Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Leeroy's Call: Implications for Proto-Memers

Starting a new meme is a hard road! And it's probably a good thing. English is ridiculously complicated already.

While I was writing an article about the sub-genre of Steampunk in which the settings include giant, rigid, floating aircraft (think Miyazaki movies, Neil Gamin's Stardust), Youngest Son suggested I use the word HindenPunk, since the Hindenburg was the most notorious horse in that stable. It sounded good to me, and my editor helped out by making it the single-word title. I waited to see if it would start multiplying in Steampunk sites.

Not much!

The gold standard of modern Internet meme-hood could be Leeroy Jenkins' yell of "Let's Do This!", which has jumped via YouTube from gamers to television, songs, movies, and even the Armed Forces Journal.

An early electronic meme was the novelty song Mairzy Doats with this line:
Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
It's not nonsense though it reads that way. It's phonetic for:
"Mares eat oats and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy."
The song's two-year run of success starting with airplay on the home front during World War II suggests that memes are more likely to catch hold if they start as an inside joke. American combat troops used snippets from the song as a challenge password because German spies had trouble coming up with the following lines as a countersign when trying to sneak through our checkpoints in France. While some of the enemy commandos had grown up in America and knew flawless colloquial English, they had no knowledge of a fad that hit the New York airwaves in 1943.

All I know that is that many new words and proto-memes are launched but few take flight. In a humor column for Smithsonian I wrote about early bachelor life with my brothers in an old farmhouse in Missouri. We built cabins from oak logs in the back lot of a sawmill and re-assembled them elsewhere. In describing guy-housekeeping I invented the word "messismo," a variation of machismo. As illustrations, I listed our use of high-explosives crates (empty ones) for bookshelves, and my oldest brother's habit of overhauling his Stihl chain saw on our kitchen table. Googling reveals my other new word never went viral either, with only minor appearances.

But even the most successful Internet memes are shelf-limited: viral one day, cliche the next. See Robert Frost ...

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