In the last post, “Story Fatigue,” I compared the benefits and drawbacks of shaping a story as either a meme or as trivia, with specific focus on how this shaping elicits a reaction from the story’s audience. I weighed in against the meme side, as memes are designed to reach large audiences with minimal retention of the experience. Trivia, on the other hand, may reach a a smaller audience in comparison, but the higher level of retention inherent in trivia means that those who are reached will feel compelled to retain what they’ve been told. If the choice were to be between 4 million people watching a cat play a keyboard on YouTube, or having 40 people feel a connection with the story behind an Extruded Plastic Dingus, the latter would be the better option if you want your story to resonate with an audience. The two-fold trust approach, detailed earlier, stays intact: the storyteller trusts the trivia format will bring forth a response with a select number in the audience, while these same audience members trust that the trivia they’re experiencing has value and importance.
Trivia has long appealed to me personally as an end in itself, let alone as a storytelling technique. For lack of a better description, this love of trivia has come naturally, as I’ve always found myself keyed into small, overlooked details of the world around me. These small details can obviously become large, self-defining aspects of life if one lets that happen, and I certainly have done so from elementary school onward. Over time, I have been accumulating a large group of interests, most of which have little to do with one another, and whenever I’d acquire something new that interested me, I’d dive into it to find those small details mentioned above. An inconclusive list of these interests in roughly chronological order would have on it:
- Astronomy: Courtesy of visits to Adler Planetarium, “Star Wars,” the Pioneer and Voyager spacecrafts, and a subscription to “Star & Sky” magazine in 1979.
- Birds: Which I totally blame on being fascinated by the Quetzal and the Ibis.
- Science fiction: See the Astronomy listing, and also add the revived “Star Trek” series.
- British TV: Or at least what I could watch on WTTW on Sunday nights, which also included the original “Doctor Who” series–see Astronomy & Science Fiction.
- Cars: More on the design, not on the mechanics as I’m notoriously bad with tools.
- Bikes: A teen-aged me needed a way to get around, so I’ve always looked at bikes as useful tools–like with cars, I appreciate the functionality and design of the whole rather than the individual parts and/or brands.
- Maps: Useful for collecting, and also as a way to fall asleep–if you’re having trouble sleeping at night, open up a road atlas and start examining it closely; within a few minutes, you’ll be nodding off.
- Politics: A former love of mine, one which I’ve downplayed lately as it can be exhausting to talk about–never mind that this was my college major.
- Computers: This almost was my college major, yet I was stymied somewhat in the early 90s by not having a computer of my own.
- Cologne: Started off in college, but as the years pass, I’ve figured out what works for me. I work in IT, and I choose not to smell like stale farts, cheap cigarettes, and greasy food.
- Transit systems: Related somewhat to Maps, and also due to using it a lot while living in the Chicagoland area.
- Urban planning: See Transit Systems and Politics.
- Photography: If I were to have a tagline for my life, it would be “Observing since 1971.” My first camera was a Kodak Disc from the early 1980s, and it’s been onward and upward ever since.
- Wine and beer: Both in terms of consumption and understanding how they’re made.
- Clothing: Somewhat related to Cologne, and probably the most current of interests. I’m old enough now to look the part of not looking young, so adjustments are being made accordingly.
One interest I’m reluctant to place on the list is Sports. It’s not because I don’t have the room, but rather because the relationship is complicated. I grew up in a sports-happy family, and for a few years in the early 1980s, I tried my hand at basketball, baseball, and football. My hand is not a coordinated one, so while I’m somewhat glad for the experiences, I’m even happier that this all stopped once high school began. I have picked up some sports knowledge as trivia, but I don’t actively seek it out–it’s more passive knowledge, if that makes sense. Still, even this facile knowledge of sports has paid off for me, as it was a key element when I was part of a 16-versus-1 game of Trivial Pursuit around nine years ago. I was the 1, and I lost on the very last question of the game. To win Trivial Pursuit, in case you’ve forgotten, you must have all six wedges of your “pie,” and you must land on the hub of the wheel on the board. When you land there, you have to answer all six questions on the card to win. I answered five correctly; the other team got all six right. Looking back at that game, I remain impressed and scared that I could compete that well.
