Water on the Brain
One night in December 2007, I was hanging out with two of my friends and we were bored. On television two news pundits were debating whether or not the act of waterboarding was torture. They kept mentioning it was easy to do so I searched for directions on the Internet. Half an hour later I was getting waterboarded in the desert. One of my friends poured the water over me while another videotaped the event. Afterwards, I posted I Waterboarded Myself on YouTube and the video went viral (Larroque, 2007). I was shocked that so many people watched it and I’ve been wondering ever since what made the minute and a half film so popular. I suspect that I stumbled on the Waterboarding meme.
What’s a meme? One might think of them as infectious bits and pieces of culture that spread information from one group to another. So called “viral marketers” often believe that the videos they produce will get a million hits based on a formula. The strategy is designed around how to spread content, regardless of that content’s character (Greenberg, 2007). In their view, memes can be parasites and humans are just passive carriers.
In contrast, scholars believe that memes aren’t the viruses, but ideas appropriated by individuals to promote their own self-expression. Memes don’t self-replicate in a cookie cutter fashion, but are remixed to take on new contexts each time that they are shared (Jenkins, 2009). Who controls whom? Do memes control humans or do humans control memes? What are the conditions that facilitate the spread of memes? Do their carriers adopt them passively or actively?
The Evolution of Memetics
The word “meme” first appeared in the last pages of Richard Dawkins’ 1976 The Selfish Gene. The book is primarily about the process of universal genetics and Dawkins believes that “all life evolves by the differential survival of imitation.” (p. 206). According to Dawkins, the evolutionary process of natural selection can be found in all facets of life, even culture, a phenomenon that is distinctly human. Using the gene as an analogy, Dawkins came up with the idea of a meme to explain how culture is replicated and passed on. Like genes, a meme’s success depends on three variables: fidelity, fecundity, and longevity. However, unlike genes, they are not replicated by sperm coming into contact with an egg, but simply transmit from brain to brain. Memes are not exactly ideas per se, but rather measurements of imitation (p. 206-207). The memetic quality of a song is not the information found in its lyrics, but the reason why it gets stuck in your head, forcing you to hum it and spread it to a passerby. Dawkins describes the process of creating the word, shortening it to make it a little catchier than the Greek mememe or “imitation,” copying the French même or “same”, and rhyming it with cream (p. 206). The word “meme” is meant to be a meme in and of itself.
Memes are useful to the human experience and our evolution, especially when they help us pass wisdom between generations or spread ideas that enrich our lives. However, according to Dawkins, they are not a node of human intelligence, but “should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically” (p. 207). Memes are like parasites that have created a symbiotic relationship with their hosts, but can also help humans to achieve societal goals. Like the genes that make humans susceptible to cancer, memes operate with an independent agenda. This can hurt the human race.
Dawkins explains that the human brain can only process so much information at one time. Think of it in terms of survival of the fittest. Memes depend on the human brain as a vehicle of transmission (211-212). If a brain can only hold so many memes, then memes must compete for the luxury of residing on a piece of neural real estate. The implications of this have created anxieties within the Universal Darwinian community (Blackmore, 2008; Dennett, 2007; Dawkins, 1976). While it’s seemingly implausible, in theory, the memes that replicate through pop culture songs could become too strong. Under certain conditions they could override the memes that condition us to lead healthy lifestyles and we could whither away. The brain dies and with it goes the transmission point, but if a meme is effective it has already replicated itself in another host.
Daniel Dennett speaks of memes biologically as if they were a virus or germs, but also introduces them into a political context. Dennett sees the spreading of memes between cultures as a display of strong over weak. The memes of industrialized nations have wiped out entire cultures, languages, and customs in the developing world. Just as European settlers decimated the early Native American tribes with small poxed blankets, our hegemonic cultural industries in the West are effectively spreading their products around the globe. Pornography, Dennett observes, may not be a big deal in our society, but it can rupture the cultural fabric of a more traditional value system (2007). Why did the Taliban attack the United States? In part it was due to the Western infiltrating its ideals into rural Afghanistan and rattling the cage of the existing Muslim society. If memes are competing for space and the Western memes propagate more than the Afghani ones then that society could perceive this as a threat and retaliate. “How many martyrs sacrifice their lives to a greater cause?” asks Dennett, referring to the suicide bombers who are lashing out against Western cultural imperialism (2007)?
