As an economist named Edward Castranova said: “We are witnessing a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments…” Most of the digital natives and the self-taught tech-savvy people have ‘thrived’ within the Internet over the past years and somehow allowed themselves (or ourselves) to be mediated by these new media technologies that are slowly, if not rapidly developing and permeating their human lives. In this so-called ‘mass exodus’ to the virtual worlds, cultural production was amplified. It opened up even many ways of ‘looking at’ society in general. It has constructed new identities, distributed or shared cultures and practices and so much more. Among these numerous physical and social affordances that were offered by these new media technologies were the widespread distribution of “memes” in virtual and physical spaces. Memes have become a highly-contributing aspect in the never-ending production of meanings in culture and across cultures and is one of the perfect manifestations of new media idiocy—of which concepts and inner workings will be explored in this blog.
Memes have come a long way since it was first coined by English ethologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book called The Selfish Gene. Dawkins wanted to find out what to call a ‘replicator’, which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission. Hence, the word ‘meme’ was born. Memes can be defined as “…a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme”. This ‘unit of mimicry’, with its use of simple imagery, carries around many “simple” elements of humor and DIY factor that constitutes and sparks its very creation.
On January 7, 2017, Nusret Gökçe a Turkish chef uploaded a video of himself on Twitter carving an Ottoman steak and flamboyantly sprinkling salt over his forearm onto the meat. It was said that within 48 hours, the video gained over 2.4 million views and 8700 comments. A Twitter user, @lolalissaa reposted the video branding Gökçe as “#saltbae”. Where the “bae” in this hash tag is a relatively new term used by people in the internet who think it means “baby” or “sweetie”. Gökçe’s appearance of medium-built, muscular tone, and the added suave mustache and long black hair according to his fans, somehow justifies his new internet nickname. Others are also more concerned with his identity and said that he resembles a character from the Fairly Odd Parents cartoon named Juandissimo Magnifico (2001). My mother even reacted when I showed her this meme and said he looks like Antonio Banderas in his famous movie “Desperado”, to which I found acceptable probably because of the highly noticeable similarities with Bandera’s appearance and the ‘sexy, suave swagger’ vibe that he emanates. In the next few paragraphs, I shall attempt to dissect and analyze the contributing ‘ingredients’ of this particular meme and what made it ‘click’ to its audiences to get them to spread and later on “mimic the mimic”. As a sort of framework, we will revolve this discussion around Olga Goriunova’s (2012) concept of new media idiocy.
Similar to Olga Goriunova’s study of the “Guitar” video (2007) which was posted on YouTube by the Russian “singer” Peter Nalitch, this meme became a ‘hit’ internationally because of its innate and rather obvious idiotic nature. The ‘idiocy’ in this particular media text, as Goriunova discussed is well-grounded by three essential attributes of formal simplicity, the DIY (do-it-yourself) factor, and humor. The formal simplicity in Saltbae’s meme and just like any other successful memes is quite obvious. Today’s commercialization of cooking shows, food preparations, cooking contests, and the like have somehow articulated how “professional” chefs are visually represented by the media. Within the act of preparing and cooking food comes their often sophisticated and “proper” ensemble of the chef’s toque and apron. On the one hand however, Saltbae on his first video is seen to be wearing a simple, plain white scoop neck t-shirt, tucked-in a pair of simple black trousers, his long black hair combed back to a pony tail, and a pair of sunglasses. Among the other video clips of him, he wears a short black vest/chaleco on top of his t-shirt. It seemed as though every element of his ensemble speaks independently of his individuation, of his self-expression, and ultimately of his conscious or unconscious resistance to a “chef’s standards” of clothing. The certain naivety of this formal simplicity based on his appearance alone gave Gökçe and his fan-made memes a capacity to create something that would be subject to the production of new and humor-ized articulations which originated from the mockery of a professional chef’s already ‘prestiged’ representation by the media.
Highly contributing to Saltbae meme’s formal simplicity from its appearance is its DIY character. The homemade feel is representative of the use of a mobile phone camera to shoot the video of his meat preparation. The video is mostly shot in portrait orientation which is far from how professional videographers frame a scene. Some of the shots were even leveled at a tilted angle inside his own restaurant in Turkey. Equally noticeable are the lack of lightning and sound equipment in the kitchen where Gökçe is seen to be slashing the meat while throwing it in the air—hence the quality of some of his indoor kitchen videos suffers a little bit, if not greatly in terms of camera grain or image ‘noise’, as well as the audible ambient noise compared to well-lit and sound-checked production-quality cooking shows like Jaime Oliver’s The Naked Chef or the more world-famous Gordon Ramsay Master Chef shows. The DIY character further encompasses not just the content of the video, but also how the meme itself is being packaged and ‘re-packaged’ through the worldwide participation of the audiences. Captured by this meme’s appeal, audiences worldwide become co-creators and participate in the production and performance of new media idiocy. Most of its re-articulations adapted the classic format of a meme image. The fonts commonly used were along the families of ‘Arial’ and ‘Impact’ placed along a plain and sometimes black background. The source images used are oftentimes not even downloaded but rather “screen-shotted” from the video. You could tell just by looking at the image quality of the new memes produced. Most audiences were rather content with just re-tweeting or reposting on Instagram or Facebook, but inject their own interpretations or resonance with the use of captions which I will cover shortly.
