Jun 26 2014
By the time you read this, the USMNT will be less than an hour away from playing Germany in the World Cup. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not terribly important, and as a sporting event, it’s one game of many, but as a cultural event, it kind of stands out. On a purely holistic level based on overhearing conversations in the grocery store and what I happen to read on my Facebook scroll (the two are basically on the same level, come to think of it), us Americans are buzzing about this game, and from what I can tell, it’s louder than even the Super Bowl.
But it’s an interesting experience, isn’t it? A shared cultural phenomenon that encompasses not only the games, but the literally thousands of pieces of social media flotsam that wash up in our feeds – so much of it, and repeated so often, that it seems like every single person in the world has seen the .gif of the Mexican coach bursting into anime-style flames and lightning.
What is the word for that? A shared experience that’s more than just an event, it’s also a conversation over the internet, a conversation with 10,000 voices that still manage to gravitate towards cohesive threads. The modern pop culture landscape is changing fast, and we need a better language to define it. Or at least some made-up words to mock it, for a start. As I’ve done before, I humbly submit my suggestions.
5. “Blunderstanding” – The tacit agreement you have with your friends to never talk about the time you all liked something shitty
Dane Cook has probably been the butt of more jokes than he’s ever told. But there was a time when he enjoyed a fairly benign reputation. He didn’t generate that near-universal disdain right away, as opposed to Carlos Mencia, for example. I remember one of Cook’s routines getting passed around my freshman dorm, and everyone laughing their asses off. I believe it was a somewhat different version of this bit:
I watch that now, and I’m not hating it. It’s not brilliant, but it seems like a perfectly respectable bit. I’ve certainly heard, say, Jerry Seinfeld do worse bits. But Cook’s reputation is so laughable at this moment in time that it hardly matters. This clip from Archer pretty much perfectly sums up the situation:
He’s not just bad, he’s the guy you think is cool if you don’t know any better. And that’s why if you liked him once, you never, ever mention it. You and your friends made a mistake – a blunder. And now you have a tacit blunderstanding.
4. “Fun paralysis” – The bored, slightly desperate ennui that comes from being able to access any episode of every television show ever at any time
Netflix must produce some amazing statistics. The one I’d like to know is if you added up every single hour of streaming content they offer, would it be more or less than the length of an average human life? If it’s more, that would say something, wouldn’t it? There’s something kind of symbolic about that. The quantity of information that the internet has put literally at our fingertips has expanded so rapidly that the scale of it feels not quite right for humans anymore. We’re long past having more information than we need or want, and now into the realm of more information than we can realistically get a handle on. That’s why trend analysis is so big right now – defining what’s popular and/or important gets exponentially harder when the noise so vastly outweighs the signal.
And what a noise it is. I’m sure there’s a good word for mindlessly switching between 50 open tabs on your browser, but when it comes to something specific… you’re sitting down to relax, you have a certain window of time, you just want to watch something. You ever just let your eyes wander over the Netflix scroll and think, “when did relaxing feel like such a chore?” Fun paralysis.
3. “Preemptive Nostalgia” Missing things before they’re over
So I was a pretty big fan of Mass Effect 2. In my verbose praise for the game, one of the things I didn’t go into much detail about was the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC. I mentioned that I thought it was very good, but it came at the tail end of a 2,000 word piece and I was pretty gassed.
One thing I didn’t go into detail about was how much it blew me away by continually surpassing my expectations. My experience with Mass Effect DLC up to that point had been Bring Down The Sky and Kasumi: Stolen Memories. Both were very good, but both were also fairly straightforward. Have objective, complete objective in stages. Lair of the Shadow Broker blew that formula out of the water. You never knew where it was going. From an apartment investigation with hidden clues to a standard bad-guy building sweep to a hovercar chase to a run-and-gun through apartments to a prolonged battle with a rogue agent… it never let up.
But the thing that surprised me most was that there was more. The battle with that rogue agent really felt like the end. When the story slowly spins up and it dawns on you that you’re about to infiltrate the Broker’s base, and that the base is actually a huge lightning-conducting spaceship constantly moving between a planet’s freezing and boiling line…
And the visuals, the storm, gunning along the outside of the ship, Liara and Shepard bantering and throwing out self-aware quips… I was hit with a feeling of reverse nostalgia. I found myself missing it even as it was happening. Because I knew I would only feel like this once, experiencing that sense of newness the first time, even though after I finished it I wanted to replay it right away.
I’m not sure if it’s a positive or a negative, but Preemptive Nostalgia definitely feels…odd.
4. “The Vortex” – Getting sucked into an endless series of Wiki articles, YouTube videos, or Tumblr pages because you clicked on one thing that you knew you shouldn’t
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Is it a sense of completion that makes you keep clicking, just inertia, boredom, or genuine interest? Maybe all of it. But once you’re in it, there’s no escape.
This is how it goes: You remember that one video of Randy Johnson exploding a bird with a 98 mph fastball, which leads to you watching the video of Nolan Ryan putting Ventura in a headlock and beating him after Ventura charges the mound, which leads to a “Top 10 benches-clearing brawls” highlight reel, which leads to a documentary about the knuckleball, which leads to you suddenly realizing it’s 2 AM.
5. “12th Manning” – The sense of togetherness and community that comes from watching something alone but participating in the commentary about it
And we’ve come full circle. That picture, if you can’t make it out, is Clint Dempsey scoring a goal against Portugal with his abs to put the USA up 2-1. I flipped out when it happened. Every social media site I had open in the background flipped out. Even though I was only watching it with one other human being, I felt like I was a part of something. (This was followed immediately by a punch to the gut; another shared experience.)
The Seattle Seahawks weren’t the ones to invent the concept of the 12th Man, but they popularized it. It’s a heady feeling. The idea that a large group, doing nothing more than cheering and hoping and sending invisible Concern Rays towards a much smaller group of athletes can actually affect the outcome of the game is perhaps a silly one. No matter how passionately fans support something, be it a baseball team or a TV show, that thing exists in its own bubble. TV shows are receptive to audiences, to be sure, but a good show knows not to let the inmates run the asylum.
But in another sense, they matter a great deal. In an hour, when you turn on the USA / Germany match, you have no say in the outcome of the game. You can care, you can talk about it, but you can’t influence it. But it wouldn’t exist if you didn’t care and didn’t talk about it. Sports wouldn’t exist without fans, and TV shows wouldn’t exist without people to watch them.
“12th Manning” is being a part of the audience.
In the scramble to plant a flag and amass followers and have a voice that rings across the internet, just remember that it would all mean nothing if there wasn’t someone to hear.
It’s not a bad thing to be a part of that crowd that hears.
Now, what are you doing on the internet, still? It’s time for something far more important.
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