The Economic (and LOL power) of I Can Has Cheezburger

The New York Times recently had an article on LOLcats, specifically the ICanHasCheezburger site, and I wondered, what took so long? Is it because it seems so … silly? Or is it because the idea of female nerd culture (not to say that those that are not female or nerds don’t enjoy LOLcats, but really) seems like a non-money making venture and thereby uninteresting?

While I’ll be writing a longer review in response to Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, one aspect of the book that really bothered me was the way he seemed so dismissive of ICanHasCheezburger. He calls the process of creating a LOLcat “the stupidest possible creative act” with the “social value of a whoopee cushion and the cultural life span of a mayfly.” He does, however, consider it to be an example of participatory culture — perhaps equal to Cartoon Network.

In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, he explains his viewpoint a bit differently, but I wonder how many readers are going to seek out this “explanatory footnote”:

SHIRKY:  But the interesting thing about lolcats, about these cute cats made cuter with the application of cute captions, is that when you see a lolcat, you get a second message which is: You can play this game, too. All right, when you see something on television, the message is: You could not do this, you can only consume this.
There is a giant gulf between doing something and doing nothing. And someone who makes a lolcat and uploads it – even if only to crack their friends up -has already crossed that chasm to doing something. That’s the sea change, and you can see it even with the cute cats.

But one aspect that Shirky does question — and that the New York Times gazes over in amazement (similar to the “weird Japan” newsreporting meme) is that someone is getting paid. But it is the owners of ICanHasCheezburger who are making seven figures (for the entire family of  sites) — not those creating LOLcats, who receive merch for their creative output.

Shirky describes concerns about labor efforts in participatory culture (and thereby fan culture in general):

If ICanHasCheezburger.com, purveyor of lolcats, is a late-model version of the fifteenth-century publishing model, then the fact that its workers are contributing their labor unpaid is not only strange but unfair. But what if the contributors aren’t workers? What if they really are contributors, quite specifically intending their contributions to be acts of sharing rather than production? What happens if their efforts are an effort of love?

We here on The Learned Fangirl have discussed the labor/fan dynamic and are glad that it is being considered within the context of Cognitive Surplus — and will be addressing this issue head on in the followup book review. We’ll be discussing why Shirky not having an answer for his own questions above for both LOLcats and participatory culture is disappointing. At least this half of TLF will!

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I read a book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Until recently, Clay Shirky was best known as the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The book  was widely praised (seriously, Boing Boing calls it a “masterpiece”) and is still referenced  by social media strategist/expert/guru types as a must-read for anyone looking to explore the social dynamics that drive the use of technology, which at the time (and even now, to a certain extent) is not what drives most conversation about the internet and social media in particular.

Rather than focusing the catalyst of online social behavior on specific technologies  (i.e. what makes Facebook so popular?) Shirky argued that social tools facilitates common group behavior, conversation and social interaction. At the time, the beginning of Facebook’s online dominance and in the midst of growing fascination and panic about social media from the mainstream press. Shirky presented a reasoned, articulate and well-researched argument that the idea of “crowdsourcing” was not a new idea, but actually rooted in common, even traditional social interaction. The Internet just made that interaction happen more widely and more rapidly.

If you talk to any social media/internet  “expert” or “enthusiast” these days, this perspective is seen as common knowledge, but without Shirky’s well-presented theory and research to bolster this theory it wouldn’t have taken root.

In 2010, you’d think that this argument wouldn’t need repeating or clarification, but as traditional media continues to evolve and digital use continues to grow and become more ubiquitous, the panic of social theorists and mainstream media commentators continues unabated. The continuing debate of whether the Internet makes you smarter or more stupid seems to have a new chapter each day, but in Cognitive Surplus, Shirky’s latest book, he does add fuel to that fire, but also offers a modified version of his Here Comes Everybody thesis: The Internet has given us the tools to create, publish and share media  faster, cheaper and with more people than ever before

Shirky’s revised thesis is the reason that I think Cognitive Surplus is a must-read (there’s that term again) for media professionals in every field.

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