The Web Hostess: Online manners, memes and must-see video

May 02, 2012

A weekly chat about the best ways to kill time online. Our Web Hostess, Monica Hesse, sifts the Internet so you don't have to, searching for meaning, manners and the next great meme.

Hi, everyone -- and thanks for stopping by.

From the questions in the queue already, it looks like we might have more new faces than usual. I hope you found your way here, perhaps, through my new Sunday column (yes, folks, I'm going to promote it every week)?

Here's a link to this past Sunday's in which I explore "Galleries of Stupid," curated from the Twitter feeds of the young and foolish.

Welcome, new faces! And to old faces -- feel free to bring a guest next time. Gold star to everyone who does.

(As always, we'll start at 2, but I'll post a few things ahead of time that may spark interest).

Interesting news related to online education that MIT and Harvard are launching online classes, including "Certificates of Mastery" to those who successfully pass the coursework (via NYT).


I'll be interested in the appeal, since one could argue that people who are going to be putting in hours for midterm exams might want the reward of an actual grade and course credit.

And look! Could we finally get a vast, free digital library? (via LATimes)

Have you seen this: I must admit I'm a little obsessed, especially with all of the tie-in twitter accounts. I'm not quite sure how far the creators can go without the premise wearing thin, but I like it so far.

It's fairly adorable -- and how much do you want to be that new devotees will be clamoring for the Mary and Kitty roles, which appear to be yet uncast?

I am slightly bothered by the packaged quality of it. The blog entries meeting the videos meeting the Twitter feeds -- it all feels very strategic to me. What a conundrum -- we're to the point where Web videos really should be polished and professional if they want to be taken seriously, and yet I still want them to feel organic, not like they're just hanging around waiting for a book deal.

What is a meme?

Hi, Newbie!

A meme is a piece of culture that is passed from one person to another through imitation. When we talk about memes in the Internet context, what we're usually talking about is a concept -- articulated through picture or video -- that people can "make their own" by adding to it or riffing on it.

This is a confusing explanation, isn't it?

Sometimes it's easier to learn by example. Take a look at this site:

The very first image, which depicted Hillary Clinton texting with Barack Obama, was not a meme. It was just a joke. But it set up a template -- Famous Person texts Hillary Clinton, Hillary texts something wry back -- that could then be repeated. Those repetitions, in which Barack Obama was replaced with Lady Gaga, with Bill Clinton, etc, were memes.

Does that make sense?

So, I guess Kate Upton's shtick is to flaunt her assets in a jaunty manner. Any guesses on when she appears in her first Skinnemax movie?

This is referring to the swimsuit model's video that was removed from YouTube for being too racy. It's still on Vimeo. Frankly I was surprised that it was removed from YouTube -- There's been so much nakeder-seeming content there. Granted, the woman is wearing next to nothing and flaunting it, but I wonder if it would have caused such a stir if she were less famous.

Also: She was so demure at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Practically in a Muu Muu.

Now this one will definitely be a book. If the deal hasn't happened already.

I don't necessarily see these courses as replacing more credentialed options for undergraduates; I see them as good for continuing education, where "certificates" are acceptable. That said, essays that might be "assessed with natural language software" sends a shiver down my spine. That software is nowhere near ready for primetime.


I do think it's interesting that places like Harvard and MIT are offering these lectures, though, since so much of their branding is built on exclusivity -- the fact that -not- everyone can sit in these lecture halls.

Does bringing the lecture hall to the masses destroy some of the cache? What if everyone downloaded the lectures only to realize that the professor didn't seem appreciably better than their own instructor at Generic College X?

May we update the old adage, "Let people think you're stupid, don't convince them" to, "Let people think you're stupid, don't tweet it"?

Acceptable update, yes.

I don't understand how a so-called reporter could write such a story without one single mention of either Project Gutenberg at the University of Illinois or UPenn's On-Line Books Page, both of which have been making out-of-print books available for many years how. Why is it all about the Google?

This is a good point, but then again, nobody fears that the University of Illinois is going to take over the world.

