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The Imgeii Effect: Clawing Through The Ash

January 2, 2013

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Despite the tags that I have designated for this piece, designed to provide humour to the eagle-eyed and cater to some whineless, almost-human organisation system of which I will have need in the future, this is not an essay. The word “essay”, coming from French or Latin or Greek (I feel a little ridiculous looking it up, when a hyperlink would serve just as well and make me look no more stupid) implies study, careful thought, attribution, development of argument, structure, and a thousand other conventions which are designed to provide a consistent language in which new thought can be accepted by an establishment coated in self-awareness.

I have not done any of these things. I have not researched, to see if my thoughts have already been thought. There will be little attribution, except to those individuals who form an unwitting subject of my watchings. It does have some structure, but it is too vestigial to be called anything so stentorian as an essay.

What it comes down to is that these ideas are, collectively, something that will not go away, that even if previously expressed I have never heard expressed in this way. Also, that title has been sitting in my draft queue for about three months and it is about time I did something about it, before the idea disappears completely.

Pompeii was a great Roman city, as every British schoolchild knows. It rode the back of the world on pillows of black soil, its crop thick, its people rich, and the mountain Vesuvius at its back quiet, for most of the time. Like my classmates I defined it by its fall, the story passed down as a morality tale when really it was a combination of geographical necessity and geological ignorance. I never really thought abut that moralising element of my education until today, and I find it distasteful. The British public school system has a strange relationship with the Romans, at once venerating them as entirely countable generations have done before them, as well as seeing the era as a wonderful tool for teaching about the folly of pagan greed and fallen beauty, like a painting where an Imperial port is decked in ivy and Renaissance costume. I do not think it is coincidence that the elves have taken their place in our intellectual imaginations.

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One of the most idosyncratic elements of the Pompeii story, aside from the causted molds of human beings in their last moments, which are so incredibly sad one cannot believe that nature created them, and instead they must have been made by the same man who makes the waxworks at Madame Tussauds and placed there as a metaphor, is the graffiti that was left behind by these reductions. The city was forgotten for thousands of years, and now that the concept of “misery tourism” has caught on, the arbitrary palimpsest of thousands of real people has been preserved, whereas anywhere else they would be covered up by something boring, like a beautiful fresco or a row of statuary.

Reading the translation of some of this graffiti, I see the same things that I remember from school (the knob jokes, the timeless catalogue of vaginas, questioning of virtue, accounts, lists, and more accounts; did you know that the first piece of recorded writing in human history was a bank statement?) but now there are other, more subtle things that appear, that escaped my notice when I was younger. Now I not only see the ephemera of people who were just like me, but I see a world that, while not digital, operated on the same soupy principles as our current Internet Age, principles that we feel are entirely modern but are, as with everything, borrowed.

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The first half of my rather clumsy titular designation refers to the popular image-sharing website Imgur. For the complex, snobbish cultures of the internet it is a latecomer, Reddit’s nursing home, where memes and viral content are nurtured in a more homogenised, more instantly judgmental atmosphere. Imgur’s comment ranking system showcases a far more interesting strata than the images themselves; most are drek (this will always be the case, and has always been the case, with any culture, and for people to think otherwise is to rifle through memory dishonestly).

Imgur and Pompeii, if the portmanteau did not clue you in already, have much in common. Moment to moment, as is the nature of binary-based technology, and thus all technology in our civilization, Imgur performs a new archaeology upon itself – it moves forward constantly, onto the newest image, the newest comments, the most popular comments, a constant fakir’s rope (and I do not mean that unkindly) winding up on itself into the ceiling. Paradoxically, the site is never anything other than an archive for the human viewer; the actual nano-state of the website is a concept only. In logging into the site we view a flash-caught set of motifs. Using this metaphor, it is easy to triangulate Pompeii and its graffiti, not just in its archival nature, but its content; the racism, the sexism, the plumber’s language. But there is another point of contact that I have noticed. I call it “the strive for relevant community experience”. Or the Imgeii Effect.

I’m not sure if it is a linguistic meme or not, but on Imgur there is a formula which is resolved in the comments of almost every image on the website. It goes:

I am [profession or lifestyle relevant to image] and I can confirm that [original opinion or previous statement is correct].

I have no way of knowing if these people are who they claim. For there to be heart surgeons, volunteer mental hospital volunteers, undertakers, ex-prisoners and a thousand other professions represented on a website mostly populated by twenty-something students is dubious. For some, there is an intense interrogation process (which on Reddit is actively encouraged by the site’s moderators), for others instant dismissal (though this is actually quite rare) and for many rather blind acceptance. Their viewpoint is assumed into the milleu with all the others, but with a slight mirth of interest in the general millpond that is more than most commenters can hope to affect in a lifetime of online interaction. To call the activity of this website a millpond is only to extrapolate the activity to the scale that such communities operate at, with millions of active users. For one person to even register in its quotidian operation is remarkable.

Looking at the sort of Pompeiian graffiti that has survived the two thousand years since it was enscribed, this Effect is definitely prevalent. Here are a few examples (all from Pompeiana):

 

Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here.

Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls.

Gaius Valerius Venustus, soldier of the 1st Praetorian cohort, in the century of Rufus, screwer of women.

 

I will admit, it is hard to find examples that do not have a scatalogical element. And one may argue that there is little difference between what I am positing and the universality, in time and space, of the “I woz here” desire for immortality. But what is interesting here is that much graffiti references not only the enscriber’s (or the subject’s) name, but often their position in society. Their job, their military rank, their friends or wives or husbands or lovers form a part of their title. Pompeii, like Imgur, like the web, like any society, is a network, an interaction of thousands, if not millions of people. A name is not enough, because everybody has a name (and now every user of the web has a portrait, a luxury once reserved for royalty). All of these scribblers, and their interactions, have been archived effectively for analysis, and the archive can be distilled into a clear verbal competition, a subtle jockeying for position, that same fakir’s rope that constantly rises faster than people can scale it.

In a society like Pompeii, reputation was everything. How one was thought of by others may not have affected your moods or self-opinion, but it did affect your audience, your friends, your standing and how much you influenced the millpond of day-to-day, furious activity. For a slave who visited a brothel, who knew that he could not stand on the Cardo Maximus and have his opinions heard or heeded, could write in his stall, on the pillar, the peristylum or the flagstone, and not be ashamed of his slavery. His slavery was what brought him to the brothel, and money, at least in those days, could not buy you performance, not even the richest senator. The earthy proclamation is better suited to the earthy individual, anyhow; the natural justice is sweet.

Turning to Imgur, we see Pompeii sped up past the rate of evolution. The size of the community means that affecting any change that is noticeable is a monumental achievement. Creating a meme that sticks is not about the content of the meme, but its relative immortality. And those that cannot create, legitimize. Reddit has its own subset of these people; the Ask Me Anything sub-Reddit, where people from marginal or esoteric professions answer questions set by the Reddit community. This was made more widely famous recently when Obama created one, but the (self-appointed) interviewees range from McDonalds employees and disaster survivors to those with physical deformities. These are not professions, in the strict sense, but they are markers by which an internet hungry for material correlatives will judge a person. They are a point of view that is not commonly heard in the homogenised web, and will be listened to if only out of penny-shop curiosity. For the interviewees, or the commenters, the reaction of their fellows is less important than the fact of the reaction itself. One’s unique position in life, whether formed by the curvature of one’s spine, one’s job or one’s bad choice to drive on an icy motorway, can often provide a relevance, a kink in the rope, that will allow one to rise above the warm crush that we all inhabit.