One of the rather ‘well-made’ DIYs was in the form of a tweet by @elBeardedBandit, with over 50,000 likes and 35,000 plus re-tweets one day after the original meme was posted. The original meme of Saltbae’s iconic salt-sprinkling pose was converted to an image, and then juxtaposed with a high-resolution stock photo of a more ‘properly-dressed’ cook who also sprinkles salt onto a dish but in a rather less-interesting way than Saltbae’s. The tweet was captioned as such: “You vs the man she tells you not to worry about” where the “man she tells you not to worry about” is none other than Gökçe, the Saltbae himself. This somehow added another layer of meaning and authentication to the former ‘fantasies’ of cosmopolitan women to have a companion that is not just handsome and successful, but also knows his way around the kitchen and the added ‘bonus’ of preparing food in a desirable, passionate, and alluring manner.
More extreme manifestations of the DIY factor and formal simplicity are where the audiences happen to re-enact Saltbae’s methods by producing and posting their own videos as memes. Most of them imitated Saltbae’s appearance, the sexy meat seasoning, and the salt-sprinkling, but ‘failed’ hilariously. Other audiences-turned-meme producers even exaggerated and parodized the already-exaggerated meal preparation. In a sense, this is what Goriunova is saying in an excerpt from her discussion about parodies in new media idiocy in relation to authenticity: “As a parody, it is more authentic than the authentic. But it is also authentic in the first place.” Goriunova is in a way justifying that the parodies done by the audiences of Saltbae are somehow ‘authentic’ because the audiences have articulated the joke in their own terms and came up with new materials to be later on included in the dissemination and discussion of the Saltbae trend online. This could also imply that ‘authenticity’ here does not necessarily mean something of high quality and commercially-groomed production. Rather, the creation of the concept whether intended or not intended for humor and its assemblage of simple materials in a DIY non-commercial production authenticates its actuality. As a partial result, and like Saltbae’s production, their own simple and DIY versions or parodies also ‘suffer’ the same “unprofessional treatments” and technicalities in the execution of their own memes. It is also worth noting that the ‘suffering’ here does not mean or imply the detriment of this meme’s (or any meme’s) success and longevity, but may concomitantly be looked at as a certain ‘quality’ that retains a sense of authenticity of its amateurism.
Considering humor as one of the main ingredients of new media idiocy, the #Saltbae meme itself has been successful enough to provide laughter to its audience by slightly enacting a certain grace, suave, swagger, and a ‘hint’ if not vulgar sexiness on its whole enactment. The ‘humor’ in media idiocy however, as Goriunova suggests are more than just the giggles or the physical laughter. Inasmuch as Gökçe stylishly prepares his Ottoman steak for grilling inside the kitchen with his dark sunglasses, which was automatically peculiar and funny to some, it is quite obvious that the manner on how he is doing it is gracefully or rather seductively executed. He is slowly and alluringly inching his knife on every slab of meat he cuts. It’s almost like he is caressing the meat while he slices it, then ‘rolls it to a bacon’ on his fingers and later on flicks it forward to the camera lens. Upon watching most of his videos, it seemed like the sets of movements he makes or the first ‘steps’ that he enacts on the meat preparation is like his ‘foreplay’ before ‘tossing it to the grill’ to cook, and later conclude to ‘orgasm’ by vivaciously sprinkling the meat with fine salt as he flexes his bicep. Quite frankly to give him credit, he does sprinkle the salt in such perfect manner that the granules fall like sand in an hourglass. To further his sexualized cooking process, one of Saltbae’s videos showed him ‘foreplayingly grooming’ a large slab of tenderloin, grills it, then raises the steak high to ‘tease’ a supposedly ‘hungry’ blonde woman beside him who has her mouth opened in a rather sexual connotation. The association, suggestion, and his execution may seem too sexual based on my descriptions to the point that it seemed to have justified the earlier popular hash tag of #foodporn, with emphasis on the ‘porn’. A particular blogpost from thesun.co.uk even referred Saltbae as “the new sex symbol” because of his flamboyant salting skills and a seemingly erotic appreciation for a hefty slice of meat. In other news/blog websites such as The Daily Dot, they also branded Saltbae as the “Sexy Turkish Butcher”. Arguably, the meme was far from or not entirely inducing that type of feeling or type of association for most of its audiences. Rather, the suave, the sexiness, and the sexualizing of preparing his Ottoman steak were all constituent of the ‘vital joy’ or the sexual charisma that Goriunova suggested which highly contributes to the humor and the apparent success of this meme.
