Hotline Bling GIFs are the glue that holds the internet together

Remix culture in 2016

In the past few years, we’ve seen remix culture grow from a niche art form to a normal way we communicate with our friends. Pre-made reaction GIFs are now one click away in most of our messaging tools. It’s also easier than ever to remix: new tech and changing attitudes towards media ownership have allowed anyone with an opinion and some basic technical skills to contribute to our shared GIF lexicon. Remixes have grown into an open sourced language: a vocabulary made out of culture.

Remixes respond to existing culture, of course, but they are also shaping it. Two of the major ways we’ve seen remixes impact culture recently:

  1. Remixes give us new ways to talk to each other: By cutting up and distorting the finished products of musicians and filmmakers to make dumb jokes with our friends, we’re expanding the ways in which we can choose to communicate.
  2. Remixes help us find our people: Because remixes require varying levels of cultural literacy, they draw boundaries around the social groups we belong to and those outside of them.

Thanks to Kanye, Drake, and the internet, we’ve had some great examples of this cultural impact in the past year. Let’s do this.

Remixes give us new ways to talk to each other

The Life of Pablo and Kanye’s twitter rants

It’s interesting that an album from noted perfectionist Kanye West turned into a remix culture phenomenon. Even before Kanye released the much-hyped The Life of Pablo, make your own album cover generators popped up around the internet. Despite the limited format, (or maybe because of the limited format,) people found clever ways to chop, change, and modify the cover art to communicate whatever was on their mind.

Cultural commentary was shared through TLOP cover remixes via quotes from Kanye’s slightly unhinged (and now deleted) Twitter rants prior to the release. Some reminded us of things we’d rather forget, like that the man who made this album is the same that declared Bill Cosby as innocent. Some simply serve as an odd time capsule of being a celeb in the age of Twitter. And no 2016 meme would be complete without plenty of #FeelTheBern and Amber Rose references too.

We used these remixes as a tool to start conversations in a shareable way, very few had anything to do with Kanye.

Much to Kanye’s dismay, I imagine, the track list itself also became the subject of remixes. Sean Raeswaram from Pop Culture Happy Hour summed it up pretty well:

“I think he is subconsciously encouraging people to tweak the album as they see fit by having tweeted so many different versions of his track list, by suggesting very frankly that he couldn’t make up his mind. Kanye’s version of the album I believe is 19 songs long… my friend sent me a version of the album, and his version was even longer. It had a couple of extra tracks. I… came up with my perfect 14 song version of it. You can find endless amounts of people saying ‘oh I like that one with the Frank Ocean verse, not this one. Here’s my version of the album.’”

Remixing the track list kind of feels like the new way to make a mixtape. We’re sharing recommendations with friends, maybe starting conversations about our favorite tracks, or maybe just exerting some control over the media we consume. Experiencing music doesn’t have to be a solitary activity, and even if it was unintentional, The Life of Pablo showed us that it could be an engaging and social experience.

The Amber Rose references got a little NSFW, so we can talk about Wiz Khalifa’s pants instead

Remixes help us find our people

Hotline Bling, a love story

Another unique moment in recent remix culture was the release of Drake’s 2015 video for Hotline Bling. In a single October weekend, hours after the release, the internet was flooded with pastel Drake memes. What’s interesting about this remix was the timeline: the initial explosion within online communities was fast, but as soon as the joke spread to others beyond the internet community, it rapidly faded.

Part of why it first spread so rapidly was that there was just something so meme-able about the video. The video checks all the right boxes for what makes a good remix: vague dancing that’s easily repurposed, an immediately recognizable yet simple setting, an unobstructed view for cutting out the main character, and even gradients on solid surfaces which make GIF compression a little more forgiving. Assuming this wasn’t a perfect accident, the Drake team discovered a particularly clever strategy.

And it worked. For one magical weekend, our timelines were flooded with pastel GIFs, Youtubers made dumb and hilarious parodies, Vine users started #dancelikedrake. Online, where our communications are often anonymous and shallow, it’s hard to foster the kind of emotional connection that keeps communities together. Remixes like these help us fake it. If you “get it”, you belong. These are our people.

Remixes work like inside jokes: they foster a sense of closeness despite lack of real emotional connection.

Remixes are an evolution of language, the kind that can’t be taught in a textbook. If they weren’t cryptic, they wouldn’t feel exclusive, and we wouldn’t like them so much. An inside joke relies on the fact that we know some people won’t get it.

The joke is on you #oldz: it’s not funny at all. But it is a pretty solid indication of who you consider a peer.

Because Hotline Bling was so widely spread, it soon started to get picked up by non-internet groups, or just groups the creators couldn’t identify with. And by the time SNL brought the joke to an even broader audience, it was officially no longer cool or exclusive. The meme had run it’s course: we had laughed about it with our friends, read a couple “best of” roundups, and added it to the internet time capsule of 2015.

Of course, this further drives remix culture to find the next big meme. And on the cycle goes.

Give me one reason you would dance like this outside of trying to become a meme

We’re creating the culture of the future

You may find this exciting. You may find this terrifying. Your choice. Regardless of our future media, someday anthropologists will have an incredibly bizarre time capsule of long-dead memes to sift through and analyze.

Just remember: the next time you stay up way too late watching GIFs of goats on slides, stop and think: you’re helping to build a global open-sourced language that unifies internet society. Congratulate yourself. Sleep when you’re dead. And send goat GIFs, please.

Follow me on Twitter for more deep thoughts on hip hop memes and GIFs of various baby animals on slides.

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