Jar Jar Binks was trending on Twitter this week because Jar Jar Binks was trending on Twitter this week. That may sound as nonsensical, bizarre and plain stupid as, well, Jar Jar Binks — but it’s actually an illustration of some fundamental Internet truths.
There’s a simple explanation behind the much-deplored Star Wars character’s lightspeed rise to the top of Twitter’s list of popular topics Monday morning. An infographic encouraged fans to discover what their life in a galaxy far, far away would look like; birth months corresponded to events, and first letters of Twitter users’ names to characters. If you’re a Gregory born in February, for example, you were “frozen in carbonite by an Ewok.” A lot of people’s names start with J — which mapped to none other than Jar Jar.
Here’s where it gets the most Binksian and also the most stereotypically “online.” This meme wasn’t enough to gain the Gungan any real attention, even when Twitter-happy Star Wars star Mark Hamill gave it a push. It was enough, however, to get “Jar Jar Binks” on the trending topics list for a number of users, prompting those people to ask why everyone was talking about Jar Jar Binks. This, in turn, caused Jar Jar Binks to trend more prominently. Which caused everyone to continue talking about how everyone was talking about Jar Jar Binks. Which … you get the point.
And so the ouroboros of the Internet chowed down on its own tail.
We live in the era of the reply-all, when one person’s response to another person’s blast to the masses can suck the rest of us into a vortex of never-ending inanity. Social media was designed for this. The entire purpose of Twitter’s trending topics is to surface to a broader set of users what a smaller set is already paying attention to. Our conversation runs on tautology. Things are important because they’re important, popular because they’re popular.
The historian and theorist Daniel J. Boorstin coined the phrase “famous for being famous” way back in 1962, before there was an Internet or a Jar Jar Binks or even Star Wars at all. Boorstin included the idea in a larger examination of what he called pseudo-events, essentially PR stunts designed primarily to create news — from institutions celebrating their anniversaries to appear more augustly institutional to politicians staging news conferences that convince the public that “big announcements” are big announcements.
The reality underlying such events is always fuzzy. Maybe that institution did have an exemplary record, and maybe not. Maybe that announcement was going to affect the lives of millions of Americans, or maybe it was all about getting a bump in the polls. The point is that the spectacle becomes the substance no matter how much substance existed in the first place. It all leaves us plebeians unable to determine what is nothing blown up into something and what deserved to be something in the first place.
Stagers of the pseudo-events once needed the media’s help to disseminate their narratives. Now, with the Internet, we can create pseudo-events all on our own, sometimes without even realizing it.
This is, in many ways, awfully democratic. We, the People, dictate the terms of our own discourse today, not a group of old white guys in an editorial meeting room. If we want Jar Jar, we get Jar Jar. If we want to argue about whether migrant detention centers are concentration camps or turn angry calls for the abolition of ICE into a movement, we can do that, too. And sometimes, we, not those in power, are the ones who propel the events we’ve created into the pages of our favorite periodicals. Just look at this column.
But it’s also a little dangerous. The idiocy of the crowd often prevails over wisdom of any sort on the Internet. Algorithms prioritizing engagement can amplify the most frenzied thinking available. This phenomenon has its silliest end in moments like the reign of Jar Jar Binks. But it has its scarier ends in, say, the conspiracy theory that the Clintons killed Seth Rich. That hoax was planted and promoted by Infowars and WikiLeaks and Russian trolls and addled everyday Americans alike. And it spread from site to site to, finally, relatively mainstream publications that felt forced to address the garbage because, hey, everyone’s talking about it after all.
That less-than-glorious morning when Jar Jar Binks was the toast of the town showed what happens when humans do what we are wont to: try to figure out what the rest of the world cares about because we don’t want to be left out. That impulse toward inclusion, helped along by an Internet that gives each of us a chance to make a message louder, crafts a nasty double-edged sword. Or call it a lightsaber.