Digital Life
3:29 am
Thu December 27, 2012

In Rapid-Fire 2012, Memes' Half-Life Fell To A Quarter

Originally published on Thu December 27, 2012 4:34 am

Last June, a young woman in Texas uploaded a Justin Bieber fan video. She seemed a little .... unhinged.

"I just made a list [of] all our future kids names: Bartholemew, Clarence, Steven, Bryce," she sings, eyes wide.

The video was posted to Reddit in a thread called "Overly Attached Girlfriend." In 48 hours, it picked up over 1 million views. Within days, the media was running stories about it.

And in a few weeks, everyone forgot about it.

Online sensations like "JB Fan Video" used to have longer legs. But in the past year, the speed with which we cycle through online videos, games and memes has increased enormously.

Wildly Popular ... Briefly

Back in 2008, "Charlie Bit My Finger," a video of a tiny British boy sticking his fingers in his baby brother's mouth, first uploaded to YouTube in 2007, was passed around for months and months ... and months ... and months.

YouTube's trends manager, Kevin Allocca, says it's hard to imagine its popularity lasting so long today.

"That stuff definitely still exists," Allocca says, "but a lot of the most popular things that we're seeing now [are] from professionals at producing entertainment."

And this year, videos dropped in and out of our consciousness faster. Even Allocca — whose job it is to watch trends on YouTube — says, "the speed with which these things happen doesn't cease to amaze me."

It wasn't just lighthearted stuff capturing our momentary attention this year. A video about the central African warlord Joseph Kony started showing up on Facebook and Twitter in March. It took only a few days for "Kony 2012" to obliterate previous YouTube records, with 30 million views a day.

But the backlash came faster, too. Between criticism and controversy, Kony 2012 basically vanished from the cultural conversation within a month.

"It really made me think about the velocity with which we're operating right now," Allocca says. "And the pace of popularity for some of these videos."

Flying By At Warp Speed

And it's not just videos that became online flashes in the pan in 2012, either. Just a couple of years ago, there were 32 million people playing Farmville on Facebook. They happily sent each other online cabbages and watered each other's crops.

It took two years for the vast majority of players to lose interest. When this year's version of Farmville came out, it took only three months for the number of players to fall from a high of 7 million to around 2 million.

Accelerating the pace of linking and "poking" might actually be an efficient way to "be a more social person in today's world," says sociologist Marco Gonzales. We are intensely social animals, he says, hardwired to get pleasure from connecting online.

"We're actually looking to be more social than ever before," Gonzales adds. "Maybe to the point of a problem, right? "

Maybe. Remember "Binders Full of Women"? Or Olympic gymnast Mckayla Maroney scowling with her medal? With these things flying by at warp speed, it's hard to keep up with the cultural conversation.

People cry and moan a lot about the decreasing attention span of America's youth," says Shana Naomi Krochmal, a digital producer for Current TV. "I think everyone's attention span in American is, at the best, quartered from where it was even five years ago. Absolutely."

Call it the quartering of the half-life. Krochmal thinks it's happened, in part, because of the strain on old media in a 24-hour news cycle. Memes are cool. They're plucked up, chewed on, spat out and forgotten.

"I think the kind of media we have now does really reward that intense instant obsessive focus," Krochmal says. "But how long can you do that for, right?"

The Smartphone Factor

In a burgeoning online universe, not so long. This year, Facebook topped 1 billion users. With more of us from all over the world using the same social media — and using it better and faster — that means ever-more information to pass around. Of course, that also means some of it won't go away.

Things like "Gangnam Style," the catchy — and relatively long-running — pop song, tend to stick around if they're interactive or something people can copy or remix.

The proliferation of mobile phones has played a role, too. Social media used to be limited to computers, but 2012 was the year that more than 50 percent of American consumers owned smartphones, giving us Twitter and Facebook right in our pockets.

"Our access the Internet has just improved so dramatically over the last few years," says Andy Borowitz, a comedian who has worked successfully in both old and new media. "We didn't have so much high speed Wi-Fi five years ago. We didn't have high speed networks on our phones the way we have now."

Borowitz says, personally, he's exhausted by the rapid-fire firehose of information he gets on Twitter and Facebook. So in the year ahead, he's planning to read more books. It's balm, he says, for his over-stimulated brain.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

I'm Renee Montagne.

And David, you've seen, I'm sure, that video of the baby getting snatched by an eagle? You know, the one with 39 million hits?

