand how a creative social web really works, we don’t know what to protect and what to prevent. This makes Tim’s project even more important, but it might suggest that the EPA metaphor isn’t the right next step.

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6 Responses to Tim Hwang explains net memes at the Berkman Center

  1. Alvis says:

    Thanks for the nice summary.

    I am struck by how the 4chan / Facebook dichotomy seems to be representative of Evolutionary and Developmental sides of social cognition. One is is tailored to the buildup of structured data, the other to explosive thought exploration. Opposing yet autocatalytic forces necessary for processing/intelligence.

    The notion that bad economies can lead to creativity resonates. Think it’s rooted in freed up behavioral/exploration phase space and criticality.

    Also like the notion of web as eco-system, but not at the expense of saying it’s not an extension of the global human brain – that’d be false dichotomy.

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