I find myself having this reaction more and more: just Google it. For example, the second post today asks what a meme is, but to me, that question seems eminently googleable. I find myself getting more and more annoyed by those kinds of questions all over the internet because it seems like people aren't taking the time to research their own questions and expect others to do it for them. On the other hand, bringing it up, or sending them to LMGTFY, seems incredibly rude. Mostly I just roll my eyes and ignore the post, sure that someone else will take care of it. Am I being snobby? What's the right response?

First, in defense of the poster today -- typing "What is a meme" in Google will give you lots of confusing, unhelpful, wishy-washy answers. It's a difficult concept to explain in words, and I rather like when people trust me as an oracle of explaining the mystical concepts of the Internet. It's how I earn my cupcakes.

The Atlantic writer Megan Garber had an interesting take on this last week. She pegged these sorts of questions as a "reappropriation of ignorance," and said that it was, essentially, a good thing.

I can see her point. Often we let discussions be hijacked by people who have decided what facts should be common knowledge and how we should talk about those facts. It's refreshing to see someone say, "I don't get it. Not everyone knows this."

But I don't think that's really what you're talking about, is it? You're talking about someone who is just being willfully lazy.

Chatters, how have you dealt with this scenario?

Marc Andressen laughs scoffingly at you.

I'm allowed to say things like that because I'm from Illinois.

They should. Isn't that pretty much where the Internet was developed?

Tons of good things come out of Illinois.

I'm a little confused about the goal of free online education programs like the one offered by MIT and Harvard. I can see the appeal of being able to learn about something from a high quality online class even if you don't get a degree or course credit out of it. But what do MIT and Harvard get out of it? Aren't they basically giving their product away for free and undermining their own brand (much like newspapers have done)?

The article implied that this would give them the opportunity to experiment -- test out theories of the future of online education.

It doesn't seem like it could be all about the brand building, does it? Because, well, everyone's already heard of Harvard. And as you point out, overexposure seems like it could harm rather than help.

has now provided me a new addition to my repertoire of ways to describe people who complain about things they have no right to--"my dancing elephant has not yet mastered the tango" That's hilarious. FWIW, my stock ones are "my diamond shoes are too tight," "my tiara is too heavy and gives me a headache," and "I just can't find anywhere to park my porsche."

"I have to work so late tonight goofing off on the Internet."

Yep. My job.

isn't that how one takes over the world. while you're worrying about big old google doing it - someone else slips in - you didn't even see it coming. Isn't that how a lot of things happen? while we're occupied with something else?

It's so true. The Lannisters need to send their bannermen to keep an eye on UPenn.

I am indeed proud of my ignorance. I have no idea why these Kardashian people keep showing up.

Nor do any of us, really, but at this point, knowing at least the basics of the family is required information. You just look silly if you don't have it.

Any comments on the Deadspin story on now-fired ESPN personality Sara Phillips? Any lessons from the online world, aside from "meet people in person before you hire them"?

I haven't followed it that closely, but I think the larger question is, why did ESPN want so badly for Sara Phillips to be who she said she was? What about her seemed so amazing that nobody did bother to sleuth around more about her identity? Was it that the things she wrote were more persuasive/entertaining/sellable if they were coming from an attractive young female, as opposed to someone else? And if that's the case, then what does -that- say?

There are really two questions. The first is, Is this person who I think they are? The second is, Why do I want them to be that?

I am so sick of hearing about Twitter and the stupid things people did on it because they typed one sentence into their phone without thinking about it and said some stupid shit. It also makes me sad at how many good/smart writers have stated that they used to write more but now all they do is tweet. I know people were dumb before it, but I swear, the era of instant short updates is making people even stupider. I'm too young to become a curmudgeon, but social media is doing it to me and making me want to avoid talking to people online. And I used to love doing it. Except now all anyone wants to talk in is tweets and I'm either super bored or amazed at the stupid, and I don't want to play. I'd rather read boring, depressing Great Literature in school again than read someone's Twitter feed. Anyone's Twitter feed. And what kills me is that while I am refusing to tweet for as long as I possibly can, I know someday I'm going to be forced to do it "because everyone else is doing it." Especially if I ever have to get another job. Ughhh. Bring back paragraphs already.

