These days, YouTube is still a great place to find videos of cats or middle school students acting out the Scarlet Letter, equipped with shaky camera shots and wind-buried dialogue. But it’s also a fascinating place to find some videos for a quick brain snack, a short (3-15 minute) video about an “educational” topic, often released weekly. Not only are such videos great background noise for morning routines, they can add some pep and multimedia to a lesson.
Today, I saw an article floating around social media called “No, It’s not Your Opinion. You’re Just Wrong” by Jef Rouner. It comes at the heels of similar articles, like this one from Vox about professors being afraid of liberal students or this cogent blog post about Twitter by Alex Ried.
As Rouner puts it, “There’s a common conception that an opinion cannot be wrong.” In many cases, this is fine. I mat have an opinion on certain music or food. Having that opinion relies on aesthetic judgement, which may be informed, but has a different standard than scientific “fact.”
As the article points out, however, many people have “opinions” that seem to contradict “fact.” Bringing in the usual suspects–climate change deniers, people who connect autism to vaccines, people who doubt privilege–the article tries to argue that such “opinions” are simply wrong. They are misconceptions. Factual errors.
I think the brusque way the article deals with the problem, typical of most contemporary mainstream rhetoric, dodges some of the deeper complications. In reality, I think we have a major epistemological issue afoot, where our sense of fact, truth, or opinion, and the standards we use to judge these words have become really messy.
I like YouTube. I like it more than television. Sometimes more than reading. It has plenty of strange alcoves and diverse pickings, from “weird YouTube” with its singing manikins and smashed together YouTube poop to the comedy skits of Mega64 and others. And this just scratches the surface.
I’ve noticed an interesting figure in some of these places. I call it the YouTube Intellectual. An ever-growing spattering of YouTube channels center on intellectual topics or deal with popular topics, like video games, in intellectual ways.
“Noise,” as a word, references both the little auditory ripples, wiggles, and waves that surround us and the more metaphorical “noise” that we ascribe to things like media or a crowded, overwrought curtain pattern. Both are pretty similar.
Twitter, for example, bears some resemblance to a street, where each car is sort of doing its own thing, or like a crowded market place, filled with words, many of which I do not care much about, jostling together. Many little conversations or rhetorical projectiles surf by: ideas, images, arguments, rage, humor, injustice, grilled cheese. They’re all here through a combination of forces, many of which go far beyond me.
To get more specific, I think the busy street and the crowded Twitter feed have four main qualities:
2. Perceived Disorganization
3. Perceived Lack of Harmony
4. Overwhelming “Volume”
Music provides an easy way to understand this, as it’s more accessible than most nonhuman noise. Ceaselessness, quality one, implies an ongoing character to the sound or media. Twitter always updates. Small gaps of silence exist, but each moment, a new tweet fills the gap. Like Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata’s finale, with its breathless arpeggios, or one of Steve Reich’s pulsing rhythms, noise keeps going.
In the world, noise is always around us. As R. Murray Schafer writes in The Soudscape, “The best way to comprehend what I mean by acoustic design is to regard the soundscape of the world as a huge musical composition, unfolding around us ceaselessly. We are simultaneously its audience, its performers, and its composers.” Sound enfolds us into worlds, into cocoons of ambience, with its ever-present persistence. Reversing this, music also creates worlds, as Mahler argued or Brian Eno undertakes through his ambient music.
But all this has some sort of organization. Some sort of progress, in a sense. It also has harmony. So our next two qualities, disorganization and dissonance, become key fracture points. Take an an Olivier Messiaen piece, which deliberately tries to break traditional tonality in many places, or Cage’s 13 Harmonies, which doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and you get closer, for many people, to “noise.” Indeed, as Cage said in one interview, he prefers noise to the “talking” that most music does.
Sometimes, different world music strikes our ears in odd ways because it may not follow traditional, Western grammar and syntax. It is a different language. But noise lacks grammar and syntax, or at least it lacks the grammar and syntax we can understand. It is alien, and through that distance, it comes across as aharmonic and arhythmic.
Returning to Twitter, I suppose one might argue that it is aharmonic and arhythmic because it lacks an organizing hand. It’s a cluster of voices, in a variety of media, thrown together by a variety of forces. We don’t have newspaper ledes or 5-paragraph essays or whole canvases by a single painter; it’s a quilt stitched by many hands, with different agendas, different materials, different syntax, voice, and grammar.
More deeply, no ideology or purpose grounds these utterances. The #BlackLivesMatter tweets exist alongside angry tweets aimed at Anita Sarkeesian, or stories about Kim Kardashian’s latest shoot or a picture of cats. Lies exist alongside facts. Satire alongside news.
But noise only becomes “noisy” when the volume is too high. It floods in, assaults us, pounds its arythmic, aharmonic agenda against our temples. It hits us with cute cats alongside Syrian refugees. Pictures jumbled up with words, and videos, and hashtags, and emoticons, and all-caps yells, and snide one-liners–ceaseless and staggering.
I’m not the only person to look at media this way. Bruno Latour, for one, moves toward it. But I think we do gain something from studying noise. From sticking our eyes, and ears, and hands into the static and car horn cacophonies of Twitter and the street outside. I’m not quite sure what that “something” is, perhaps a better appreciation for noise, like John Cage, or a better ability to sift through it. I hope, however, that whatever we gain may reduce our anxiety and make us better listeners.
I’m not talking about some new Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese Halloween-themed release. “Creepy pasta,” a term from 2007, refers to memes of creepy stories. They are like urban legends or folklore from the Internet. The term itself comes from “copypasta,” a name from 2006 given to easily “copied” and “pasted” documents, around since the 80s.
Creepy pasta has similar roots. In the 90s, for example, people often copied and pasted creepy stories and sent them via e-mail. Many of these ended with an infamous clause, like the Mickey Mouse one that threatened an evil Mickey Mouse would invade your home unless you forwarded the message. Others threatened curses or a ruined love life. As people forwarded the messages, the creepypasta spread.
With the advent of Myspace in 2003, Facebook in 2004, and YouTube in 2005, these sorts of things continued into other social media, with comments today using the same ploy. Fortunately, creepypasta has more to offer than evil Mickey Mouses and poorly worded threats.
Monday’s Merriam-Webster word of the day was hashtag. Few other elements of social media have endured the same ire and satire. I’m sure many eyes rolled with the #ashtag selfies from this past Ash Wednesday. And Jimmy Fallon has poked fun at them with major celebrities. In both instances, I found myself laughing, but I didn’t know why.
Indeed, the octothorpe, relabeled and retrofitted for new media, has broken beyond the realm of the phone. In its new place, it has had some helpful uses. The hastag organizes the flood of rapid-fire information on Twitter. Revolutionaries and activists in the Arab Spring used it, and for journalists, it lets their observations climb above the noise and sail alongside other “trending” news and topics. And, as with any creative use of language, a well-used hashtag can trigger a laugh or a smile.
So why the scorn and parody? To me, I think it’s the growth pangs from a new mode of speaking entering our lexicon. We’re still learning how to use the hashtag, and as with any piece of literacy, open use creates some strange, comical combinations and incurs the skepticism of tradition.