Do you, Dear Reader, see a pattern to the above list of interests? I really don’t. Some interests admittedly flow into one another–Astronomy and Science Fiction are strongly linked, and Transit systems can emerge from interests in both Urban Planning and Politics. Without the context of time, or further details, it would be difficult to see any sort of developing design. I wouldn’t be able to rank these interests from highest to lowest, in other words. All of them interest me on relatively equal levels, but what I choose to be interested in can be dependent upon too many factors to mention. I am not fully consumed by one interest, which mirrors my academic career up to college as I didn’t feel that I excelled in one field at the expense of any other–well, maybe at the expense of Physical Education. Perhaps this could explain why college threw me for a loop, as I had to actually major in something, a process that took nearly half of my time at Cornell College. It’s also why today, I wouldn’t make for a good otaku, and I’m pretty happy that this is the case.
Much like how “meme” and “trivia” have evolved from their original definitions, so too has “otaku.” In Japan, “otaku” was originally a disparaging term used to describe a particular fan of anime or manga that took his interests in the art to obsessive, awkward levels. The terminology quickly adapted to refer to any person obsessed by a subject or hobby, with the connotation always being negative. Otaku would be stereotyped as young men who spent most of their waking hours talking about their obsession, collecting more items relating to their obsession, interacting only with those who share their obsessions (if at all–it is often presumed that otaku spend most of their time in their bedroom), and so forth. Outside of Japan, “otaku” didn’t have as negative of a connotation, but the obsessive definition still applied for the most part. It has become a term that’s interchangeable with “fanboy,” “fangirl,” or simply, “geek.” Originally, anime or manga was the subject of otaku obsession. As the focus of otaku obsessions have changed, so have the relationship that these subjects have with mainstream culture. While anime or manga have not become mainstream in the US, American comics certainly have, thanks in no small part because of various popular TV shows and movies. Fanfic, cosplay, and role-playing have not become mainstream, yet they have become more commonplace. What was one considered “fringe,” with potentially negative connotations built into that term, has now become less so.
Finding articles discussing the rise of otaku culture in the US is relatively easy, but I’ll point you to one that made the rounds at the very end of 2010: “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time To Die.” Patton Oswalt, comedian and occasional actor, writes at length1 about how mainstream acceptance of subjects formerly classified as fringe or geeky is a double-edged sword. His view of the Internet can be summed up in the not-snappy acronym of ETEWAF: Everything That Ever Was, Available Forever2, which he believes is responsible for the rise of weak otaku that don’t have to work as hard as he did when he was into Monty Python or Star Wars3. My concern about otaku isn’t exactly like Oswalt’s, as I’m not really upset that the original subjects of otaku obsession have achieved mainstream acceptance. What does bother me, though, is that the otaku methodology has become mainstream, finding its way into subjects heretofore never considered. Regardless of the subject–and the list is endless, from food to clothes to bicycles and so on–there will be those who will hoover up as much knowledge of this subject as they can handle. Small elements that make up this subject become magnified, the trivia becomes consuming, the minimal gets maximized. Information about the subject of obsession ends up standing in for the subject itself. Collecting this information, or even better, creating this information, is the greater prize4.
As someone who has lived for many years in a realm where trivia rules, I view the otaku methodology as being quite exhausting. My past would indicate that I should be among those who wants to know the smallest details regarding the coffee I drink, the bicycle I ride, or about the jeans I’m wearing. Why, then, do I not add these to my ever-growing list of interests? The otaku methodology has some faults for me: it’s weak, the barrier to entry is set quite high, and it brings forth a bit of unattractive envy in me that I would rather not show off.