On the one hand, speaking of a literal laughter-inducing humor, most of the audiences from different parts of the world literally made fun of the meme. As mentioned earlier, the audiences tried to create a different version or imitate Saltbae in their own comical ways. They even constructed new memes out of the original video, thus further amplifying the Saltbae trend or even come up with whole new sets of meanings and materials out of its popularity. The whole thing evolved into a series of viral memes. Apparently, there is now a whole Twitter page dedicated to #saltbae memes (@SaltBaeMemes), which now has more than 9000 followers and even subtitled their page as the “first meme of 2017”. Among some of the many interesting contents of this Twitter page are the surprising fandom developed from some of the most famous names in Hollywood, the global music industry, and the fan-made art that were produced by its audiences from around the world. On February 2, 2017, almost a million people worldwide were amused (850k+ likes) as to why did the Turkish chef (Saltbae) season Leonardo DiCaprio’s steak? Apparently, DiCaprio even visited his restaurant! I myself was also entertained by this…
What’s even more interesting was how Saltbae’s meme turned into a cultural commodity. Another Hollywood represent, actor Ben Affleck was once seen walking to a taping rocking a black Saltbae-inspired T-shirt which to me was not too shabby at all the way he carried it. The pop singer Rihanna on the other hand, was also caught rocking a Saltbae T-shirt, but this time with a rather different, but simpler style. It was like the meme was pulled out from Internet’s image bank and literally made into a T-shirt.
In the arena of sports particularly football, Arsenal’s Danny Welbeck paid tribute to the popular meme when he celebrated two goals on his return from 265-days hiatus caused by an injury (www.thesun.co.uk). Meanwhile in Melbourne, Saltbae’s global fame even inspired an artist to do a graffiti mural dedicated to him, to which Saltbae greatfully expressed his own appreciation for this by reposting this on his own Instagram page. A separate blog post by The Daily Dot was published showing how fans in Melbourne and even Tourists from other parts of the world visit the said mural and to get themselves photographed in their own playful and creative poses.
On a rather trivial note, I think that a small contributor to what makes it “click” or “laughable” to audiences was the timing of this meme’s posting. It was spread online during the first few days of the year where people were still hung-over the festivities of the holiday season from the previous year. The collective participatory performance of its audiences from different websites across the globe just like The Daily Dot and The Sun UK triggered something that is recently familiar and relevant which helped Gökçe’s meal prep videos become palatable to the audiences’ attention and sense of humor even in virtual spaces.
Our initial observation of Nusret Gökçe aka “Saltbae” and his ‘seductive’ performance of “breaking the internet” with his knife, mustache, and Ottoman steak even productively, if not provocatively utilized one or many of the new affordances offered by virtual spaces such as the Internet to further amplify this relatively ‘new’ participatory nature of audiences in the construction of new meanings in culture and its continuous production and distribution in a global scale. The media and such virtual technologies pretty much facilitate the production of memes from its very origin to its widespread articulation and re-articulation. Based on Goriunova’s important contribution to the concept new media idiocy, and the observation of this particular meme or online memes in general, the Internet’s humorous culture is built very much around the idea of resurrecting jokes in waves. These ‘waves’ could be first manifested when people laugh at the viral joke and comments on a standalone basis. This instance was cognizant in @lolalissaa’s actions as she initially commented and branded the joke as “#Saltbae”. The second wave is where the audiences appropriate the humor in whichever context—satirizing, ‘parodizing’ elements from the original in a way that is not initially presented. This is evident in most of the audiences’ re-articulations of the Saltbae meme where they ‘photoshopped’ the salt granules into Facebook’s “like” button, or even shape-shifted Gökçe’s face with Donald Trump’s. The final wave happens when the joke is recognizable enough that the “punch lines”, whether rhetorical or figurative, are referenced to the original joke itself. This reflects to the whole construction of Gökçe’s unorthodox performance of meat preparation as a form of a conscious or unconscious resistance to the global “chef’s standards” as first portrayed by the media, which later on were also ‘made new’ by its audiences or fans. On the contrary, this may also equate to a joke that becomes lackluster as time pass or if situated in a wrong context. Some may not just get it. As memes continue to manifest themselves widely as we traverse in this ‘mass exodus’ to the virtual, it could be argued that their very nature could be ephemeral at best. But if we haven’t been paying attention, this circular pattern of Internet humor has had a very strange effect on its audiences (aka us) who have seen themselves as become “living memes” in the process of their active participation. I don’t know about you, but as an observer of new media’s continuous, iterative, and recombinant development, I wouldn’t take this with a grain of salt. 🙂
Word Count: 2,848 words
This Blogpost based on Olga Goriunova’s New Media Idiocy Essay
For additional video memes of Saltbae click here.