Beginning composition students need to understand the distinction between form and content. Understanding how each aspect works in relationship to the other is crucial, as it allows for exciting new insights into writing as well as reading. Except students aren’t usually that excited.
I used to illustrate this concept by drawing a big jug on the board and explaining that the shape of the jug was the form, and whatever liquid was poured inside was the content. And though it worked well enough, I’m always looking for new ways to show students how form and content are cooperating in things that are relevant to them, hoping they will come to see not only the relevance of the concept, but also how it might be applied more broadly to the things they encounter in their daily lives.
There are many internet memes that could potentially do the trick. There’s the Dos Equis man’s simple, content-demanding formula: I don’t always _____, but when I do, I _____. Then there are the “what I really do” photo collages, in which six photos humorously contrast the different ways one job is perceived by various groups. A distinct form — one that can easily be copied and filled with a variety of content — seems to be one of the defining characteristics of these memes and a big part of what enables them to spread so widely and rapidly. They’re beautiful little pre-made containers for people to dump their ideas into, usually with minimal effort.
Most of these memes (there are too many to name) seem to be designed, primarily, to convey a specific emotion (pride, disgust, anger, embarrassment, surprise) rather than something more. But the meme of the moment, the Harlem Shake, is different (and apparently more attention-worthy). It allows people to showcase their awareness of the meme’s form in a way that others don’t. The form itself is a big part of the message, and this hyperawareness leads to an interesting variety of content possibilities.
The form itself comprises two sections (sorry, formal narrative structure), centered around a sudden instant of outburst and contrast. The jump cut makes the contrast so sudden that it’s almost as if both scenarios have been happening simultaneously all along. We see the movement of the individual, who is often masked or disguised in some way, become the movement of an entire group — the ordered becomes disordered, and taboos become permissible.
Maybe so many people are eager to take this form and fill it with their own unique content because the form itself compels a recognition of the need to break free from the forms that constrain us. Many of these videos are set in workplaces or other tightly controlled environments — most recently and notably, an airplane (don’t worry, the FAA is investigating). We need (and flock to) forms that resonate with our experience, that facilitate the communication of our most relevant, pressing ideas and concerns.
So perhaps the Harlem Shake represents a recognition of the split lives we lead, a realization of how tightly controlled we are and how hungry we are to break free. The need to see ourselves reflected in others is being celebrated, and it’s this kind of thinking might allow us to reconnect, to develop a stronger collective presence and begin to recognize all the ways in which we have been stripped of autonomy and power.
Or perhaps our desire to create these videos is simply another product of our celebrity culture. Isolated, devalued, and squeezed for every drop of productivity, we desperately and thoughtlessly seize any shot at semi-notoriety. But unmotivated and disinterested in creating new things, we instead choose to co-opt existing forms, to recite rather than to communicate.
Either way, the Harlem Shake will soon drop away. We will grow out of it, or grow tired of it, and like hermit crabs, we will search for some new shell from which to safely express ourselves. Nevertheless, the more aware we become of the ways in which form influences content, the more we can learn about what our memes say about us. And the more effectively we can use them to say what we need to say.