Would It Be So Bad If We Created Our Own Culture?

The Internet & Democracy Project is interested in the democratic effects of the Internet, and thus in the Internet’s ability to empower the individual to play a more influential role in society. As has been noted elsewhere, the Internet inverts the previous political cultural hierarchy. Whereas now most of the culture we consume is created by others – books, movies, clothing, news, food, spirituality – the Internet allows everyone to create their own culture. So, if culture was created by the common man, rather than simply marketed to him, what would it look like? As of March 2008, it looks something like this:

lolcat

The above image is of a “lolcat,” a humorous image of a cat or other animal with a witty phrase typed on it (“lol” stands for “laughing out loud”). Lolcats are one of the first forms of truly user-generated culture. It’s not something that people adopted or co-opted. There is no Loldog Corp. that is being satirized. People just took funny pictures of their pets and, using a jargon also created online, made an unlikely cultural stream that, quite frankly, gives me a lot of hope. If our greatest desire is to laugh at cute pictures of cats, then maybe there is some hope for the human race.

So, if lolcats are the first form of user-generated culture, what does this imply about user-generated culture in general? Well, it appears that we don’t like unhelpful rules – grammar, for one, and spelling. One aspect of lolcat culture is that many “macros” (images with text superimposed) are written in an alternative form of English called “kitteh” which is apparently a the language in which cats speak. This is supposedly because cat’s don’t understand grammar, although there is some debate on this topic.

lolcat

In general, kitteh is written phonetically rather than according to the rules of spelling, a trend that likely results from the influence of IM and text messaging on language. When space and time are at a premium – as they now are in our small-screen world – meaning is much more important than accuracy, as long as u undrstnd wut I want 2 say. More concerned with communication than rules, people, especially young people, are making their own dialects. OMG! In addition to general linguistic rules of kitteh, there are also words that have arisen: “hai” in place of hi, “haz” in place of has, “nom” in place of eat, “mah” in place of my.

Another aspect of user-generated culture that is revealed through lolcats is a general desire to poke fun at consumer culture (the culture that someone made for you), as these example demonstrate. This is an example of the re-coding or re-mixing of existing cultural that is known as semiotic democracy. According to this theory, the Internet allows people to reinterpret and redefine signs/words so they take on a different meaning. Here, The Coca Cola Company, eBay Inc., and the Stars Wars marketing empire are turned into objects of derision, taking them down a notch in the cultural power hierarchy (while at the same time reinforcing their prevalence by making them the object of discourse).

coke bear

ebay

yoda

Lolcats are also very personal, although pet owners are usually not shown in lolcat images, the pictures are almost always of the owners own pet and are often taken in the image creator’s home (I believe). If this is so, lolcats demonstrate a desire to share something personal with complete strangers, an impulse also present in the practice of blogging.

The promise of Web 2.0 and user-generated culture are finally being realized, not only in individual creative products like blogs and digital videos, but in the true definition of culture: “patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance.” The kind of culture that we choose to make when we are not materially limited is significant in that it hints at what what a more democratic society would look, if norms were made from the bottom up instead of the top down.

all images courtesy of icanhascheezburger.com

cross-posted on Zapboom.com

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