30 seconds to understanding

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By Meaghan Downs

Harlem Shake.
Reading these two words may have just produced the following thoughts:
What in the world is the Harlem Shake?
Is that a new beverage?
Wow, you’re writing about the Harlem Shake videos? That was like, so Feb. 2.
Yes, I am writing about the Harlem Shake meme.
Not because I want to appear cool (which I am certainly not), or in step with contemporary youth culture (which I am certainly not).
But because the 30 seconds of the Harlem Shake videos say so much about what we share, how we share it and what we now find important when it comes to information consumption.  
I can’t embed a clip of the Harlem Shake in this column (although it is extremely easy to find one of thousands of clips on the Internet), so I’ll try the best I can to set the scene:
A man or woman stands in the foreground. He is dancing by himself, and is typically wearing a mask.
Everyone around him — co-workers in a maze of cubicles, friends hanging out in a dorm, firemen in the cab of a fire truck, students in a university classroom — goes about his or her business shuffling papers or talking as though this strange solo performance isn’t happening.
All the while, he’s dancing to music that can only be described as an electronic instrumental, hip-hop mash-up of strangeness.
And the strangeness really begins when the song transitions 15 seconds in, the bass beat drops and the video cuts away and comes back again to people crawling on the floor, throwing inflatable props, riding too-small tricycles, crazy dancing like nobody’s watching despite the fact millions are.  
And thousands of others have uploaded their own versions of the video; Billboard reported last week that the song has been downloaded, played on the radio or streamed online more than 98 million times.
In my opinion, the Harlem Shake phenomenon, which I am sure is slipping into passé Internet culture as I write, isn’t about the head-scratching dance moves.
The Harlem Shake, for what it’s worth, has been appropriated as a silly Internet craze, soon to be dismissed and forgotten six months from now.
According to Washington Post writer Robert Samuels writing for the Root DC, the popularity of the “Harlem Shake” videos points out “the fine line between cultural reappropriation and cultural evolution.”
“No. Keep the meme alive,” Samuels writes.
“But instead of doing something ridiculous, actually learn how to do the Harlem Shake.”  
Yes, there is actual historical meaning behind a silly YouTube video fad.
I know, I was as pleasantly surprised as anyone.
But I couldn’t grasp the historical background behind what the real Harlem Shake dance is, and what it meant for African-American music and dance culture in the ’80s and ‘90s, from watching a video that bears the dance’s name.
How could you, in 30 seconds?
I’m definitely being a little unfair to the Harlem Shake video and anyone who’s taken the time to copycat it; obviously, the video’s intent was not to give a history lesson on Harlem street dance culture and its consequential ripple affect for modern music and dance.
But it’s interesting to think about, not in the context that content is “good” or “bad,” but if we’re only given 30 seconds, what do we want to say?
What do those 30 seconds say about us?
The method of getting all our information in easily digestible, bite-sized chunks has even made its way into journalism with the emersion of Vine, an app that allows people to upload and tell an entire story in six-second clips.
And perhaps the question isn’t, is this content “good” or “bad,” but how we’re using the seconds we’re given to capture someone’s attention.
The Hemingway legend involves being able to tell a short story in six words, so I suppose the six-second Vine videos are just a modern reincarnation.
I suppose we could save some ink and get to the point of this column in six words: Viral videos: disease, tool, or both?