Category Archives: webcomic

The Strange Case of The “Shut Up, Little Man!” Phenomenon

When evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, he intended it for one, very specific purpose: to describe how ideas or behaviors could spread within a society and change over time through the process of natural selection.

The premise of memetics (or the study of memes) was a simple one: ideas that are interesting and novel tend to flourish and propagate, while the bad ones disappear into obscurity. These “good” ideas are then passed on to other people, who modify them as they try to understand them. They, in turn, bestow their own version of the idea onto others, and the cycle begins anew.  And so it has gone for thousands of years.

But then audio cassettes, camcorders, and the Internet were invented.

Suddenly, anyone could reproduce exact copies of their voice, writing or image with very little cost or difficulty. There was no mutation, only replication.  The tools of mass media were now in the hands of those who consumed it. It was no longer an organic evolution of ideas. It was a revolution.

Dawkins went out the window.

Flash forward thirty years. Today, our concept of a “meme” is usually a grainy video we watched online this morning of a teenager shattering his pelvis in a parkour accident, or perhaps a painfully addictive looping animation of a singing cat with a Pop Tart body zooming through space.

In filmmaker Matthew Bate’s provocative new documentary, Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, we’re given a front row seat to the birthing pains of what is now known as the “viral” pop-culture phenomenon, back in the early days of pre-online America.

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