Vanity Fair‘s Jim Windolf recently wrote an odd-little feature on cuteness. “Addicted to Cute,” covers all your bases on the most important cute-related memes in our culture. But the most interesting part of the article, and its main thesis, seems a bit strange:
Cootchie-coo behavior used to be reserved for private moments in the home. But now, with the Internet’s help, people feel free to wallow in cuteness en masse, in the company of strangers.
True, before the dawn of the Internet, it was hard to find a single entity that could unload millions of pictures of adorable animals in the span of a second. But were moments of cuteness really sheltered within the confines of one’s own home before technology reared up and gave us the web? Did adults shy away from five-month old puppies running all over the park, just to rush home and froth at the mouth about how cute said puppy was? Did grandmothers really keep photos of their dozen-or-so grandchildren to the confines of their living room instead of taking those keepsakes with them in their purses? Is it cool to be cute now that the Internet is around?
I’m not so sure about that. Obviously, the Internet has made it easier to dig up these precious little gems. The ‘net’s also made it easier to dig up things from our past that we may not want broadcast to the world (wide web.)
Since its existence, the United States was looked down upon by Europeans for being “new,” for its lack of history and its focus on the future rather than its well read-past. In fact, Alexis de Tocqueville said that the one thing that would make democracy work in the U.S. was history, as it was applied in the storied knowledge of lawyers, judges and the courts. Now, with a couple plus centuries to our backs, what would Tocqueville think of our communal knowledge of self beyond the realm of law as found in the Internet? Specifically, what would Tocqueville think of something like Awkward Family Photos? Democracy in action? Or a misunderstanding of history altogether?
With the advent of the Internet, its made it significantly easier to discover all those little foibles that could have been lost in one’s history, and resurface them for the benefit of someone else’s entertainment. And yet, while you’d think people would be quick to cover this stuff up, a lot of it exists online, clear as day.
Spreading the gospel of cute is one thing, but kitschy, embarrassing moments of our collective past, re-tooled as entertainment for the future is something that never quite existed at this level in the past. Sure, tabloids made it easy to poke fun of celebrities for decades on end. But “Star Wars Kid” probably would have had a normal life had YouTube not existed during his youth, and no one outside of Portland would have even seen a kid caked in zombie makeup say “I like turtles” had the Internet not made it easy for people to find these videos, put them online and allow them to find the large audiences that have turned so many embarrassing moments into memes.
Of course, these are a couple of cases where people are unwittingly shoved into the limelight to serve the purpose of someone else’s entertainment. But what about a site such as “Look at this fucking hipster,” where pictures of the gaudiest scene-chasing youth are placed on stage for everyone to laugh at. Some of these folks must know their image is on this site, or elsewhere online*. I mean, they’re dressing like that in public, for the most part. And soon, their image could be on the bookshelves of your local bookstore.
It’s not just “hipsters” who are dishing out the kitschy and potentially-embarrassing clothing and putting it in the public eye. There are websites like Facebook, where one can post any embarrassing picture of a friend for people to see (and said friend doesn’t like it, you can just de-tag it.) There are places like Urban Outfitters, which has made a killing on reviving decades old pop-culture items, slapping them on t-shirts and suddenly making it trendy and fashionable for the modern, mainstream consumer.
It’s not only about unearthing kitschy or embarrassing things from one’s own history anymore, but from our own cultural heritage and our shared past as well. This past decade has been one where kitsch has reigned supreme, where observing the odd little foibles of our recent-past is not only entertaining, but a favorite pastime. There was the “I Love The (Enter Decade Here)” series. There were Chuck Norris and Vin Diesel jokes. Hell, people who had never heard of Public Enemy took Flava Flav and helped rebrand him into the zaniest little celebrity of the decade. And let’s not even get into reality TV…
Sure, there were TV shows like “America’s Funniest Home Videos” in the past, where folks could send in moments of utter shame for great cash prizes and fifteen minutes of fame. But the Internet has enabled people to become famous on their own right, and all at the price of sharing their most embarrassing little moments or foibles. Some of it is tasteless (Tucker Max.) Some of it hits a bit too close to home (texts from last night.) Some of it might be of lighter affair in later years (Cake Wrecks.) Some of it might be downright cute. But most, if not all, of it, would probably have been kept in the photo albums or basement of your parents’ house or in the annals of your memory.
Did the Internet incite the sharing of kitsch, zany past antics and a communal rebranding of the passe as culturally hip today, or did it merely allow for these things to all come together on one easy-to-use forum? Who knows, but I’d hope Tocqueville would at least get a kick out of Cake Wrecks.
*Full disclosure, I’ve had friends threaten to send in pictures they’ve taken of me to LATFH, and they graciously decided not to after I asked them to refrain from emailing said pictures.