I am posting this, without much of a response, except to say: You don't have to join Twitter. I will support your decision. It is okay.

A friend of mine sent an email saying that more than 10 years ago, she had a customer bounce a check. When she tried to contact the individual, the bank account was closed and they had moved. All these years later, she has kept the bounced check and from time to time searched online for the individual. Today, she finally found that person and wants to have them pay for the services offered all those years ago. How can someone do this without sounding like a stalker?

Before we cue the Psycho violins: How much money was that check for?

If this bounced check put your friend out $10,000, then I wouldn't blame her for holding onto this for years and years. If it's $30, then oy, you're right, it's not about the money, it's about how this issue has become a stand in for something else in her life.

Exactly. I don't disagree that some people very rudely assume that some things should be common knowledge. So you don't know who Dick Clark is? I'm not going to slam you for that. But taking the time to post on Twitter (assuming, for purposes of this discussion, that they're actually looking for an answer), and then taking the time to check your profile and read people's responses, instead taking the same amount of time to Google him and read about him on Wikipedia, or even just to go to any reputable news outlet and read the front page story? I don't get it. The internet has made huge strides in making information instantly available. But for some people, that still isn't enough. They want to be spoonfed. THAT's what's annoying to me. (but I'll agree that the concept of a meme can be somewhat confusing and I wouldn't be annoyed by someone who said, for example, I've read about it, but I still don't get it)

You know, I wonder if part of this gets back to the fact that there is now -so- much information that people really don't know how to sort through it all. People are more likely to trust friends than random information. Asking your friend, "What is a meme?" is the equivalent of saying, "I am overwhelmed by the vastness of the Internet. I trust you. I trust that you have done the work and have the knowledge and can help me understand this, because I can't even sort through what is reputable anymore."

(I'm still hoping some people will chime in with their tips for Let Me Google That For You behavior...)

OK, define "the basics." What I know is that there are a couple of sisters whose names begin with K who get a lot of publicity for Paris Hilton type stuff. Are they actresses? Singers? Are they rich? Are they anybody? I don' tknow and don't want to.

You probably know enough. "A lot of publicity for Paris Hilton-type stuff" covers a lot of bases.

Providing free online content keeps them exclusive. FMthe content available to the world gives them brownie points for public service. People will still pay for the face time with professors and the future networking with classmates. Nobody is going to decide to not go to Harvard because they can get the content online, but now people with no chance of attending Harvard can access the same knowledge.


I broke up with a guy, in part, because of his staunch refusal to Google anything. "Meet me at X bar." "Where is it?" "Corner of Y and Z." "What's the address?" JUST GOOGLE IT! YOU ARE IN FRONT OF A COMPUTER! WE ARE TALKING ON GCHAT! Does this make me petty?

No. This speaks to a larger lack of curiosity in the world, and a reliance on you, I'm guessing, to do the things he should have been able to pull on his big boy pants and do himself.

"Often we let discussions be hijacked by people who have decided what facts should be common knowledge and how we should talk about those facts...." This is bigger than the Internets ... but I am one of those people. I don't think I hijack discussions, but let me tell you I am shocked -- SHOCKED -- by the stuff people don't know. And I know when I say -- with genuine shock -- "You don't know THAT???" that I have offended friends, but seriously, where's the line? What are people -- let's say people who have successfully completed high school in the United States within the last 30 or 40 years -- supposed to know? What is trivia? Turns out stuff that I think of as basic is often considered trivia, and that MAKES ME CRAZY. Everyone who knows me will know this is my post.

I think I know you. And if I don't, I know someone just like you.

I heart you! (if I were really creative, I would be tirelessly sorting out how the rest of the families of westeros map across US regions. Unfortunately, I am lazy, so I will suggest someone else do it.)

All I know is that the Starks are from Minnesota.

Friend should check statutes on how long debts are collectible in her state. 10 years may be beyond the statute of limitations. Aside from that, if friend is doing this in the context of a business, then this a debt collection situation and should be treated as such. No reason that should be stalker-ish.

