The Spreading Power of Online Ideas: What Filmmakers Can Learn From James Gleick on Internet Memes

Have you given much thought to what happens to your content once it enters the online ecosystem?

If you're a filmmaker, have you considered how your work might replicate, mutate and evolve online?

In the Old World of filmmaking, the hope was that a filmmaker's work would be seen on thousands of screens - but always in a form that the original filmmaker had authorized.

Today, online films can spread to millions of viewers in hours. And some (lucky?) films have become the basis for "memes" - morphing at the hands of various remixers and reinterpreters - in ways that the original authors never intended or imagined.

When it comes to film: Is mutation a good or a bad thing?

Undeniably, the internet has a tendency toward appropriation and mutation that presents huge challenges to the old ways of filmmaking.

While the new tools are democratizing the process of becoming a filmmaker, the lack of control - especially over $ and the integrity of the original work - is giving many filmmakers who prospered in the 20th century fits.

In my view, you can stand on the sidelines and complain about the new game - or you can participate in, and work to improve, the new online ecosystem.

As a filmmaker, I want mechanisms so that content creators can be paid when their content shows up online (even remixed). But the new strategies for generating revenue (mechanisms we're going to have to craft with the help of big and small content producers) shouldn't choke fan creativity - or even worse - cripple online innovation.

50 years ago, making your own unpermissioned version of a popular film was something that only a criminal mastermind might consider. Now mash-ups and remixes are a staple of pop culture. Deal with it.

For a bit of perspective on how the new online ecosystem is changing films and filmmaking, I recommend a thoughtful and well-researched article by James Gleick (based on his 2011 book, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood) that appeared in the May 2011 Smithsonian magazine.

While not specifically about filmmaking, Mr. Gleick's article might just add to your understanding of how filmmaking is evolving in the online environment.

Mr. Gleick is a science writer who understands evolutionary science. He is also fascinated by memes and how they replicate, grow and change. Combining the two, Mr. Gleick writes about how internet memes spread by leaping from connected user to connected user and how that process can be seen as a form of evolution.

Mr. Gleick starts by quoting Nobel prize-winning biologist Jacques Monod to suggest that the internet is a place where ideas behave like organisms: "Like [living organisms], [ideas] tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role."

According to James Gleick, memes are not new, but the internet has allowed them to evolve and spread more rapidly: "Memes emerge in brains and travel outward, establishing beachheads on paper and celluloid and silicon and anywhere else information can go. They are not to be thought of as elementary particles but as organisms.... For most of our biological history memes [have] existed fleetingly; their main mode of transmission was the one called “word of mouth.” Lately, however, they have managed to... spread via broadcast towers and digital networks."

The compact shape and symmetry of a meme is often a part of its charm - and perhaps part of its spreadability. As James Gleick observes: "Rhyme and rhythm are qualities that aid a meme’s survival, just as strength and speed aid an animal’s." Mr. Gleick cites a number of examples of prior memes that have spread in part because of their compact and elegant surface, including the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the phrase "Tinker. Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

Mr. Gleick writes that today memes inhabit and move through the "infosphere" in ways that suggest they have a life of their own: "We are aware of the many species of information. We name their types sardonically, as though to reassure ourselves that we understand: urban myths and zombie lies. We keep them alive in air-conditioned server farms. But we cannot own them."

This notion - that memes have a life of their own - may seem fanciful (especially to anyone with a vested interest in the old ways of monetizing "intellectual property"). But ask the lawyers for the RIAA and MPAA who've been hacking away at the new forms of online life for more than a decade: Remixes and mash-ups and online memes based on someone else's original content are hard to kill.

Online memes have proven very resistant to efforts to eradicate them. Maybe it's time to make a concerted effort to encourage them and harvest what they offer.

Thanks to Mike Monello for the link to James Gleick's Smithsonian magazine article and for making the connection between Mr. Gleick's writing and the recent work of Prof. Henry Jenkins on spreadable media.

No comments:

Randy Finch's Film Blog:

Thoughts from a film producer about making and distributing films.