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Archive for Monday, January 16, 2012

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Web culture breeds wacky and wild holidays

Cupcakes sure are tasty, but are they worth their own holiday?

Cupcakes sure are tasty, but are they worth their own holiday?

January 16, 2012

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Today is a real holiday: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

It was the last holiday added to the national roster when, in 1983, it became a federal holiday, going into effect in 1986.

But will we see another federal holiday added within our lifetimes?

Well, as always, the Internet is chock-full of suggestions, none nearly as serious or meaningful as a 21st century take on MLK Day.

Daily, Twitter feeds are full with exclamations of “Happy (fill in the blank) Day!” Whether that be National Cupcake Day (Dec. 15), National Handwriting Day (Jan. 23) or National Talk in a Elevator Day (the last Friday in July).

These “holidays” may not be the best reasons to ratify a federal holiday, but they do serve a purpose, says R.M. Milner, a doctoral candidate in communications studies with an interest in online subcultures at Kansas University.

“I can say that even though the cupcake, enchilada day thing is not my scene, I can see why it works,” Milner says. “Technology allows us to connect to those who share our interests even if we’re all physically dispersed. If I visit food blogs and follow the Twitter accounts of other foodies, then I’m probably more likely to hear about National Cupcake Day and more likely to share the festivity with my network. Maybe if I’m on a cupcake blog and they have a post about festive Cupcake Day cupcakes, I can decide to make my own and then post the pics to my Flickr.”

Get enough people to “celebrate” National Cupcake Day with special posts or mentions, and it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy for the day to actually be observed by people all around the country, Milner points out.

“I visit a site called Reddit with a pretty large contingent of people who dig science. This means that even though I’m not super-inclined to know it, I’m more likely to hear about the birthday of Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins. The Internet helps the spread of subcultural information like this because it helps us connect to a wider audience of those who are likely to share our interests and identity,” he says. “The spread can go wider when a journalist … finds out it’s National Cupcake Day from her network and then sends it out to an even wider audience through a more traditional media format.”

The amplification can benefit traditional holidays as well. More and more, users are likely to share their plans for a particular holiday or post kind words on Veterans Day.

“Like so many things, social media amplifies our voice. I’m not sure technology has ‘changed’ the way we celebrate as much as it gives us a place to express our held sentiments in a visible format,” Milner says. “We can now add to our picnics, dinners and days off with sentiment expressed and shared digitally with those in our social network. We can also engage with the sentiments others have and share in a communal moment, even across distance.”

It also allows us not to forget holidays as easily because of the joint celebration factor. In fact, we might find ourselves celebrating something we wouldn’t have had knowledge of just a few years ago. An example would be our tendency to “know” and “celebrate” birthdays more than in the past, all thanks to Facebook’s profile preferences and reminder system.

“At least in the networks of people I talk to, it’s become pretty standard to have your wall flooded with ‘happy birthday’ salutations once a year. These may be from people you know well, know a little or haven’t talked to in years,” Milner says. “The Facebook system encourages this by sharing your birthday prevalently with your friends list. Now it even tells the world people are posting ‘for your birthday.’ In this way, we’re given a little nudge toward remembering we wouldn’t otherwise, and a cultural norm has developed for doing something with that nudge.”

Milner says, though, that he’s not sure any amount of nudging by the Web community can succeed in making a federal, state or even city holiday an actual, set in writing, holiday.

“Certainly, there are examples of online subcultures rallying to change similar things. Such groups have been given credit for bringing TV shows back from cancellation, getting Betty White to host SNL and even for rallying against a policy like SOPA. However, such net groups have also failed to save shows, failed to get the Muppets to host the Oscars and haven’t shut down Gitmo,” he says. “If a concerted enough public sentiment develops online for a new national holiday, then I could see them having an influence. However, they’d have to influence the right gatekeepers: journalists, politicians, etc. In that way, social media is still very much tied to more traditional cultural outlets.”

So, what should be a holiday? Local historian Katie Armitage says that though she’s not sure we’ll see another official federal holiday anytime soon (it took nearly 20 years after his death for even King to get his own holiday), she has some ideas better than National Cupcake Day. First, what it won’t be: It won’t be Sept. 11, though that’s the most life-changing event of the past 20 years for many Americans.

“We don’t want to celebrate disaster,” Armitage says. “‘Commemorate’ is what we try to say when we do (events about the) Civil War … we say to commemorate and look back and see how and why it happened. But we don’t want to necessarily commemorate a tragedy.”

She says, rather, we should celebrate life and perseverance. If Sept. 11 does get a holiday, it will be one about survival, she says. And though the 79-year-old doesn’t think one will happen at the federal level in her lifetime, Armitage says she at least has a similar “life not death” suggestion for an official city-wide holiday: A celebration of Lawrence’s survival.

“A holiday for the survivors of Quantrill’s Raid, who had the courage to rebuild the town on the smoldering embers,” says Armitage, picking Sept. 18, the day the survivors created a charter government. “They had the vision and the courage to go on … so that might be more appropriate — a founder’s and survivors day combined.”

— Staff writer Sarah Henning can be reached at 832-7187.

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