February 19, 2014

RAINIS | Selfies with the Homeless: Pop Culture, Class and the Internet

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After spending an underwhelming evening at Dunbar’s last week (this is the part where I try to pretend that I totally go out to all these nightspots that all the kids are getting “wasted” and “rachet” at), I attempted to introduce some friends to the brilliance of the silly and hyper-referential FX spy comedy Archer. Something about the show’s charm was lost in translation: even these people who tolerate my slavish pop-culture obsession and penchant for making in-jokes directed only at myself were finding the show’s absurd banter a little disorienting.

Like NBC’s Community, Archer rewards listeners who excel at a particularly arcane brand of the “spot-that-reference” game. In the episodes I insisted they trudge through, there were jokes involving Muppet professor Bunsen Honeydew, the genetic aging disease Progeria, professional lacrosse and various types of pornography that are probably best explained by Sun sexperts Donny J. or Amy O. (on alternating Thursdays).

To say the least, it’s a little alienating. It is a show tailor-made for us Internet seekers, whose fervent link-chasing, Wikipedia wandering and unhealthy compulsion to Google the answers to the most trivial of questions on our phones, has turned us into sponges saturated with useless factoids. Archer, Community and other reference-based humor provide one of the few outlets (aside from Trivial Pursuit and contributing listicles to humor-about-everything conglomerate Cracked) that reward such an idiot-savant-like accumulation of pop culture minutia. However, I always took such a mindset to be a harmless symptom of the insatiably curious. Those who share a love for this type of humor are nerds, but without the intellectual elitism. One-upsmanship in this field is self-consciously frivolous. After all, why take any serious pride or satisfaction in knowing a fact that anybody could just Google if it ever became imperative that they know it?

In an article on Vice that documented the rise of kids on the Internet taking Instagram selfies with homeless people (for the Twitter-savvy, I highly encourage you to follow @Vice-is-Hip; it hilariously parodies Vice’s tendency towards sensationalistic, bizarre headlines), I came across a phrase that made me take pause: “too poor for pop culture.” Its author was D. Watkins, an adjunct professor at Maryland’s Coppin State University, who, in a piece for Salon, wrote of the severity of American income inequality by pointing out how certain facets of popular culture are only available to those who can afford to partake in it. To illustrate his point, he talks about having to explain what a selfie — that ubiquitous pastime of us idle smartphone addicts, newly coined dictionary word and occasional indulgence of President Barack Obama — actually is to one of his friends. His description obliterates reams of ornately constructed think pieces with its bluntness: it is “when a stupid person flicks themselves and looks at it.”

In an interview, Watkins admits that he wasn’t aiming to crucify pop culture, but to encourage conversation about the class inequality that keeps people from experiencing it. In my music columns, I talk about the deterioration of a true mainstream since so many people are getting their music from alternative sources. Same goes with everything else: I assumed that the diverse sources of information were helping to tear down the traditional concept of an American monoculture.

I couldn’t be more wrong. Instead, a new monoculture has emerged, one that is driven not by important world news filtered through a handful of large television networks but viral videos, memes and series of GIFs being repackaged by content aggregators competing for ad revenue. And a significant portion of the American population is locked out of it: in a 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center, it was found that 15 percent of Americans — about one out of seven — do not use the Internet at all. This is not necessarily a tragedy of sorts — the Internet has turned me into the sort of insufferable person who has to digress from a serious point in order to tell people about an amusing Twitter account — but represents a huge disparity between how people of different financial backgrounds are experiencing the world at-large. Be real: I dare you to name one of your college friends who does not get a significant portion of all their entertainment, news and communication from the screen of a laptop or smartphone.

You can’t, and that is why things like selfies with the homeless are so profoundly sad. Like schoolyard bullies torturing black sheep with inside jokes they will never be let in on, people (almost exclusively young people) are taunting a disadvantaged group of people who may not even have a clue about the medium they are being mocked in. This is not to say that we are obligated to deactivate our Netflix accounts or resist using our smartphones to find out who won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award in 1997 (it’s Knickerbocker fan-favorite John Starks), but it is important for us to ground our experiences and lifestyles in the reality of this economic climate.

The Internet grants its users a great deal of power, but, the more people abuse its power for purposes of objectification, the closer we get to the Danger Zone.