Media are (also) their own topics

Mashups sometimes work like ketchup bottles: Someone makes a mashup that is unusually good, fun, clever or simply happens to be noticed widely; the theme or the original material strikes a chord with many other mashup makers; a spurt of variations appears.

The most talked-about ketchup mashup recently has to be “The Hitler Meme” where the climactic scene from Downfall (“Der Untergang”) is subverted by subtitling. The movie is about Hitler’s reign and its end; the scene in question takes place in the command bunker where Hitler learns that the war is lost. He goes from rage to vengeance to grief in a highly charged sequence, which turns out to be very useful for many different comical and satirical purposes.

Youtube has hundreds of examples; several more are archived at Youtomb (the MIT research project collecting videos that have been taken down from Youtube).

What caught my eye was the relative dominance of mashups dealing with computer games and Internet kind of topics.

In this example, which is fairly typical, Hitler is banned from Xbox Live and his gamerscore is voided.

I instantly came to think of the Usenet – server-based forums for threaded text discussions – that used to be what we had in terms of collaborative media before the Web started to gain widespread acceptance. Around 1990–92, I spent a fair bit of time in Usenet discussion forums (“newsgroups”, as they were called).

It always seemed sad and introvert to me in a way that more than 80% of the available newsgroups and probably more than 99% of the postings were about computers and networking. At the same time, it was perfectly natural since the only people who would know how to access and use Usenet forums at that time were people with an unusual interest in computers and networking. Obviously, they would mainly talk about what they knew that they had in common. And so, the utopian dreams of grassroots democracy, the genuine online conversations, Internet as the great liberator would have to wait for mainstream penetration.

Back to Downfall. My first thought after surveying the published mashups was something like “Is this as far as we have come in 20 years? A creative, collaborative medium still being used mainly to debate itself? When will we ever start breaking the early-adopter box of talking about the medium, to start using it for higher purposes?”

But then I realized how wrong I was. Recent surveys consistently show that people in the developed world spend more prime time on the computer than watching TV. Computer games and the Internet are mainstream in every possible way. To many, they form the backbone of popular culture. And when you feel inspired to try making a mashup, it is only natural to pick a familiar topic of broad relevance.

The new media are mainstream. But the utopian communicative practices expected by some to follow automatically are still avantgarde. Media are not only vehicles for communicative and rhetorical agendas; to a significant extent, they are also their own topics.

The epitomy of self-reference is, of course, the “Hitler finds out his subtitles are wrong” version of the mashup. Thanks to Richard Topgaard for pointing it out! (But to be fair, there are also many Downfall mashups to be found that address political issues and other topics outside computer games, Internet and popular culture.)