The Internet Is an Amnesia Machine
There was a time when I didn’t know what a Baby Yoda was. Then there was a time I couldn’t go online without reading about Baby Yoda. And now, Baby Yoda is a distant, shrugging memory. Soon there will be a generation of people who missed the whole thing and for whom Baby Yoda is as meaningless as it was for me a year ago.
A few weeks ago every tweet was about cakes that didn’t look like cakes. In 2015, there was that dress that no one knew the color of. Before that, people ate spoonfuls of cinnamon or poured buckets of ice over their heads. At one point everyone was talking about a sort of mini-webpage the New York Times made about an avalanche. There was the bitcoin spike of 2017. The Pokémon Go craze of 2016. Even the iPod obsession of the early 2000s. Remember those days? When everyone had a pair of wired white headphones and every second we weren’t forcing MP3s into our ears was a waste of our limited time on this mortal coil. Or when the Kindle was first released more than 10 years ago, and rows of commuters all seemed to be peering at an e-ink screen? These phases pass. Last time I went on the Tube (back when commuting every day was a thing we all did) there were no Kindles. There were no iPods. Just a smartphone in every hand in or in every pocket. Fingers flicking through Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. No one was searching for Snorlaxes anymore.
A few weeks ago every tweet was about cakes that didn’t look like cakes.
Even though we live through the rise and fall of these obsessions, looking back they seem quaint.
The word “craze” positions this phenomenon on the spectrum of sanity. When we are excited about the new iPhone or arguing with our friends about the color of a dress, have we gone temporarily insane? Is that the best way to describe those camped outside the Apple store in the rain? Or has there been something latent in humans throughout recorded history? In 1637, people couldn’t stop buying tulip bulbs. In the mid-17th century, society saw witches everywhere. And more recently (and prosaically), in 1954, an epidemic in Seattle led everyone to suddenly think there were holes in their windshields. The topics and technology change, but the human instinct remains the same.
Almost 500 years to the day before Baby Yoda, there was the so-called dancing plague of 1518. People started dancing uncontrollably, sometimes until they collapsed from exhaustion. “It quickly spread throughout Europe,” Wikipedia notes solemnly. We call these things “viral” for a reason. The dancing plague spread not through droplets but through, I guess, feeling the groove (or something). It was the nearest thing the 16th century had to retweeting.
Perhaps we have a mania for believing stories about mania.
Historians debate whether people really did dance to their deaths. The truth is more likely (more boringly) that accounts were exaggerated and misremembered due to poor written-records. I wonder if future historians will look back on the current time with the same misconceptions: “During the Baby Yoda plague of 2019, people would retweet memes until they passed out from exhaustion, their fingers worn to the bone from liking and swiping.”
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One of the things about these crazes is our belief, both at the time and subsequently, in their prevalence. In the mid-20th century, Orson Welles’ broadcast of War of the Worlds caused listeners to believe Martians were invading. Another temporary mania swept the nation. Except, in reality, it didn’t. The show was introduced as a drama. It had an ad break. Listeners knew it wasn’t a real news report of a Martian invasion. And yet in popular consciousness, the country was fooled. According to Slate, “papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news.” It is, I suppose, a good story. It is sort of sticky, BuzzFeed-y, so you can see why it caught on. Perhaps we have a mania for believing stories about mania.
I’ve fallen for this myself. Earlier in this article, I said “everyone” had a Kindle or iPod. But, of course, not everyone had a Kindle: 10% of the planet is below the poverty line. Kindles are not at the top of the World Bank’s priority list. But even ignoring global inequality, not even everyone with plenty of disposable income had a Kindle. It just seemed that way, through marketing and some sort of nebulous cultural zeitgeist.
It’s only a meme if everyone thinks everyone else is doing it.
Similarly, Apple has sold more Apple Watches than iPods, and even now watches sell at a rate faster than iPods did at the top of the iPod “craze.” Yet, weirdly, I would never say “everyone” has an Apple Watch in the way I might say everyone had an iPod. It all has a feel of Yogi Berra logic. (“No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”) Perhaps it’s safer to say that sometimes the media is overtaken by a particular idea. The idea fills our minds rather than emptying our pockets. It’s not that we all owned iPods and Kindles, but we all saw, thought, and talked about them. An iPod in every ad and every aspirational photo. And even “we” there refers to a small subset of society. Those of us who think about technology were, temporarily, thinking about Kindles. Or about whatever meme was in ascendance at the time.
Weirdly, our belief that everyone else is doing things makes us more likely to do them. The word “meme” comes from the ancient Greek for “imitated thing.” When we join in with a meme we are copying what we think everyone else is doing. That is to say: memeing only has meaning in the moment. When everyone stops, we no longer want to carry on. It’s only a meme if everyone thinks everyone else is doing it.
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All of this makes me think of our current crazes: The things we do now that we won’t in the future. All that scrolling will one day be a thing of the past. Both doom scrolling, specific to this coronavirus-infested moment, and the more general adult soothing of nice images on Instagram, Pinterest, and TikTok. And then there are the tiny trends we forgot as soon as they are over. Knowing this, of course, doesn’t stop me from getting hooked in the moment. The social desire to join in is high.
Right now, “everyone” has Netflix or Disney+ or Amazon Prime. But there are only so many high-quality dramas one person can watch (not to mention pay for). That’s the thing with crazes: they’re unsustainable. The problem with dancing yourself to death is that it’s so time-consuming. At some point, you’re going to want to free up your diary to catch up on Succession.
Last year, when talking about competitors, the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, wrote in an earnings letter that, “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.” Partly this is a signal to investors that the potential market for Netflix is not just TV watchers but essentially all human attention. However, it cuts both ways. Every minute I spend trying to eat cinnamon is one minute I’m not watching Netflix. Obsessions are, by definition, all-consuming. And you can only be all-consumed by one thing at once.
We are hooked by temporary manias. That is why we spend time watching amateurish, vertical videos of monkeys dancing that could be spent watching TV shows we love in 4K.
With our global infrastructure optimized for memes and messages, our obsessions have become shorter and shorter, to the point that if you take a day off you miss them. On Twitter, posts go viral but within hours they’re all over, replaced by the next in an endless list. BuzzFeed scours the internet for viral content in the same way that tulip farmers searched for bulbs in the 1600s. It seems hard to believe at the moment that one day the iPhone, Facebook, and Netflix will be quaint distant memories like Baby Yoda and eventually historical oddities like the dancing plague. “Can you believe that people used to carry around little computers and spend hours a day looking at funny pictures of cats with text on top of them?” Future historians might laugh to themselves and then, like us, return to their own temporary viral obsession.