Memes and ethics in the new participatory web

What would the Internet be without memes? Internet users have created and shared thousands, maybe even millions of memes in the last decade alone, from the 2002 “Star Wars Kid” YouTube sensation to NASA’s Mohawk Guy, Bobak Ferdowsi who became more famous for his haircut this summer than landing a robotic rover on Mars!

You could even say that memes are the web’s most popular language – a way of sharing ideas and symbols like images, phrases and videos from person to person.

In its earliest days, the Internet was mainly used to browse information, and only a small number of people had the resources and know-how to actually create content. As the web evolved, affordable and user-friendly tools emerged for creating content such as Apple’s iMovie, while sharing it with others exploded through sites like YouTube, Facebook and blogging on Wordpress. The new participatory Internet has been the perfect breeding ground for memes – now, even our parents are making LOLcats!

Memes may live on the Internet, but they can alter the course of a person’s real life by bringing them unexpected notoriety, or casting their celebrity in a new light. For instance, Canadian Ryan Gosling may have found fame as a Hollywood actor, but he was also the subject of countless “Hey girl” memes including Programmer Ryan Gosling.

A darker side of this phenomenon is the story of the Star Wars Kid, a teen from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec whose classmates found and uploaded a private video he created of himself wielding a golf ball retriever like a light sabre from Star Wars. The video went viral on pre-YouTube file-sharing sites like LimeWire and Kazaa, and users edited the video to include music, text, and special effects. The boy who created the video experienced a torrent of harassment and parody, leading to a lawsuit that was eventually settled out-of-court.

Controlling the spread of a meme is virtually impossible once it takes off. Combine this with the fact that many memes are hilarious precisely because of the earnestness of their original images (just look at the seriousness in Star Wars Kid’s face), and ethical problems can result. A big part of the Internet’s beauty is the freedom to share, reinterpret and reimagine content, and stifling this feature would make the Internet a very different place. At the same time, who wants to make a person they’ve never met feel terrible?

Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain tackled this very issue in his keynote speech at the May 2012 ROFLCON the world’s foremost conference on Internet culture. You can watch the keynote speech here, and it’s pretty entertaining! Our Youth Tech Jam contest winners will have a chance to see him in action next month at the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT) in Montreal where he'll be a featured speaker.

Professor Zittrain proposed a technology-driven solution to the problem of ethics and Internet memes. Why not create a piece of web code that lets the creator of a piece of content - a video, a photo or whatever - opt out of becoming a meme?

Something along these lines already exists in robots.txt, a directive that asks search companies (like Google and Yahoo!) not to index a web domain so it won’t appear in their list of search results. Robots.txt doesn’t force search companies not to index a site, but it’s a way of politely letting the companies know that the site’s owner would prefer not to be indexed. Search companies all seem to respect robots.txt requests in website code.

A similar directive in web code could be developed to let content creators say that they’d prefer not to become a meme. This would protect people’s privacy without changing the participatory “remix” culture of the Internet, or forcing content creators to resort to lawsuits to protect themselves.

What do you think of Professor Zittrain’s idea? Tell us in the comments! 

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