Thursday, January 06, 2011

Less Ambitious Operas -- Anatomy of a Twitter Meme

I'm not sure this is a benefit or a detriment to being on Twitter, but here goes:

Yesterday I spent an inordinate amount of time being entertained by, and hopefully entertaining in return, people from around the world in a vein of humor so tightly-focused that it required a world-wide audience just to take it to critical mass.

As near as I can determine, it started with a tweet from Jason Weinberger, conductor of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra in Ceder Falls, Iowa on January 5, 2011 at 11:49 AM. It read:

madame caterpillar #lessambitiousoperas

Now if you're not already laughing, or fully grasp everything that's going on in that tweet, then please read on. Maestro Weinberger was making a joke -- one that depended on three elements: the reader's knowledge of opera titles; the reader's understanding of hashtags; and the reader's ability to fit the tweet into the context of the hashtag to get the joke.

"Madame Caterpiller" is a reference to Puccini's opera "Madama Butterfly." The hashtag (the letters following the # symbol) provide the context. Deciphered, it reads "less ambitious operas." The clue of opera gets one thinking about opera titles, and the joke is revealed. (If you're not familiar with how they work, hashtags can't have any spaces to function as an effective search term. If he had written #less ambitious operas, then the link generated would have pulled in only those tweets using the hashtag "#less."

The joke was retweeted throughout the system, first by followers of Weinberger, then their followers and so on. It's like forwarding a joke via email, but with a difference: unlike email forwards, which go out to lists of poeple that may or may not have any interest in the content, most of the people that follow a particular Twitter account do so because they're interested in some fashion in content of that particular person's tweets.

It's very likely that the majority of Weinburg's followers are also interested in, or professionally involved in the world of classical music -- the core audience for this type of joke And every follower who retweeted it in turn sent it to their followers, many of whom also were also probably conversant with classical music. And the ones that were (and thought it was funny), retweeted it to their followers and so on.

Within a very short time "Madame Caterpillar" was read by many of the classical music folks on Twitter.But that's just part of the story. The other difference between this tweet and an email joke is the ability for the reader to add to it and make it part of a conversation. The hashtag made that possible.

In Twitter, you can create a hashtag by simply putting "#" in front of a word or phrase without spaces, The hashtag can serve as a subject line for the tweet, and it does something else. Twitter automatically makes it a link. When you receive a tweet with a hashtag, you can click on the hashtag/link and immediately see all of the tweets that also have that hashtag in reverse chronological order.

The original tweet generated many responses, and some inspired takes on opera titles given the theme. Within a few hours opera lovers all over the world were chuckling. #lessambitiousopera tweets came in from Australia, Europe, Canada, and other parts of the world. They were generated by professional musicians, music critics, broadcasters, record label employees, writers, and just plain old music lovers.

To read the full list (or at least as far back as the search will take you), you can either search the hashtag through a search engine, or do a search through Twitter.

Here's a few of my favorite "less ambitious operas" (with the original titles) -- the ones that made me laugh are far too numerous to list here.

: Tales of The Hoff
(Offenbach: Tales of Hoffman)

Death in Vancouver
(Britten: Death in Venice)
: Dido and Enya
(Purcell: Dido and Aeneas)

: A Streetcar Named Whatever
(Previn: A Streetcar Named Desire)

And of course, I was inspired to contribute a few myself, such as:

Mishap in Venice
( Britten: Death in Venice)

The Telegraph
(Menotti: The Telephone)

(Hindemith: Cardillac)

(Wagner: Tannhauser)

(Verdi: Nabucco)

The Pot Shot
(Weber: Der Freischutz ["The Free Shot" in English])

The Broom's Progress
(Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress)

It was great fun. And a type of entertainment that was unique not just to social media, but to Twitter itself, I think. I must confess productivity lagged somewhat -- I eventually had to turn Twitter off in order to work. But some of those tweets definitely made my day.

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