Posting -- although I'm not sure this is helpful to this particular situation. I'll skim through questions now and see if we've heard back from the original poster.

I find that sometimes it's nice to interact with actual people. Asking a question is a good way to find out what other people know, thing, etc etc. So, I don't mind when people ask a question that's really a lead-in to a conversation.

And whether you view it as a lead-in to a conversation or an irritating annoyance will probably depend both on how charitable you are feeling that day, and what subject your conversation partner doesn't know anything about.

There are a couple of web sites that focus on these complaints -- White Whine, and First World Problems.

Ladies and Gentlemen, White Whine.

You don't know me (though we do have a friend in common, one of your coworkers). Can you introduce me to the person who you know who is just like me, so I have someone to commiserate with? It'll be a comfort. Thanks.

Oh, see, the person I was thinking of IS one of my coworkers. So, you know, you probably know them already.

A couple of colleagues I know (both older men, from an era when women were expected to be professional help-meets) tend to ask me things they could just as easily Google for themselves. Not wanting to be rude, I Google till I find the right combination of keywords that yields the answer they seek, then reply to them with the list of keywords and say to Google on them.

The extra effort you put into these exchanges is breathtaking. Are they learning from them? Are they getting better?

Can I just say that I am so annoyed about the people who post something on facebook because they want to be the first to say something or break the news? For example, someone just posted that someone died. I looked on the Post, the NYT, and ESPN websites and there is nothing. What do you gain by "breaking" news on facebook? I think this has been discussed, esp in light of the bin laden assassination, when people woke up to that news, either on a newspaper or on teh morning news, because it literally happened overnight. I like my "news" from trusted sources, not from jackoffs who read something and then isntantly post it to FB for some status boost that no one else sees. -rant over-

Feel better?

I was born near UIUC, and have deeps roots in the surrounding area.


I follow a few celebrities on Twitter that I'm now pretty sure are aren't -- as in, their publicists handle their accounts. Is there any reason to keep following them? Or is all the magic gone now?

That depends. What magic was there to begin with? Feeling like you had a connection with a famous person? Or following a funny Twitter feed? If you still like the Tweets, you might as well keep following, even now that the wool has been lifted from your eyes.

I'm an older person what I can do to serve me internet entertaining and fun.

Welcome to the chat!

The easiest way to find something you're interested in on the Internet is to think about what you're interested in in real life. Your grandchildren? Pets? Movies? Travel? There are Web sites geared toward all sorts of interests.

..with all due respect, Twitter doesn't owe you anything, and even if it absolutely is not changing people's lives for the better.. so be it. The internet and social media are tools and not inherently good or evil--people take out of it what they put into it. I sense a bit of holier-than-thou from this particular 'twitter is stupid' rant, and I think the poster might need a "my dancing elephant hasn't mastered the tango"-style retort to bring him/her back down to earth.

"My texting dog can't keep to the 140 character limit?"


Speaking of memes,.and if one is a sports fan, I found this brilliant site while reading a whole 'nother story completely:


The other side of the coin is that I'm 66, so knew exactly who Dick Clark was. But a lot of younger folks? Not a clue. Hope I don't wind up someday in "The Virtual Gallery of Stupid." Or can there be an exemption based on aging?

Oh, we're all going to be on display there at one point or another. Age has nothing to do with it.

Since you're willing to take basic questions that we're all supposed to know the answer to by now, can I ask what the point of twitter is again? I sort of understand what it is, but really I just don't get it. More specifically, if I set up my own twitter account, and start tweeting idiot comments about the Titanic or Chris Brown, can anyone with internet access find those comments even if they aren't following me?

Anyone can -find- them. But if they're not following you, they would have to go looking for them. They would still come up in a search, and they're not completely private, if that's what you're concerned about.

My boss just told me that someone died but no major websites are reporting that news. Maybe we both heard of that same person who might have died.

Alas. I've got to run now. But it is my dearest wish that I will see you all next week, and that all of us will be decidedly alive.

In the meantime, email me at, or follow me on Twitter, @MonicaHesse

In This Chat
Monica Hesse
Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.

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