As culture is put under the evolutionary lens, memetics has come to be more quantifiable. One study of intercultural communication uses memes as a unit of measurement for intercultural adaptability, assimilation, and integration. Successful intercultural communication is often judged by the quality and quantity of foreign memes assimilated and adapted by a host culture (Gu, 2008). This way of thinking is similar to that of the advertising community. To Douglas Rushkoff, commercial memes are literally viruses. They disguised themselves as valuable information or entertainment, but hidden is a command to order more cereal or buy a new car (1996, p. 9).
Marketers found Rushkoff’s idea of mind control attractive. If a media virus could be injected into an individual’s consciousness in a way that “audience members themselves spread images and ideas to others, the sponsor has to pay for fewer additional exposures” (Gelb, 1997). Marketing budgets could be dramatically slashed if ad execs created just one truly viral idea. Media viruses are the hypnotic subliminal messages of product placement that makes branding interchangeable with personal identity. Advertisers started reading heavy doses of Dawkins and incorporating his quotes in their trade magazines (Gelb, 1997). Silicon Valley meme factories popped up with the mission to create viral videos that make it to the trending section of the YouTube homepage (Greenberg, 2007). In an age of stickiness where each click drives up a webpage’s value, eyeballs mean money (Jenkins, 2009).
Advertising gurus boiled evolutionary viral science into a formula that would most engage audience the audience to spread content. Consultants blogged about secret strategies that would guarantee product visibility. If the virus was like a Trojan Horse, then it could be dressed up as anything (Rushkoff, 1996, p. 9). “Content is not King,” but holding the audience’s attention is crucial (Greenberg, 2007). Viral video is a concise and formalized aesthetic. Clips should be short, shocking, employ sex whenever possible, cute and funny, basically beer commercial tactics. We live in a world of short attention spans and, if a viral video is over two minutes, it’s too long (Greenberg, 2007). Fecundity, or the legacy of a meme, has more value than the longevity of its actual existence (Dawkins, 1976, p. 2008).
Viral video quickly became part of social media’s lexicon and treated seriously by those seeking influence over others. For examples, look no further than politics. It become a common belief that viral marketing was a key tool in the Barack Obama campaign’s war chest. Many believe that his use of social web helped win him the election. John McCain relied on the Internet as well, but his walled-garden of social media did not spread in the same viral way as Obama’s. McCain’s setup did not utilize the network, was not shared, and did not propagate (Talbot, 2008). Even though they weren’t victorious in the previous election, the Democrats were the first to effectively tap into the web to get out the vote. Garrett Le Porto describes the way his organization, True Majority, would tap into previously organized social groups by delivering a single political message. The dispatch was then spread to other social circles that intersected like a Venn diagram with the original group. Finding a polarized group was the key. Once they were on True Majority’s mailing list, Le Porto could tailor his message to his audience’s interest by relying on the feedback of voter’s responding to his e-mail blasts (2009).
Memes, according to Dennett are viruses with attitude. He uses the example of a lancet fluke, a type of brain parasite, which attaches itself to an ant and forces the insect to climb a long piece of grass. Once on top, the fluke eats out the ant’s brains and is in a position to be ingested by a grazing sheep or cow. Inside the animal’s stomach the parasite will continue its propagation cycle (Dennett, 2007). Replication is the sole purpose of any type of life form. If a meme can replicate without brains for a vehicle it will. This is the fear of Susan Blackmore, a memetician. Blackmore’s logic goes something like this: There are two types of brains. One is small, economical, and utilitarian. The other is fat and bloated with memes. Memetic activity has conditioned our brains to become bigger so that there is more surface area covered with neurons, dendrites, and an expanded larger electric grid. Babies with big brains are in a certain sense a risk to human evolution. Their large heads put the mother at risk during childbirth. Without maternal care in early childhood, survival rates are slim. Yet, memes have conditioned the phenotype of biological development in a way that makes it good to have a big head (2008).
Blackmore can take the meme scare one terrible step more. She believes that we are reaching a time where memes will evolve dramatically. If they can replicate without our brains for a vehicle they will. Computers are on the cusp of self-replication. Human tools (that are also memes) have been developing since the test drive of the first wheel. If they aren’t already, they will soon be building themselves. Memes will be transferred digitally, copied, and imitated from robot to robot without the aid of humans. What happens next is anyone’s guess. Blackmore thinks that we’ll start stockpiling massive amounts of CPU units to create a mega meme network at the expense of the environment. “They are using us to suck up the planet’s resources to produce more computers,” (2008). Humans will no longer survive when their habitat is destroyed to make room for a giant supercomputer. As the human population weakens the human race could leave this world in a Terminator scenario (MGM, 1984).