GREENE: Yeah, all those hits and it was totally fake.

MONTAGNE: Totally fake.

GREENE: But I mean entertaining, for a day. But probably not more than that.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, NPR's Neda Ulaby - she, of course, covers social media. And she says that the online world has turned that proverbial 15 minutes of fame into 15 seconds.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: So I just looked up the most popular jokes and pictures people passed around in 2012. I spend too much time looking at memes on the Internet. Yet somehow I missed a major one. Turns out last June a young woman in Texas uploaded a Justin Bieber fan video. She seemed a little unhinged.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I just made a list of our future kids' names - Bartholomew, Clarence, Steve and Bryce.

ULABY: The video was posted to Reddit in a thread called Overly Attached Girlfriend. It picked up over a million views within 48 hours. The media ran stories about it within days. In a few weeks, everyone forgot about it. These things used to have longer legs.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Charlie bit me.

ULABY: Back in 2008, this video of a tiny British boy sticking his fingers in his baby brother's mouth got passed around for months and months and months and months. YouTube's trends manager, Kevin Allocca, says it's hard to imagine its popularity lasting so long today.

KEVIN ALLOCCA: That stuff definitely still exists, but a lot of the most popular things that we're seeing now are starting to come from professionals at producing, you know, creativity and entertainment.

ULABY: And this year, videos dropped in and out of our consciousness faster.

ALLOCCA: The speed with which these things happen just doesn't cease to amaze me.

ULABY: This guy's job it is to track how things get popular on YouTube, and he's amazed. He says in 2012 it was not just jokey stuff capturing our momentary attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: My brother tried to escape.

ULABY: A video about the central African warlord Joseph Kony started showing up last March on Facebook and Twitter. It took only a few days for "Kony 2012" to obliterate previous YouTube records - 30 million views a day. But the backlash came faster too. Between criticism and controversy, "Kony 2012" basically vanished from the cultural conversation within a month. Kevin Allocca.

ALLOCCA: It really made me think the velocity with which we're operating right now and the pace of popularity for some of these videos.

ULABY: Not just videos over the past year either.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS TWEETING)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: A couple of years ago, there were 32 million people playing Farmville on Facebook. They happily sent each other online cabbages and watered each other's crops. It took two years for the vast majority of players to lose interest. When this year's version of Farmville came out, it took only three months for the number of players to fall from a high of seven million to around two. Accelerating the pace of linking and poking might actually be an efficient way to be a human, says sociologist Marco Gonzales.

MARCO GONZALES: That is how to be a more social person in today's world.

ULABY: We are intensely social animals, hardwired to get pleasure from connecting online.

GONZALES: We're actually looking to be more social than ever before. Maybe to the point of a problem, right?

ULABY: Maybe. Remember binders full of women? Or the Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney scowling on the podium with her medal? It's hard to keep up with the cultural conversation.

SHANA NAOMI KROCHMAL: People cry and moan a lot about the decreasing attention span of America and America's youth.

ULABY: Shana Naomi Krochmal is a digital producer for Current TV.

KROCHMAL: I think everyone's attention span in America is at their best quartered from where it was even five years ago. I think absolutely.

ULABY: Call it the quartering of the half-life. Krochmal thinks it's partly because of the strain on old media in a 24-hour news cycle. Memes are cool. They're plucked up, chewed on, spat out and forgotten.

KROCHMAL: I think the kind of media we have now does really reward that intense, instant, obsessive focus, but how long can you do that for, right?

ULABY: Not so long in a burgeoning online universe. This year, Facebook topped a billion users. More of us from all over the world are using the same social media, using it better and faster, and that means ever more information to pass around. Of course some of it will not go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGNAM STYLE")

ULABY: Things tend to stick around if they're interactive, something people can copy or remix.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGNAM STYLE")

ULABY: Social media used to be limited to computers. This was the year over 50 percent of American consumers have smartphones. So we have Twitter and Facebook in our pockets.

Andy Borowitz is a comedian who's worked successfully in old and new media.

ANDY BOROWITZ: Our access the Internet has just improved so dramatically over the last two years. We didn't have so much high-speed Wi-Fi five years ago, as we have today. We didn't have high-speed networks on our phones the way we have them now.

ULABY: Borowitz says personally, he's exhausted by the rapid-fire fire hose of information he gets on Twitter and Facebook. So this year, he's trying to read more books. It's balm, he says, for his over-stimulated brain.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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