On the impending deletion of Charlie Bit My Finger

19.21, Thursday 27 May 2021

The Mona Lisa is famous by accident.

In 1911, it was stolen. But it wasn’t famous at the time.

At the time of the “Mona Lisa” heist, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece was far from the most visited item in the museum. Leonardo painted the portrait around 1507, and it was not until the 1860s that art critics claimed the Mona Lisa was one of the finest examples of Renaissance painting. This judgment, however, had not yet filtered beyond a thin slice of the intelligentsia, and interest in it was relatively minimal.

Somehow the news kicked off a media storm: Newspapers around the world came out with banner headlines. Wanted posters for the painting appeared on Parisian walls. Crowds massed at police headquarters.

Picasso was somehow accused of the theft, arrested, and then released.

After the painting was recovered, in the first two days, more than 100,000 people viewed it.

And, although it is one of the most replicated pieces of art in the world: Today, eight million people see the Mona Lisa every year. – not that you can get a good view of it.

Really now it’s famous for being famous.


My take is that there are periods when culture is particularly fertile for new memes to take hold.

Some kind of perfect storm – a population looking for a cause or an idea; media looking for something to talk about; the First World War was brewing, maybe people needed a distraction; the conditions for a positive feedback loop… like too much dry undergrowth and not enough rain in fire season…

Which is maybe what also happens periodically on the internet?

Charlie bit my finger - again ! (2007), 33 seconds, YouTube.

884 million views.

YouTube launched in February 2005; Charlie was uploaded in May 2007; it somehow went viral (do people still say that?); at a certain point it became famous for being famous. Like, you have to see this video of a baby, it’s somehow got a million views, and that adds another one. Fun fact! It was in Bin Laden’s video collection in 2011.

So some kind of meme amplification circuit connected itself by fluke.

Online video was still a novelty, perhaps candid video especially so; exponential growth in internet users, all looking for social objects to pass around and connect with friends, discovering for themselves for the first time the power of phatic communication; YouTube’s early algorithms locking in on a particular video to recommend; traditional media looking for ways to show the still novel viral nature of the internet without having to talk about viruses or worms… whatever it was that let this circuit self-organise. By October 2009, Charlie was the most viewed video on YouTube.

Part of the allure of Charlie is its popularity. It caught the wave.


WELL Charlie Bit My Finger was sold a few days ago, and now it’s going to be deleted from YouTube.

Or rather, the family who uploaded Charlie Bit My Finger has sold a non-fungible token a.k.a an NFT for the video, which is like a certificate of “owning” the digital asset, to which other rights can be attached. (Here’s an NFT explainer.) NFTs for digital art are so hot right now.

Here’s the closed auction page, which shows the final price of $760,999. The headline: Bid to own the soon-to-be-deleted YouTube phenomenon – so there it is.

That said, it’s unclear whether copyright is transferred, or whether deleting the YouTube-hosted video is mandatory. As I write this post, the original is still available, albeit with the title: Charlie bit my finger - again ! - Waiting on NFT decision

I mean, good on the family for cashing in. Having an extra half a million quid in the bank can’t hurt.

BUT

Maybe this is like buying the Mona Lisa and locking it in a vault?

In the UK there is the concept of “saving art of the nation,” which is admittedly not uncontroversial, but the idea is that there are some quote-unquote Great Works that, when at risk of being sold to a private collector, a museum ought (and the government might) step in to purchase the piece and keep it in the UK. Export controls are handy for that.

What’s the equivalent online?

What’s the body that can step in and ensure historical digital artefacts are kept in place?

Yes there’s the Internet Archive - which has a vast scope and is a colossal achievement - but for me it’s not just about the data.

I don’t feel like it matters that Charlie Bit My Finger is a digital artefact that can easily be downloaded, just as it doesn’t matter that there are a trillion postcards of the Mona Lisa. The YouTube URL is, in a way, arbitrary: /watch?v=_OBlgSz8sSM. But like a point of pilgrimage in the real world, it has gained it power by what has happened there and the many, many people who have visited over time.

Maybe preservation for online artefacts is less like accessioning a physical item to a museum, and more like monumentalising – finding a way to set up a visitor centre, providing audioguides and staff dressed up in contemporary garb, and maintaining the site.

Do we need a cyberspace historical landmarks service that has the power to prevent YouTube from deleting the video?

Anyway.

In a small way this is personally resonant because, for a long while, I’ve had a draft blog post in my writing app with just the line: One day will be the final day that someone watches Charlie Bit My Finger – and has been my way into thinking about Deep Time, and how we can tell when a culture “ends” (and, maybe, another begins). So now I have to find another talisman to help me think about this.


YouTube needs a program like the GitHub Arctic Code Vault or the Svalbard Global Seed Vault so we can reboot memes in case of cultural collapse.

Why Haven’t We Buried Charlie Bit My Finger In A Bunker On The Moon Yet.


UPDATE 27 May, later: The Charlie NFT owner has decided to keep the video on YouTube – but the point stands. What will the next NFT owner decide? At what point should online content be regarded as part of collective culture, and worth preserving in place, whatever the “owner” says? And what is the body and mechanism to decide and enforce that?

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