Last week the nebulae swirled, the interstellar dust motesaccreted, and a Web star was born: Merton, a.k.a. the Chatroulette piano-improvguy.
First, for those of you living off the grid (or actually using their computer to, youknow, work), here's a little background: Chatroulette is the latest Webfad, a stripped-down site that randomly connects you and a stranger via Webcam. If you don't like your chat partner, hit "next," and within secondsanother in a near-infinite line of anonymous strangers is brought before you. Evangelists hail Chatroulette's power to connect people, torelieve and confront the loneliness of human existence; exhibitionists use itto show off their genitals. Merton's revelation was to use Chatroulette as a stage:
A self-trained pianist with a voice like Ben Folds and apenchant for hoodies, he recorded his sessions on Chatroulette, improvising songsabout the strangers he came across. The result was hilarious, and racked up nearly 4million views on YouTube in its first week.
But if you watch the video closely, you'll notice somethingother than Merton's spot-on rendition of "Fireflies": his rejection rate. Of his10 subjects, at least four "next" him. And who knows how many "nexts" were lefton the cutting-room floor. It was a similar story at a comedy show last weekendin New York City.I was one of 300 audience members at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where four professional comedians took turnsspinning the Chatroulette wheel and trying to amuse (or goad into undress) their random chat partners. Their batting averagewas depressingly low. (At getting people to stick with the conversation, that is. The nudity rate was quite high.)
What is going on here? A prodigiously talented pianist andfour first-rate comedians stare into the great maw of humanity, and the mawyawns back: "Go on. Impress me. You have two seconds."
Does our generation have an "entertainment entitlement"problem? Does the Web hold so much incredible free stuff (I am primarily thinking of Dogs Dressed as Lady Gaga here) that we've beeninured to the very idea of wonder and amazement? Merton's chat partners foundthemselves face to face with a talented performer willing to sing apersonalized song for an audience of one—and still, many of them hit "next," theChatroulette equivalent of "deleting your existence," as one UCB comedian put it.
We have long bemoaned our generation's atrophied attention span, but this is something worse. At the risk of repeating myself, it's getting bored even when top-flight entertainers prepare comedy especially for you and deliver it to your face in your own home. It may be literally impossible to get any lazier. At this point, what wouldn't receive a dismissive shrug of the shoulders? A 600-page novel about yourself, mailed to you, by someone who found your name in the phone book?
"Meh," we say, employing a wordthat is the "essence of blinkered Internet malcontentism," as comedian JohnHodgman put it, "a rejection of joy." Have we become Generation Meh?
Perhaps. But maybe there is a cure. Watch this rant by Louis C.K. (yes, another comedian), who excoriates a world in which "everything's amazing and nobody's happy." Or think back to the farewell speech by Conan O'Brien (I swear I do something other than watch comedians), in which he tells his audience: "Please don't be cynical." Or even go back to Merton, and focus on the smiling six instead of the nexting four. There is still sincerity in America. You just have to scroll past all the "Mehs" first.