Sunday, September 15, 2013

A deep comic malaise: the coming viral video crisis

My fellow citizens.

Hours ago, The Fox by Ylvis reached 28.4 million Youtube hits.  In doing so, it surpassed one of the all-time greatest veterans of Youtube--the infamous Star Wars kid.

According to current projections, The Fox will eclipse Double Rainbow's 38 million hits in slightly over 72 hours.  From there, we can only speculate about its trajectory.

The Fox is only the latest example of a growing danger to the enjoyment of internet videos: resource depletion.

In the early, heady days of viral internet memes, hilarious content seemed inexhaustible.  The internet was the proverbial horn of plenty, capable of producing comic material to satisfy the needs of all humanity.

We know now that this early understanding was only a mirage.  It was the combination of two trends, which are both reaching their natural conclusion.

First, viral video pioneers had access to an enormous backlog of pre-internet materials.  Home video tapes, old infomercials, long-forgotten films, all could be strip-mined for comic value.  This created an exaggerated impression of the availability of movies of funny things happening.

But inevitably that stockpile is being exhausted.  Already the amount of pre-internet material reaching the public's consciousness is shrinking.  More cannot be produced.  One day we will simply run out.



Second, inefficient distribution has helped create a false impression of abundance.  Initially, videos were circulated by literal word of mouth, or shared on file-sharing sites.  The process was slow.  Only after years did the joke begin to wear out.  Star Wars Kid was posted on Youtube in 2006, averaging only four million hits a year.

But the process began to accelerate.  Double Rainbow was posted in 2010 and has averaged almost ten million hits a year, peaking early on with six hundred thousand views per day.  According to top scholars, "Double rainbow what does it mean" had been drained of all comic value by early 2010.  The phrase was rapidly retired, and today only persists in needy populations, like high school Facebook friends or your grandmother.

And distribution continues to accelerate, dramatically.

Three days after it was posted, The Fox received four million views in a day.  If current trends were to hold, by the time Christmas arrives, it will have as many views as people live in America. At that point, "What does the fox say?" will inspire only apathy, and perhaps despair.

In some ways, this alarming trend is a triumph of American ingenuity.  We have developed ever more centralized technologies for the sharing of viral content--first Youtube itself, then Twitter, then Facebook's news feed, and finally, Buzzfeed.

But as a consequence, the days when a group of friends would gather around a computer, sharing their favorite hilarious clips, are long over.  Today, within hours of first appearing, a video is wrenched out of its natural habitat, and, after being processed through a long chain of distributors, served to millions of viewers. Industrial-scale exploitation of the video continues relentlessly, with no respect for the integrity of the video's comedy, until the source is exhausted and discarded.

As this process grows ever faster, and our reserves diminish, a dark day approaches: the moment when our capacity for viewing internet videos will outstrip our ability to find or create them.

When that day finally comes, who knows what effects it will have on American society?  We risk entering a period of extended comic malaise, in which truly enjoyable memes appear only sporadically, and are eagerly pounced on by the ravening masses, dissected and rendered inert within hours.

How we will compensate for this sudden decline in our quality of life?  Perhaps we will warm ourselves by the light of artificially-manufactured substitutes, dreamed up by late-night comedians to fill the void in our hearts.  Maybe we'll settle for diminished quality of viral content, subsisting on half a loaf where we once had a whole one.

But rest assured, my fellow Americans, unless something is done, this crisis is coming.

Many of the nation's top thinkers are working on this problem.  For years, they have been experimenting with methods for extracting more efficient comedy from smaller amounts of precursor material, and while results have been mixed, there is some cause for optimism.

I'm sure at this point many of you are wondering if you can do your own small part to help out.  You can, by carefully considering any undiscriminating use of Facebook, Twitter, and other sites.  Oversharing on these networks speeds the crisis, and further inflates the fortunes of those who would thoughtlessly burn through our viral resources. We must collectively guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the meme-industrial complex.

It won't be easy.  The strength of America is in the inexhaustible resources of its people, not its exhaustible reserves of cell phone videos.  By working together, combining American ingenuity with its tradition of self-reliance, we can build a bright, sustainable future, one where our children, and our children's children, can enjoy watching internet cats as much as we have.

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