Wandering into an entirely different world

Once you hear thousands of tween/teen girls screaming inside a venue due to the imminent proximity of celebrity YouTubers … the elements of their celebrated rhetorical devices comprised of almost purely Internet-based engagement — “7 Second Challenge”, “Weird Kid”, “Crafts”, “Fan Fiction” — rendered on a live stage … suddenly social media takes on a surprisingly different context.

With no recording contract per se, aptly wielding the syntactic suspense of hashtag across America for audiences too young to care one whit about Twitter, this British duo packed venues in what appears to be a first-of-its-kind world tour. In lieu of turtles, it’s memes all the way down for the infinite regress of an emerging generation that often looks askance at the accepted tribal customs of millennials.

Their chosen canvas of social accord entails an ever-evolving pastiche of YouTube, Minecraft, Sims, Etsy, Skype, Instagram, DSi, etc., plus a DIY ethos that is generally fun, supportive, inclusive, informed, famously gender fluid, and not particularly self-absorbed. Lots of books — physical books! Music everywhere. If Maker Faire held a summer camp online (notably, minus the Burners or tedious TEDx types) this would not be unfamiliar.

Our tween daughters had chosen this show as their first. To be fair, we’d taken them to see They Might Be Giants eight years ago when they were both toddlers, though not by their choosing. Their friends now — rather, their entire social sphere — knows every last detail about Dan and Phil. Our oldest donned a Sims plumbob hat — in other words, a tribal headdress — which she’d scored on Etsy. Swamped the entire night. Teen girls gasped, smiles and thumbs up all around, some too overwhelmed to speak. Or, if they could utter words, dared ask to share a selfie. Because accord.

I’m familiar with the stage, producing large art shows, assisting with big tech conferences. Having co-founded one of the earliest online bookstores/media collectives in 1992 and fostered subcultural subversion in online terroir through the successive umbrellas of ARPANET, Usenet, The Well, MOO, Second Life, etc., yeah sure. Beyond those “experiments”, beyond speculation from Gibson, Sterling, Stephenson — though Idoru with its tween female protagonist in an utterly postmodern media landscape wanders close to the mark — this was an entirely different world.

Recalling the “I survived the TCP/IP switchover” pins in 1983, one never quite imagined how “ecommerce” would lead to this point. Perhaps there’s something generational in the mix. Cultivating my portending curmudgeonly old man persona, the cultural forces that fueled early online collectives in my day had largely sourced from zine culture, which led to lively email lists, which in turn gave rise to Mondo 2000, bOING-bOING, Laughing Squid, etc. Early Internet denizens were often more familiar with otaku-like details about the Illuminati than say their favorite bar-hopping circuit in a trendy metro area. Those elements are not lost on the Dan and Phil audience. I’m grateful to see that milieu come full circle. Now we get to have deep, extended conversations with our kids about Robert Anton Wilson! How perfect is that?!

Amazon’s book review for The Amazing Book Is Not on Fire: The World of Dan and Phil describes Dan Howell (@danisnotonfire) and Phil Lester (@AmazingPhil) as “YouTube vloggers/entertainers and roommates in London” who make “quirky comedy videos about their lives and observations on the world”, and furthermore that their book provides “an inside look at a world created by two awkward guys who share their lives on the Internet.” Plus mention that the duo have 11 million subscribers collectively. Even so, Amazon’s dek fails to capture the raw, generational outpouring. As my spouse described, “Listening to 2000 teenage girls singing along before the show started to emo anthem My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark was, by itself, worth the ticket price. The most courteous merch line ever.” The girls have most definitely found their tribe.

A couple years ago, some random tech conversation had drifted toward “Why did Microsoft buy Minecraft?” It seemed awkward at the time. Not just Minecraft, but their quirky string of investments and acquisitions, with ginormous valuations placed on Skype, Facebook, etc. Wall Street analysts befuddled themselves in the bow wake.

We’d been living in Mountain View then, in a quiet neighborhood called Monte Loma. On the same block where someone named S. Jobs had lived as a boy. Neighbors told stories about getting into fights with him back then at the local public school, or much later coming home to find Jobs and his daughter reminiscing on their lawn. Our next door neighbor led patents for PARC, another led PR for Skype, others were senior engineers at Google. Our homes were all directly behind the huge new Google X building, two blocks away from the original site or Shockley Semiconductor Labs. In other words, the epicenter for Silicon Valley. Our oldest daughter ran the neighborhood kiddos’ Minecraft server on an EC2 node — a daddy/daughter exercise in learning about Bash scripting. Their Minecraft world quickly became an intensely creative and highly social realm where, oddly enough, girls held sway. Little boys would turn up at our front gate, sobbing: “She drowned my character after I destroyed their buildings.” We were sympathetic about the tears, albeit privately smirking: “Bokay, and you should really learn a life lesson here. Like ASAP.”

DSi art, by G.N. age 7-ish

One day I checked in with the girls, ages 10 and 9 at the time. They were busy online with their friends who live on the other side of Monte Loma, all playing together in Minecraft. Meanwhile, they were also chatting together on Skype. Also sharing an Instagram account, mostly for the commentary. Huh, wait, what was that? There’s a theory that teenage girls are the source of language innovation. Then it struck me, that Redmond had carefully, studiously either acquired or become major investors for nearly all of the popular tools for the next wave of language disruptors. Gobbled up nearly all of the key properties for creating social fabric — except YouTube. Getting to them early, with the eyes of an upcoming generation locked in matrixial gaze, on fleek.

Well played, Microsoft, well played. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in either the television or music industry at this point, after witnessing this first-of-its kind Dan and Phil tour. Sandy Stone, Michael Shamberg, Brenda Laurel, Stewart Brand, et al., informed my generation about media. So I never quite imagined saying this, but I’m going to keep a careful eye on the media theorists in Redmond.

Meanwhile, if you’re working in media or interested in the shape of where things are heading, I’d encourage you to check out Dan and Phil and wander into an entirely different world.