Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The changing nature of pop culture distribution

My wife and I watched the movie Juno last night, and I highly recommend it for your own viewing. But this isn't a review of the movie, what sparked today's essay is how (depressingly) little of its dialogue I didn't understand. This was because of the quick cultural references spoken by the teenagers portrayed in the movie. I guess I am getting to that generation where words like cool and hep cat are no longer part of the lexicon. I know, this isn't a news flash.

It occurred to me that years from now we will watch this movie and need on-screen annotations to explain what they are talking about.

But the movie is a static, finished entity. What is more interesting to watch is how pop culture references are being incorporated into various online media, and how they are passed around, consumed, and transformed as part of the media itself. As the online world becomes more a fixture in our lives, we are seeing a much more complex evolution. It isn't just the insertion of a bunch of slang words, but an almost complete encoding or translation of pop culture itself. Witness leet-speak, the gamer lingo that results from substituting numbers for letters that luckily (for me, at least) peaked a few years ago. The more cynical of us could look upon leet as just a substitution cipher, but it really is more than that, embodying a way of life and world view. (The best example is the Pure Pwnage videos available here:

The most recent evidence of pop culture is this music video by Weezer (for those of you that don't know, they are a pop music group):

The video contains visual references to a wide variety of topics. The difference is that these are mostly other Internet videos and online personality references. It is a very clever collection too, and like the Juno dialogue I doubt that I got more than a few of them even after repeated viewings.

Back in my misspent youth, we didn't have online videos. (Well, duh!) We were lucky to have black and white TV, and we had to contend with decoding rebus puzzles, and playing Sgt. Pepper backwards on our turntables to hear "Paul is dead" and figuring out Mad magazine's parodies. When we did get computers, we thought the ultimate in geek coolness (sorry, I will try to think of another word that doesn't date me) were Easter Eggs, bits of hidden code that required you to hit five different keys to bring them up.

Now we have fake news that contains some truth and is broadcast every night on the comedy channel, serious news that contains some fake information that is broadcast on the news channels, and music videos that contain sly references to other videos. The mind boggles at the whole interconnectedness of it all. We have invented words used by the fake anchors like "truthiness" that are included in dictionaries, and script writers for reality shows.

Yes, we are at new levels of how pop culture is being incorporated, parodied, and encoded by teens, and others too cool for school, even some noobs (maybe). It will be interesting to look back on this moment in time and see if anyone in the future can figure any of it out, or maybe they'll say, "Wassup with that?"

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.