Without explicitly saying so, Oswalt’s worries about “weak otaku” reflect his fears that the current geek culture has become memetic and not trivial. The ease of collecting information online translates to a gotta-collect-em-all mentality, where quantity overtakes quality. I would, if I were in this particular mindset, be more attuned to collecting paper maps or globes, or saving online maps as favorites instead of appreciating them for their cartography skills or what purpose these maps serve. I really wouldn’t have time to delve into the details of the maps, because that would interfere with me collecting more of them. The maps would function more as a meme than as trivia. The action of collecting the maps would likewise become as important, if not more so, than the actual maps themselves5. I don’t fully believe that current geek culture is sliding toward memes, but I understand where Oswalt comes from with his fears.
The otaku methodology also works to create a high barrier to entry for those wishing to pursue their interest in any given subject, and man, do I see this happening in Photography. On the one hand, advances in technology have made photography as a whole more popular than ever. Digital photography, mirrorless cameras, and smartphones that surpass the quality of what point-and-shoot digicams have placed increasingly sophisticated equipment into the hands of more people, who happily document every aspect of their lives and share these photos with others. Perhaps this seeming ubiquity of cameras has brought forth a belief among some photographers as to what makes “real” photography: you must shoot or have shot with film, you must develop your own film, you must only shoot with either Canon or Nikon6, and so forth. Granted, there will always be snobs in any subject matter defining who is authentic and who isn’t, and what constitutes serious support from those who dabble in it. My somewhat jaundiced take on these people erecting barriers is that they do so to justify all the time and money they’ve spent, along with the fear that others can come along with “incorrect” equipment or “insufficient” experience and create quality photographs7. Whatever the explanation may be for these barriers, they’ll end up preventing people from pursuing their interests further, or possibly believing that it’s wrong to merely dabble or be a hobbyist photographer. They will buy the explanation, like at an amusement park, that you must be this tall in order to ride. Personally, I acknowledge these barriers, then do my best to ignore them after that. Instead of worrying about not being tall enough to go on one particular ride, I’ll find another ride for my enjoyment.
Finally, there’s the personal affront that I experience on occasion whenever I encounter someone in thrall to the otaku approach. I’ll admit that I hold a small amount of envy toward someone who appears to “have it,” that is, someone who knows what they like and are willing to place all of their time and energy towards that particular like. It certainly would simplify my life if my above list of interests were a lot smaller, that if I could obsess over a handful of things, I could dedicate so much of myself to them. My envy is something that comes up from time to time, but it’s one that I can generally keep in check by reminding myself that my numerous interests help define who I am, and were that to change, I’d be a much different person. The appeal that trivia has had for me led me to the discovery of all of my interests, and while I never can become an otaku (weak or strong), I’m perfectly fine with that8. If I were to concentrate on a small subset of my above list, I’d miss out on not just other interests, but other people who share these interests. The thrill of discovering something new would also be lost if I were to obsess over a small group of interests, though from time to time, I look upon those who throw themselves in fits of passion toward their passions with a small twinge of jealousy. Incidentally, “passion” is a word I’ve become reluctant to lose, but that’s a topic for a future entry.
Second of a six-part series.
1. Almost as long as what I’m writing here. *cough*↩
2. Or, to paraphrase both Bertolt Brecht and Boards Of Canada, the past is inside the present, and there’s no avoiding nostalgia in the present day.↩
3. There’s more than a whiff of Get Off My Lawn in Oswalt’s post, but nostalgia aside for his own geeky childhood, the piece has merit in and of itself.↩
4. A hat tip to William Gibson is due here.↩
5. Instead of saying, “EAT ALL THE THINGS,” I’d be saying here, “COLLECT ALL THE MAPS.”↩
6. Upon hearing such statements, Leica or Hasselblad owners sigh and disdainfully proclaim, “Oh, how cute.”↩
7. The more I use my iPhone for photography, the more I see the wisdom behind the saying, “The best camera is the one that’s with you.“↩
8. An acknowledgement to Jim Coudal‘s Twitter feed is due.↩