Proliferation of Internet memes makes it difficult to stay current

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010

Consider this two-part law of how stuff ends up in your inbox:

(1) There are people out there who have never seen some moldering viral video, say "JK Wedding Entrance Dance." They were not among the video's 41 million-plus YouTube viewers, they did not see it replayed infinitely on the morning shows, they did not visit the couple's hyped Web site, they missed the "Divorce Entrance" spinoff, and they were oblivious to the tribute on "The Office," which garnered 9 million viewers. When they eventually find it, they assume they have discovered a brand-new thing.

(2) They forward it to you.

They say, OMG so cute. Have you seen this?

You have seen it. You spent the latter half of 2009 seeing it. You are perplexed as to how your friends, who are normally not cave dwellers, managed to miss it. Yet miss it they did, and now they want to talk about how great it was, and whether Chris Brown's song was appropriate, and how the bride was the best part, and meanwhile you are mentally dragged back to last July, which means that your current viewing hours are going to be wasted, which means that you are going to miss something that everyone else is watching, and in six months you're going to be forwarding your friends "Pants on the Ground."

OMG, Have you seen this?

"My dad sent the wedding video to me last week," sighs Emily Quail, a recent college grad in the middle of planning her wedding. "The subject line said, 'For your consideration,' " and the only thing in the body was a YouTube link. When she clicked on it, she thought it might be an idea for a father-daughter dance. It wasn't. It was just Jill and Kevin, boogieing down the aisle yet again. "I haven't had the heart to break it to him that it's really old," Quail says.

Why be mean? Someday soon Quail will be the one who falls behind.

Falling behind is the permanent state of being online. There's too much stuff. No one can see it all. (Or should -- becoming a pop culture connoisseur in the age of a bazillion memes would require such relentless viewing that you couldn't be a connoisseur of anything else. Like bathing.)

A movable feast

The things we do see, we don't necessarily see together. Our communal cultural timeline is gradually dissolving. "Most water-cooler moments used to come from television," says Jeffrey Cole, director of the University of Southern California's Center for the Digital Future, speaking of the universal viewing experiences in which everyone used to see the same programs at the same time, from their living rooms. Now, we program our own viewing schedules, saving up "Glee" episodes to watch on Hulu, then getting annoyed when someone reveals "spoilers" for an episode that aired in November.

Operating on our personal entertainment timelines means that "my water-cooler moment might have occurred two weeks ago," Cole says, "and it might not occur to you for three weeks."

On the Internet, there is no viewing schedule and no expiration date. Nearly everything that was ever put up stays up. It's possible to spend your entire life catching up online, asking yourself, "Is this real life? Why is this happening? Is this gonna be forever?" ("David After Dentist," people.)

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