“So Bad It’s Funny: Ambiguous Fan Engagement as an Expression of Cultural Literacy” — Presentation for 2014’s International Communications Association Meeting in Seattle, WA

May 23, 2014 § 2 Comments

Actual first slide

Actual first slide

 From the panel “How Memes Matter: Probing New Modes of Popular Participation and Exclusion,” May 24, 2014.

Today I’m going to be talking about online content that is so bad, or so weird, or so broken, or so dated, that it’s great.

Although English lacks a quick and easy way of describing such content, the Japanese and Chinese-speaking webs have it covered: kuso (“e gao” in Mandarin), literally translated from Japanese as “shitty.”

In Japan, “kuso” is a basic and highly versatile adjective—not unlike shitty in English. In the context of bad video games (Kuso-ge) and other amusingly sub-par content, however, the term takes on more nuanced meaning, something to the effect of “this is so bad and stupid and terribly designed, I LOVE IT!!!”

That’s the basic overview of what this talk will cover. Here are two things I will not be addressing:

Another actual slide -- notice a theme?

Another actual slide — notice a theme?

First, I’m not going to attempt to parse memes from viral videos from found media artifacts that may or may not inspire derivative works. That is absolutely a conversation to have, and if I had more than ten minutes I would attempt to define some terms & at least gesture towards the boundaries my fellow panelists have addressed in their very excellent work that everyone should read. But I don’t have more than ten minutes, so instead am going to be focusing on the general concepts involved, and consequently will be using my language somewhat loosely.

Second, I’m not going to address the dread pirate known as INTENT. Whether or not a content creator intended to slop together a shrine to the gods of WAT, or even whether or not such a feat is possible, are interesting and relevant and important questions, but fall outside my current ten-minute purview.

What I am going to do is provide a conceptual framework for understanding why glitchy, poorly made, and otherwise shitty online content inspires such delight in certain audiences, and how this delight is, in fact, a hegemonic expression of privilege and literacy.

Before I move on to my primary case study, I want to establish (for those who aren’t already aware) the popularity and pervasiveness of shitty content online, as well as the online obsession with and celebration of failure generally. You see this sort of content—and most importantly for this presentation, enthusiastic engagement with this sort of content—in everything from “broken” memes, that is, variations of a popular meme that get all the details laughably wrong, for example this…Pedobear…thing:

pedobear sandwich copy

…memes that are themselves “broken” versions of mainstream content (which we’ll discuss in greater detail in one hot minute), popular video aggregators like the website Everything is Terrible, which spotlights an alphabetized index of comically strange videos, particularly outdated public service announcements, bizarre mashups of found (often corporate-produced) content, even more bizarre homebrewed content, for example:

…and of course content that is celebrated for being the worst example of X or Y ever, for example the so-called “worst music video ever” performed by Miss Jan Terry:

Having addressed that basic landscape, I’ll now turn to one of my favorite examples of “so bad it’s good” online content, namely the misadventures of homicidal sex monster “dolan duck” and his friends “gooby” and “pruto,” with a few notable additions:

Screen shot 2014-05-23 at 1.51.42 PM

(If you dare, click here for a NSFW example of my favorite character of the bunch, Fogor, i.e. Foghorn Legman. Bro I say bro, you’re welcome!)

The appeal of Uncle Dolan and company is, in part, the subject matter, which can only be described as a grotesque re-appropriation of childhood iconography.

expected as jail

Its popularity is also a function of the tools used to create this content, namely MS paint, garbled voice-to-text and outdated animation software. By 2014 standards, these are “bad” tools, and are used just as badly, so badly that technological weakness becomes comedic strength.

Audiences for these comics—and it is a large audience; they got their start hopping between 4chan’s /b/ board and various subreddits—are therefore engaging with the series at both an aesthetic and technological level. In fact, in the case of Dolan comics, technology is aesthetics, and aesthetics is technology. One must be literate in both in order to know

a) that the comics are meant to funny and

b) precisely why they are funny

—a response predicated on one’s experience with and understanding of not just the original cultural texts (Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, Foghorn Leghorn) but also, and just as importantly, the technologies in question, including all the subsequent advancements in photo editing, digital animation, and voice to text software that have helped render earlier tools outdated, inferior, and therefore funny to the intended— and technologically savvy—audience.

In short, appreciation stems from literacy, and literacy can only be accomplished by and through educational and technological access—in other words, privilege. Consequently, delight over shitty, wonderful failures is unlikely to appeal to anyone not subsumed by this level of privilege. No one else has any reason to care, and therefore any reason to laugh.

Show me what you think is bad, in other words, especially what you think is so bad it’s funny, and I’ll tell you what kinds of rules you’ve internalized—a point that is as applicable to cult movies, shitty video games, everything-is-terrible-type PSAs, whatever, as it is to seemingly nonsensical online content.

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