Most of us hope that our future will not lead to a robot apocalypse and if it’s dependent on Dawkin’s memetic theory it probably won’t. In the end of the Selfish Gene Dawkin’s believes that humans will not be choked out of the world by memes. “Our capacity to simulate the future in imagination can save us from selfish short-term goals of self-replicators” (1976, p. 215). If we can forecast the invasion of selfish meme, we can prepare by recruiting helper memes much in the same way we use penicillin. This saves our race, but it also damages the credibility of Dawkin’s theory. If Darwinism is simply the trial and error of the replication of genetic code (Dawkins, 1976; Dennett, 2007; Blackmore, 2008), then the creation of the universe becomes an empirically observable game of chance. We are essentially bags of chemicals blueprinted onto nucleic acid. Belief in a higher power is just a psychological reflex. The god meme is merely a “superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence” (Dawkins, 1976, p. 207). However, Dawkins also calls for humans to organize a “conspiracy of doves,” or a situation that will be best for the long-term fitness of the population. This is good advice, but as it implies that there is a designer who steps in and re-channels the meme activity as Nick Rose points out.
In doing so it could be claimed that [Dawkins] committed a common, but fundamental, error; he assumed there was `someone’ beyond the constructs of the memes and genes who could do the overthrowing.
The idea that a Self, beyond the constructs of the genes and memes, can select or design memes is what I call `Self-centered selectionism’. Self- centered selectionists claim to accept the idea that memes are the unit of cultural heredity, and even that memes have `power’ to influence behaviour; but then contradict themselves by claiming that it is the `conscious Self’ which selects which memes a person has in `their’ brain. (1998)
This fallibility extends to other areas as well. Advertisers, going off of what they believe as scientific fact, often regard viral marketing as the holy grail of generating sales. Creating the perfect video becomes a quest for the ineffable. Memetics has been used to describe anything and everything that boosts commodity value like when Seattle Filmworks gave away a free roll of film to customers who develop photos at their stores (Gelb, 1997). The definition of memes is ambiguous and this makes them highly unstable to marketers. Employing them is akin to rubbing the lamp and releasing an unpredictable genie. Universal brand recognition is not always a good thing. Consumers may spread a brand, but can re-appropriate a meme to give it a negative connotation. This act of culture jamming can create notoriety (Renzi, 2010; Bulik & Kerwin, 2006). When viral advertising has the tendency to become so volatile, it suggests that its producers are missing the big picture.
Henry Jenkins believes the existing meme paradigm is flawed. Viral marketing assumes too much power is held by producers of cultural goods and too little by the consumers. If memes are like viruses then advertisers, politicians, and persuaders can simply inject a sample into a population (2009). Brainwashed, they buy what they are told to buy, vote for who they are told to vote for, and do what they are told to do. However, memes don’t turn people into zombies for the very same reason that memes probably won’t hypnotize the human race into building killer computers. As Dawkins admits, humans can exercise imagination and foresight to prevent events like this from happening (1976, p. 215).
When media floods our environment with senseless commercials, consumers, especially in the age of Web 2.0, have the means to take the information they’re given and remix it into their own creations. Darwinist memetics may make sense in the Frankfurt school’s non-malleable, passive participation models, but less so when cultural texts have the ability to take on negotiated readings (Hall, 1980; Kellner, 1995). Adopters of memes don’t spread them because they are programmed to, but rather because they want to share them with their social networks.
From the start, memetics has suffered from a confusion about the nature of agency. Unlike genetic features, culture is not in any meaningful sense self-replicating — it relies on people to propel, develop and sustain it. The term ‘culture’ originates from metaphors of agriculture: the analogy was of cultivating the human mind much as one cultivates the land. Culture thus represents the assertion of human will and agency upon nature. (Jenkins, 2009)
Memes are passed on because we give them meaning and assign them value (Jenkins, 2009). If that were not the case, they would assault us with a flood of ideas and imitations that would distract us to the brink of extinction (Blackmore, 2008). Instead we make qualitative judgments and filter out the garbage. Obama did not win his election because he utilized viral marketing strategies. He appealed to voters’ values. By the time the election came around the American public was living with the burden of two unpopular wars and a tanked economy. Resonating even deeper were issues of race, equality, and other conceptions that the United States has wrestled with since its birth. Obama won more likely because he symbolized abstract notions of Hope and Change than the fact that he had a strong social media presence (Silva, 2010).
