Colliding spaces and the genius of @Genius

By Troy Conrad Therrien

Earlier this month, a billboard appeared on Canal Street in Manhattan with a yellow baby-shaped silhouette on top of pink, all-caps, Star Wars-skewed text reading “ANNOTATE.” Whereas most billboards are logo delivery vehicles, this one is unclaimed. Rather, this urban beacon broadcasts, simply, a marriage of memes. Or, to be more precise, an emerging meme crawling on top of a would-be meme.

As the cultural genes of society, memes today take the form of branded insights into sub-cultures under byte-sized rubrics. Memes are the ciphers of contemporary identity, allowing boundaries to be drawn around increasingly more precise groups in increasingly more ephemeral gatherings. As the population of memes grows, fueled by the effects of digital media, the average half-life of each continues to shrink. Like fruit flies, we witness the birth and death of great populations of memes daily. The currents of culture are revealed as rapid waters in which people flow in an out of identity with memes as quickly as memes flow in and out of society. In this sea of ephemeral cultural traits, bobbing by and quickly fading out of view, a meme that settles, one that can become a cultural anchor, is incredibly valuable.

Cisco’s #VIDEOINCLOUD campaign, written in the sky above CES 2015

As testiment to this value, hashtags have become ubiquitous in old broadcast media, from television commercials to sky writing to posters and billboards. Hashtags are machines for performing McLuhan’s thesis, wherein old media becomes the content of new media. They bridge broadcast media to social media by allowing ideas to circulate across boundaries. Hashtags are the nomadic architecture of would-be memes, like mobile Arctic tents that allow them to incubate and grow in a hostile transmedia environment, gathering communities and increasing stability. Their ambition is to become monuments, recognizable fixed points around which discourse, people and, often ultimately, commerce will swirl. But building a meme, going from tent to monument, takes skill. It requires tapping emergent societal features that are often not recognized, even when they sit in plain sight.

The media architecture of hashtags has always seemed a bit like mom jeans, a botched attempt at fitting in that just doesn’t fit right. So when one of the marketing geniuses who was able to convince the world that mom jeans were a good idea puts a giant billboard in the center of New York City without any of the technologies used to bridge online and off, what are we to think?

The billboard is the work of Emily Segal for, the most public move to date in her new role as creative director. Segal is a founder of K-Hole, the trend forecasters who stage an enviable co-existence in the worlds of for-profit commerce and recognized art practice that brought us one of the mega-memes of 2014, #NORMCORE. Tired of an endless cycle of transcending pop culture by running away from the memes that crystallized cultural normativity, the group embraced it by radicalizing it.

Examples of #NORMCORE fashion from

Mom jeans, Crocs, (Um)bro shorts, baseball caps, in short, everything you are not supposed to wear when you’re at least informed enough to know what you shouldn’t wear, became the uniform of a youth culture that was tired of getting it right, all the time, online and off, with everyone watching. Striking an intergenerational nerve, #NORMCORE ruled social media for months, ascending the media ladder from social to editorial to the newspaper of record to the top of Google’s annual search trends. So, what is Segal doing messing with old media in the oldest way? Plainly, what does it mean to have a billboard without a hashtag in 2015?

Announcing the billboard on Twitter, Genius perhaps reveals the formula in the bookends of the tweet: “#ANNOTATE… #BABYCORE.” Soon, Genius will launch a new feature, one that may have the potential to be a completely new layer for the social Internet. The feature allows users to annotate any page on the web, from the New York Times to Gawker to Wikipedia, adding a new stratum of knowledge to the largest store of information in human history. It could be a bust, but it could also be the realization of the dream of digital space since at least Vannevar Bush published his idea for a memex during the Second World War, making Annotate transcend the scope of meme into the class of those fundamental verbs of contemporary culture, such as Google and Like.

But what’s with the baby?

#BABYCORE, recently introduced by 26-year-old artist Matt Starr, is #NORMCORE taken to its logical ends. Whereas #NORMCORE escapes into the soft center of society, #BABYCORE is about time travel back to a primordial state in our modern world that has all but expunged primitivism. As Starr told Buzzfeed,

I want people to embrace the essence of childhood and experience the total security that comes with not knowing — and not caring — what other people think.

In the footsteps of Segal and K-Hole, Starr maps social insight onto cultural opportunity. Whereas K-Hole launched #NORMCORE into the world in a free downloadable PDF, Starr has ostensibly gone immediately commercial, even bottling big-boy smoothies in baby food jars and projecting play centers for adults.

While the New York Times equivocated over whether or not #NORMCORE was just an inside joke, authenticity seems to be entirely the wrong question to ask of #BABYCORE. Whatever it is for Starr — he told the Guardian it is a social critique of marketing — and whatever it becomes for others, if anything at all, it is an illustration of how memes put a dent in the universe of cultural space-time, allowing other objects, people, designs, concepts, aspirations, interpretations and derivations to orbit around them, much in the way the Gap fell into the gravity of #NORMCORE with its Dress Normal campaign.

Finally, what is a trending meme, #BABYCORE, doing crawling on top of a would-be meme, #ANNOTATE, on a billboard in Manhattan, without any hashtags, engineered by the progenitor of #NORMCORE? The meme marriage would appear to be a piggy-back, one riding the other into popular culture in an avant-garde marketing campaign that sheds typical corporate anxiety about legibility and lowest common denominator demographics. There are no hand holds, no footnotes revealing the message for those who don’t get it, and no hashtags guiding your confused IRL self into the oracle of digital space. Indeed, there are no digital markings whatsoever on this old media, physical world billboard broadcasting a cryptic message for a digital company on the back of an Internet trend.


Why? Perhaps because those who have a proven ability to put their finger on the pulse of emergent social being don’t think there is any difference between physical and digital space. Perhaps they think the world is united, that culture travels indiscriminately between media and inhabitable environments. If so, and if they are right, then maybe this image of a billboard is akin to Earthrise, the 1968 photograph taken aboard Apollo 8 as it rounded the dark side of the moon, capturing the “whole earth” from space for the first time and galvanizing an entirely new “planetary view.” Perhaps a bit grandiose, but wouldn’t the definitive merger of digital and physical space be a similarly fundamental event?

It’s not clear what will be next, but the Geniuses are rumoring that more is on the way. It will be interesting to see what’s next for Segal, if the baby is killed off or comes along for the ride, and if the dualism between digital and physical space will emerge or stay buried. Whatever it becomes, it is already a clever experiment for testing the normalization of our digital selves, and who better to run it?


A field guide to the designed world

    Troy Conrad Therrien

    Written by

    Curator, Architecture and Digital Initiatives at the Guggenheim



    A field guide to the designed world

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