Friday, July 23, 2010

You Can't Catch Me!

Childrens' memes don't die.

A playground borders our backyard, and in the cool Seattle summers we keep the windows open most of the time. As I got dressed this morning, a very familiar tune swept into the room:

Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah,You can't catch me!

Identical, unchanged since I first learned it circa 1979. Every note in the tune was the same, every word chanted a copy of my own voice 20 years ago.

No adult teaches this song to children. No Sunday School teacher, no math book, no parents on long drives, no TV shows. It's more than just a song. It is imbued with custom and rules. It is part of a dozen of games. There is a ritualized time to chant it and a time not to.

It is a taunt that clearly declares that child's dominance of speed, or strength, or cleverness. It says, "I can't be beaten, but I want you to try."

After 20 years - no, much, much longer - this meme survives. It lives among our kids -- the least educated of us, those with minimal life experience. It is, in fact, one of the earliest remembered lessons of a child in most western cultures.

It is as if it comes bound in a picture book entitled "My First Meme".

The haunting thing to reflect on is how it is spread. It is passed down through the age-ranks. The older children teach it to the younger children, who teach it to the younger children when they get old, like a multigenerational telephone game. Only in this telephone game, the message remains unchanged. Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah, you can't catch me.

And it's not the only meme that is passed down without mutation. I have heard another familiar chant from that playground: Red rover, red rover send X right over. The rules of this game, and games like Tag and Redlight-Greenlight, remain unchanged after all this time, even when my own kids are old enough to no longer play them.

What is it that makes childrens' culture so unchanging, especially absent a top-down enforcement through mass media and religion?

Sure, the culture of children is affected to some degree by outside influences. Especially mass media. Popular trends come and go. Slap bracelets. Smurfs. Power rangers. Jelly shoes. Wheelies. Pokemon. Harry Potter. These flashes, like the blinking lights on my son's pair of light-up shoes 10 years ago, effect a generation's games, stories, songs, and fashions. My parents played cops and robbers. I played Smurfs vs. Gargamel. And I assume my kids played Potter vs. Voldemort.

But the core, the core of their culture, their foundational memes, remain through the generation gaps. My son doesn't remember the commercial jingles we remember; he doesn't get references and in-jokes to songs and movies from the 80's and 90's. And he certainly doesn't get any religious jokes or references to biblical metaphors. But he does remember the rules to tag. And he remembers nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah. Because thousands of kids in my grade taught it to thousands of kids in the grade below mine. And they taught it to the grade below them, and so on, until the 7-8-9-and-10 year olds in the playground behind our house chant it to this day. Like a flu virus passing from nose to nose, it survives, forever, in all of our brains.

And it is universal. These memes are not divided by subculture and genre. We all learned them -- even though as adults we separate ourselves into geeks, jocks, stoners, burners, Jesus Freaks, football fans, feminists, democrats, republicans, hicks, yuppies, hipsters, hippies, gay, straight, Baptist, Methodist, atheist, ad nauseum.

You could make yourself immune to all memes right now by sequestering yourself in a cave, and you would still know the words and tune to this childhood taunt. I was homeschooled, and I know this chant perfectly.

What is it that makes childrens' memes so pervasive and successful?

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