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The Harlem Shake and the Decline of Western Civilization

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The latest hot YouTube meme has ramifications for both business and wider society.

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Fame, doin' it for the fame
'Cause we wanna live the life of the rich and famous

-- "The Fame," Lady Gaga

If you've been looking for the next "Call Me Maybe," then you're in luck because the latest YouTube (NASDAQ:GOOG) mega-meme has arrived in the form of "Harlem Shake."

"Harlem Shake" is a song from electronic music artist Baauer that has inspired thousands upon thousands of people to produce 30-second music videos for it. Each begins with one person dancing alone (sometimes with a helmet or mask) in a crowd to the song for about 15 seconds. At that point, we see a cut and break in the music that kicks off a second segment with everyone gyrating around like mad.

(Also read Acquired Distaste: 8 Companies That Lost Their Luster After Being Bought Out)

The "Harlem Shake" video credited with popularizing the craze is from Australian longboarding crew The Sunny Coast Skate, and can be seen embedded right here. However, it may be NSFW (Not Safe For Work), depending upon your boss' tolerance for young men dancing around in their skivvies:



Judging by the title of this article, you may think I'm a conservative prude that may be offended by the sheer silliness or vulgarity of the dancing in these videos.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I find organic cleaning products far more offensive than sex and nudity, and my favorite artist is German fashion photographer Helmut Newton.

And I like these videos as silly analogues to pretentious performance art and overproduced music videos that don't garner a fraction of the public's attention.

So what's my problem here?

Well, it's tricky.

To me, something is truly funny when you're laughing when you don't want to be laughing -- whether it's a silly movie or a politically-incorrect joke or a goofy YouTube video.

So the part of me that can't help but laugh at the "Harlem Shake" struggles with the part of me that doesn't want to be entertained by all this.

It all comes back to my disillusionment with a culture that's increasingly dominated by social media.

In The Bull Market in Narcissism, I wrote this:
There's a lot of talk about Millennials leading the economy into the future.

But is "narcissists" a more fitting word?

Every generation of youth gets told it's worse than the last, but the rise of social media exhibitionism is a brand-new phenomena. If you wanted to get attention when I was a teenager, you had to go out in the real world and do it in person, which at least required something resembling courage.

These days, if you want to get a reaction from the outside world, you can do it without getting out of bed.

Just post a picture of a cupcake on Instagram or a half-naked self-portrait on Tumblr. Drop a humblebrag on Facebook about how you hate buying a new iPhone every year. Tweet a snarky comment about a Kardashian you both hate and want to be.

Boom! Likes, re-tweets, re-blogs, etc., follow -- instant evidence that you're doing something interesting.

Right?

I'm as guilty as anybody because I've fallen into this trap myself. If I can use social media to fool the outside world into thinking I'm cool, than maybe it's true.
- See more at: http://www.minyanville.com/sectors/technology/articles/The-Bull-Market-in-social-media/1/10/2013/id/47297?page=full#sthash.nKTdT1sX.dpuf

Every generation of youth gets told it's worse than the last, but the rise of social media exhibitionism is a brand-new phenomena. If you wanted to get attention when I was a teenager, you had to go out in the real world and do it in person, which at least required something resembling courage.

These days, if you want to get a reaction from the outside world, you can do it without getting out of bed.

Just post a picture of a cupcake on Instagram or a half-naked self-portrait on Tumblr. Drop a humblebrag on Facebook about how you hate buying a new iPhone every year. Tweet a snarky comment about a Kardashian you both hate and want to be.

Boom! Likes, re-tweets, re-blogs, etc., follows -- instant evidence that you're doing something interesting.

Right?

(Also read Will Consumers Accept Google Glass and the Privacy Issues It Raises?)

When I think about the thousands of "Harlem Shake" videos that are uploaded to YouTube every day, all I see is a video equivalent of a cliché Instagram feet-on-the-beach shot -- you know, something that was interesting when it first hit, but diluted by the millions of copycats that followed. The scary part for me is that I don't think many people care about the dilution part!

Creating a "Harlem Shake" video is an easy, formulaic way to generate likes/tweets/re/blogs/follows. So why try to reinvent the wheel by doing something that's actually creative?

There's a lot of talk about Millennials leading the economy into the future.

But is "narcissists" a more fitting word?

Every generation of youth gets told it's worse than the last, but the rise of social media exhibitionism is a brand-new phenomena. If you wanted to get attention when I was a teenager, you had to go out in the real world and do it in person, which at least required something resembling courage.

These days, if you want to get a reaction from the outside world, you can do it without getting out of bed.

Just post a picture of a cupcake on Instagram or a half-naked self-portrait on Tumblr. Drop a humblebrag on Facebook about how you hate buying a new iPhone every year. Tweet a snarky comment about a Kardashian you both hate and want to be.

Boom! Likes, re-tweets, re-blogs, etc., follow -- instant evidence that you're doing something interesting.

Right?

I'm as guilty as anybody because I've fallen into this trap myself. If I can use social media to fool the outside world into thinking I'm cool, than maybe it's true.
- See more at: http://www.minyanville.com/sectors/technology/articles/The-Bull-Market-in-social-media/1/10/2013/id/47297?page=full#sthash.nKTdT1sX.dpuf
Today's easy-to-use toys are a means to relentlessly copy the thing of the moment, and social media is the means of distribution.

You can shoot and edit fairly nice-looking videos on an Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone, and Google, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), and Twitter provide a free, effective pipeline to get it out there.

But I worry that the increasing ease of media production is throwing so much look-alike content at the public that it's getting tougher and tougher for the truly original ideas to poke through.

And I worry even more that nobody really cares because attention rather than true creativity and accomplishment is the currency of tomorrow.

Twitter: @MichaelComeau

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No positions in stocks mentioned.
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