Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Chris Anderson has an interesting article about the massive parallel culture on the Internet in the context of the Long Tail. He posted the picture Anil wearing the Goatse t-shirt in the New York Times interview as an example. I was looking at the list and one that I had somehow missed was "More Cowbell". (It's sort of the opposite of stealth disco.) Thanks to Google, I was able to find a video of the original skit. (The link to the mp3 on The Cowbell Project page was broken.)

The Contagious Media Showdown targets this genre, but I wonder what it is that ends up becoming a pandemic in its virality. I guess it's something that is sort of stupid, but gets funnier and funnier the more you repeat it.

I think that the "shared culture" aspect of it is important. It has to be simple (stupid) enough so that almost anyone will think it's funny or at least silly. I notice this with topics on blogs as well. Deep and well researched posts will often receive thoughtful comments, but it's the short 3-paragraph form that seems to consistently be the most read and linked. I don't think it's necessarily a good trend, but it's sort of the blog version of the TV sound-bite - the attention-span of the average blog reader.

I know that a lot of people sit around and think about memes a lot so I may be treading old ground, but I think it's interesting that non-geeks are getting sucked in and these shared ideas create some sort of community bonding that moves faster and at a larger scale than in the past, but still remains nichey and obscure...

UPDATE: Noticed the Wikipedia Cowbell entry has a reference to this skit.


I suppose perhaps it in some part stems from our innate, if not appreciation then at least, acquiescence of absurdity[1] and The Absurd.
"Stupid" is a bit strong... it's funny/pointless/absurd. ;)
[1]"a message whose content is at variance with reason"

Dear Joi:

I used the concept of memes in my stage play, Memorial Day, which had a very nice showcase in the Bay Area last month. The non-geek audience didn't seem to have any problem understanding the concept, so it has entered the wider culture.

The meme in question is the popular culture image of Vietnam Veterans as mentally ill, or drug crazed psychos. I am a Vietnam veteran so I have some direct experience with this. I was inspired to use it as a dramatic element by an incident at a local college a few years ago. I complained about some prejudive experienced by myself and other veterans and was assured by the Dean that they were on top of it.

"We just had a special event for Veterans Day," he assured me, "We showed "Apocalypse Now". That is, of course, one of the films that perpetrated this negative meme. I told him that doing that was the same as having a minstrel show for Black History Month.

Thanks to this skit, I can no longer listen to anything with cowbells in it because it reminds me of Ferrell and his cowbell. "Can't Get Enough of Your Love" by Barry White is ruined forever.

Hrm. I want to up the ante a bit and say that I think *just* "absurd" is a bit strong. I think the brilliant physical comedy of Ferrell, *rocking out* with his rather unbecoming hairy midriff is definitely absurd. But its also a jab at the conceits of progressive rock (the perfectionism, the technical mastery) and a laborious treatment of popular music that is just too damn sincere for this age. Isn't this is what makes us laugh and cringe and ultimately gives the meme legs?

Francis: I think you're talking about a negative stereotype, not a meme.

Yes. I think the skit is a masterpiece and probably should not necessarily be clumped together with some of the less funny stuff. But it definitely has that absurdity element as you say.

Just to clarify my statement: I was referring to the characteristics of most/all web memes, and not just this one. :)
And I did not mean to opine that absurdity was the only trait or factor, but one I feel is present, strongly, in most/all the "funny/stupid" web memes I have seen so far. :)


I remember in high school we used to repeat & reenact Saturday Night Live skits ad nauseam for days... "Hi! I'm Buckwheat Jones!", etc... Nevermind Monty Python: "We are the Knights who say Nie!", "You father was a hamster..." etc etc... Now instead of repeating them, we P2P the media files or URL slap each other. :)

Perhaps, coming back to my original premise of "the absurd", we see these things becoming more and more "totally senseless" as culturally we feel the need to "laugh at it all" for a moment. The more seriously bad things get, the more seriously senseless something needs to be to make us laugh... and forget...

Rhetoric! 15-love!

"A negative stereotype, not a meme" Huh? What's the difference? The image does have genetic properties and perpetuates itself.

I still get that worried fear reaction when I mention my service because the first thing that comes to their minds is "Psycho! And he looks so normal, too."

I joke, but not much. That meme was embedded in popular culture by films like "The Deer Hunter", "Apocalypse Now" and "Coming Home" all of which served an anti-war agenda. This effect was not intended but was "collateral damage".

See my article on the Agent Orange Settlement Fairness hearings, "Blood Money"

You can buy it on and other fine retailers. At the end I deescribe an encounter with a young lady in Chicago. When I tell her I'm a Vietnam Veteran, she looks away and says "Well, if you don't want to talk about it..."

"What you mean,' I reply "Is that you don't
want tot talk about it."

And that Is what memes are; a mental shorthand which cuts off thought and debate. StereotypeS are memes.

Chris Anderson, does not happen to live in IL does he? Once again, curiosity killing the cat.

Francis Hamit is an absurd meme.

I NEED more cowbell !!

I completely missed stealth disco, but I did invent the stealth rock band completely independently.

Absurb Name? This coming from someone who goes by the handle of "Clown"? Well, my parents liked it. There was a time, when I was a kid, I got tired of being teased about having a "girl's name" and changed it. That went away after I got a paycheck I couldn't cash because it didn't match my ID.

The name does have its advantages. It is unique and easily remembered and works as a brand. (Do a web search and you will see what I mean).

You're entitled to your opinion, of course
I'm entitled to mine,,,and you are particularly well named in my opinion. :)

Is this at all new or just more public -- all subcultures have in jokes. Net culture's in jokes are google-able.

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More Cowbell Please from Community Mobilization
July 28, 2005 5:53 AM

cA great post on the new electric cowbell. Read More