Instead of using gene theory to create a pseudoscience about memes, Jenkins uses the analogy of a dance craze. Someone invents new movies and then others copy them. If everyone were to dance the same way it would eliminate the self-expression element that makes dancing dancing. If the activity factors into our courtship rituals, how will one suitor stick out of the crowd to gain attention of another if everyone in the discotheque is dancing identically? A particular dance move serves as an easily recognizable base that is at once inclusive of a larger population, but can also be adapted and embellished to show off the uniqueness of an individual (2009).
Jenkins calls this replication and modification spreadability. This idea takes the power out of big media marketing companies who employ top down methods and gives more say to the consumers who extend their influence horizontally. Emphasis is put on relationships and sharing of information (2009). Darwinian principles still exist under spreadabilty, but it is the consumer who is firmly in control of the vetting process, making qualitative evaluations of what is good and what is junk. Media companies take their consumers input more seriously and no one gets eaten by robots.
In evolutionary terms, “genes which behave in such a way as to increase their numbers in future gene pools tend to be the genes whose effects we see in the world” (Dawkins, 1976, p. 211). Memeticians, marketers, and politicians have applied this theory to culture and have been met with an unruly beast. Spreadibility can resolve fears of selfish memes by clarifying who is in charge of the selection process.
This winnowing down of cultural options is the product not of the strength of particular ideas but of many, many individual choices as people decide what ideas to reference, which to share with each other, decisions based on a range of different agendas and interests far beyond how compelling individual ideas may be. (Jenkins, 2009)
People determine which memes are the most salient in our world. Judgment is not rendered by a single dominant actor. It is our collective experience as humans that regulates our shared culture and how much weight we give it.
Examples from the Field
Memes don’t have the viral power to turn humans into zombies, but while Jenkins is right that the public can determine what is culturally valuable, the question becomes how much choice do they actually have? Have Internet memes actually shifted the power dynamic between corporate producers and consumers? Viral Video Chart, a roster of the top ten most viewed videos, reveals the answer. Out of the current top ten on the day I visited, four were commercial music videos and two are clips from the network news coverage of the recent tsunami in Japan. The remaining four videos seemed to be amateur-created content. Out of these four, two referenced commercial entities. One was a remix of the Hollywood actor Charlie Sheen’s interview on Good Morning America and another documents the installation of an iPad2 into the console a Ford pickup truck. The final two can be said to be truly homegrown. One was a video of men dancing in India and the other is a battle cry against globalization by the hacker group Anonymous (Unruly Media, 2011, March 14).
The established media and corporate conglomerates clearly dominate page views, although the Indian dancers and Anonymous show that alternative voices and calls of dissent can easily be found on the Internet. While the Charlie Sheen video references the mainstream media, it is a good example of how content can be recontextualized through the remix technique (scmoyoho, 2011). Remixing is a way for amateur producers to critique the cultural hegemony by appropriating commoditized imagery and reshaping it into something different. Charlie Sheen’s sitcom was cancelled due to his erratic behavior and drug use and he recently gave a rambling interview about it to Good Morning America (ABCNews, 2011, February 28). The tone of the GMA piece was meant to scold the irresponsible actor, but the Internet found Sheen’s quips irresistibly entertaining.The interview went viral and spawned a number of remixes that made Sheen more popular than ever before (Rocketboom, 2011). Hollywood executives labeled Sheen a has-been. Fans disagreed and created Sheen memes that breathed new life into the actor’s fame.
