March 21, 2009

Internet or internet?

I've been browsing the internet for years, but sometimes I still feel a bit like an online n00b. I still haven't hopped onboard the social networking bandwagon, and I wouldn't have a clue how to Digg something As I struggle with questions about my blog's identity (what should I post? who is my audience and how do I reach a wider audience?) I realize: the internet really is a fascinating phenomenon, and it's almost certainly the defining invention of our time. There are inventions that saved more lives and took more lives, but the internet* has arguably done more to change social interactions and the ways we humans exist as socially constructed individuals than anything since the rise of civilization some 10,000 years ago**.

*Why does the OED still capitalize Internet? Is it a brand name or something? Is it not at the point where we can probably just drop the capitalization? Just asking.

**Complete guess.

There are a number of fascinating things about the internet, the negative correlation between anonimity and civility being one of them*. I'm sure we've all been fascinated by memes, and I'm equally sure we've all woken up in the morning next a meme and realized that something, be it alcohol or staring at a screen for hours on end, impaired our better judgement**. So the idea of an enduring meme is an intriguing one, and it's one that, according to this Slate article, a Seattle-based company called Pet Holdings has made quite a profit from. Pet Holdings own everything from (go ahead, abandon me for lolcats; you know you want to) to Fail Blog and GraphJam.

*While doing some research for a project last year, I came across brilliant teacher and comics author Gene Yang's acceptance speech for the prestigious Printz award. In his speech, he provided examples of MySpace comments about his book American Born Chinese and a discussion on a library's messageboard. He intended the contrast to be shocking, and it was, but I wonder about the worth of the MySpace commentary (Yang implied that it had no cultural worth). How many "Chink" slurs does it take to render someone an idiot and unable to produce any kind of cultural meaning other than offensive noise?

**What is the proper way to spell this word? The OED tells me that it can be spelled with or without the first "e," and I've seen it both ways. Is this some kind of a British/American thing?

If the internet changed human interaction so dramatically, then it only makes sense that it has revolutioned marketing, the field responsible for the quantification and categorization of human interaction. I'm sure marketing execs can explain this one in full, but reading about Pet Holdings makes me wonder how exactly a meme (or, more generally, a website) builds up an audience and maintains that audience. There's absolutely something to be said for tapping into an already potent social network (the Slate article mentions that Pet Holdings does not have any competitors in part because they can advertise new memes through their current websites and generate millions of hits). There's also something to be said for user-generated content. It seems like the most successful websites give users some ownership of the content, even if its only the production of a discourse surrounding existent content (see any number of viral videos).

I don't have much else to say; this is far too big a topic to do more than pose questions and prompt inquiry*. Other than this: speaking of my students**, I find it disconcerting when the internet meets real life. It's a little like those stories about two people dating online, only to find out that they're related. One of my students brought into class Friday an honest-to-God real-live internet meme. He had a leftover container full of water, and one of my other students said, "Show Evan! It looks like water, but it isn't."*** When someone told me to stick my hand in it, I knew what was coming, and I pulled out several what I will call "water balls" for lack of a better word (Google supports my almost-certain misnomer with multiple videos about how to make water balls). Apparently, these things are so full of water that their index of refraction is almost equal to that of water. Science is so cool, no? Anyway, I stared at the water balls for what felt like five minutes but was more likely five seconds****. I was a little speechless, since I had never actually seen in person any of the science-based memes (e.g., Diet Coke and Mentos). What do you say in that situation (especially when said situation occurs while twenty students are watching)? "Oh, that's cool"?! I went with an acknowledging yet hopefully suave "Hmmm," and my student scuttled back to his seat. It was an experience I'm sure neither of us care to repeat.

Google: success. Google Images: not so much.

*I have to say, my students actually called me out for asking questions with reckless abandon the other day. I tend to be very bad at giving answers and very good at asking questions, but I never thought my students would actually call me out on it. Touché, kids, touché.

**Yes, I'm experimenting with asterisks and how we read them. Give me a break.

***My first thought was, "Vodka?"

****Is there a word for those times when an event feels longer than it is? If not, there should be. I'll get right on inventing that.


  1. I am so confused about this whole water ball situation. My brow looks a lot like this -\|/- right now.

    In other news, my students stumped me with an energy drink as soda question Wednesday and I responded with a similar, "Hmm." It's quite effective.

  2. A.: I added a link to one video on making water balls. You can see the finished product at the end of the video.