To research this paper, I wanted to create a viral video and watch how it spread across the World Wide Web. As soon as I saw the original Charlie Sheen GMA interview I decided to create a remix. I dubbed Charlie Sheen’s voice over Charlie Bit My Finger, the classic viral video where a young boy sticks his finger in his baby brother’s mouth and, as the title suggests, gets bitten (HDCYT, 2007). My video is a relative success. It currently has 1,124 views and similar Charlie Sheen Bit My Finger videos, made by other Charlie fans, have popped up as well (Sexpantherblog, 2011; jplarroque, 2011; nalts, 2011). Many of them have identical titles and subject matter, suggesting the presence of a collective intelligence that drives the meme’s spread. However, despite the common theme, many of the videos have racked up much higher page views than mine. The Charlie Sheen Bit My Finger posted on YouTube by Nalts currently has 45,845 hits (nalts, 2011). Kevin “Nalts” Nalty is a marketing consultant for businesses like Qwest, M&M’s, Fox Broadcasting, Starbucks, General Electric, Crowne Plaza, Microsoft, Kraft, MTV, Kodak and Holiday Inn (Nalty, 2007). Tracing back similar high-hitting Charlie Sheen remixes reveal the same types of producers with corporate ties (Rocketboom, 2011). When commercial media is the most salient offering on the web, it overshadows the choice of grassroots content. Even I, as an amateur, was dependent on mainstream commercial media to create a video that people would watch. I used the most recognizable pop-culture celebrity of the day who was featured on one of the most widely watched television programs in the United States. I was simply riding on the coattails of established commercial entities. Even baby Charlie is now a widely recognized Internet celebrity who collects advertising revenues from his Charlie Bit Me video (HDCYT, 2007). There was nothing new in my video. I was only utilizing cultural forces that had already been established. However, the beauty of remixing is that one can take existing content and give it a new context.
Henry Jenkins has tried to debunked the effectiveness of injecting viral media into the public culture, but marketers are slow to release their grip on this idea. Viral tactics, like those introduced by Dan Greenberg, still overwhelm analytics and push a video to the top of the page (2007). However, rather than reject Jenkins’ participation model, marketers have integrated it into their existing techniques. The NSFW. A Hunter Shoots a Bear video, created to advertise Tipp-Ex brand correction fluid, allows viewers to interact with the YouTube piece. Users can type in whatever they want to see the hunter and the bear in the video do and then watch the scenario play out. If the word “Dance” is typed in, then the bear and the hunter will engage in a tango (tippexperience, 2010). Another example of viral participatory content is the MTVNHD site which allows users to upload pictures of their faces and watch themselves star in their own music videos (MTV Networks, 2011). The participation element is an illusion. The choices typed into the Bear Hunt video are fed into an algorithm that determines the best match to content that the video’s producers have already created (tippexperience, 2010). The music video is just a user’s face pasted onto the MTV brand. Users watch as an avatar dances its own moves to a song that they haven’t written with bikini-clad girls that they’ve never met. The content is spreadable, however. Users share these videos with their friends, and thus promote the White Out and MTV generated memes, but it doesn’t create the same self-empowerment that Jenkins believes comes from participatory media (2009).
What the MTV make-your-own music video stunt highlights is the importance of self and group identity on the Internet. Mike Weisch’s video on vlogging illustrates this point (mwesch, 2008). Vloggers sit alone with a webcam broadcasting their thoughts to a worldwide audience. Facebook and other social networking sites are based on the idea of cultivating identity through the sharing of pictures, links, and status updates. Internet celebrities spring up from time to time because their unique characteristics stand out from the crowd. In the Internet Famous class offered through Parsons’ Graduate Design and Technology Program, students compete for grades by seeing how much Internet traffic they can get directed their way (Parsons, 2009).
Internet users believe that a persuasive idea can influence the masses. Twitter’s micro-blogging platform is based on how many followers are reading a user’s tweets. Facebook users create solidarity by hitting the like button on their friend’s posts. Yet, Internet celebrity is not like being famous in the traditional sense, but more like how Guy Debord envisioned public figures in his book Society of the Spectacle.
The agent of the spectacle placed on stage as a star is the opposite of the individual, the enemy of the individual in himself as well as in others. Passing into the spectacle as a model for identification, the agent renounces all autonomous qualities in order to identify himself with the general law of obedience to the course of things. (1967, Passage 61).
The Internet’s hall of mirrors quickly recontextualizes content. Memes are produced and then spread from group to group until they eventually become unrecognizable. A teenager’s mom once took a picture of him and posted it on his MySpace page. Someone copied the photo, added a sarcastic caption in Photoshop, and the meme Scumbag Steve, a 25 year old who likes to crash high school parties, was born (Rocketboom, 2011; RoughDraftTV, 2011). Individuals and corporations alike produce original content, but the groupthink of the Internet takes it and remixes it into new entities. Charlie Sheen the meme becomes divorced from Charlie Sheen the person when the remixes start referencing themselves more than their original subjects. This separation from the producer’s control is what Dawkins, Dennett, and Blackmore worry about, but memes are not selfish genes on autopilot. They are the product of the collective discourse of the audience that is consuming them (Jenkins, 2009; Hall, 1980, p. 137).
The fractalization of identity from something very personal to something very public inspired me to create a meme out of myself. I took a drawing of my face, pasted it onto different images of people I found on Google, and then used the tweets I created on my Twitter account for captions. I started posting the cartoons on Facebook and dumping them onto the anonymous bulletin boards of 4chan.org. I called my creation Dr. Arthur Pastor as a kind of pseudonym. Admittedly, it is hard to track Dr. Pastor’s spread across the Internet or even if he will be an influential meme at all. So far growth is slow and only time will tell.
To jumpstart the spread, I started putting Dr. Pastor’s face into my old student films and tagging my friends who acted in them, hoping that they would share the videos. While my friends’ reactions have been favorable, they have not made the Pastor videos go viral (Larroque, 2011). I also inserted Dr. Pastor into an already remixed video of a speech delivered by Libyan dictator, Colonel Ghadaffi, intercut with footage of the pop singer Shakira dancing (camelsmaycry, 2011). Along with Dr. Pastor, I added a clip from Charlie Sheen Bit Me, the Winnipeg Cat, and footage of a teenager freaking out from I-dosing. The Winnipeg Cat is an iconic meme of a cat head against a multicolored backdrop that is often emulated, parodied, and remixed (Meme Generator, 2011). I-dosing is a controversial music genre composed of binaural waves that listeners claim make them high and scientists laugh-off as pseudoscience (Connolly, 2010). My remix, Dr. Arthur Pastor’s Binaural Exam, currently only has 58 hits and to the casual observer it’s audio and visual noise that borders on static (jplarroque, 2011). Yet, the minute and a half video is rich in symbolism. To fully appreciate the meme, one must know who Ghadaffi, Shakira, and the Winnipeg Cat are and how I-Dosing works. The relationship between each of these elements can be interpreted as a critique on power and control. Trying to figure out where to insert Dr. Pastor into the mix was like determining where an animal should go on a totem pole. Memes are not just the cultural litter of the Internet, but its discourse. As the gene is the building block of life, memes are the threads in the fabric of a communal culture. By making Binaural Exam I was participating in a dialogue with other meme producers. Videos like this one are a personalized time capsule of current events and pop culture. Internet memes are parts of an exquisite corpse that anyone can reference, recontextualize, and make their own.
The ambiguous nature of shape-shifting memes makes it impossible to measure how effective they are in influencing audiences and consumers. How does one judge the quality of a meme? Both Dawkins and Jenkins believe that, as humans, we assess how memes add value to our lives and this keeps us from being overwhelmed by the selfish variety, but both are unclear about how that process works. Dawkins says its because we use our imaginations to forecast the future. Jenkins thinks it has something to do with the decision making of a collective consciousness. Yet, no one in my research has empirically demonstrated how the vetting process works. Culture is subjective. One person may call a movie masterpiece while another may see it as bad art. What is clear is that, as humans, we embracingly believe in culture and assign it value in our lives. Memes are here to stay.
Sometimes memes are seen as frivolous additions to our world like the Winnipeg Cat, the disembodied cat head against a rainbow background. However, sometimes memes can be used as tools to promote social change. After I posted my waterboarding video on YouTube, it caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) who ran a story about me and treated my experience as an act of citizen journalism (Dreazen, 2008). This obviously gave my video a significant bump up in page views, but more importantly it made waterboarding a salient issue in the public sphere. Since the time I made my video a whole culture of DIY waterboarding videos has sprung up on YouTube. Young amateurs like myself make most of them, but the experimentation has also caught the attention of professional journalists, like Christopher Hitchens and the radio shock-jock Mancow Muller. Both men subjected themselves to the act and further popularized waterboarding coverage in the mainstream media (Hitchens, 2008; obeymedia, 2009). A little less than a year after the WSJ ran my story, I was proud to hear that President Obama condemned waterboarding as an act of torture (Mount, 2009). As indirect as my participation was in making the act illegal, I still feel that I helped shape the popular culture that, in turn, influenced human rights policy.
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