Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

ROFLCon: From Weird to Wide

An audio version of danah and my keynote is now available for download online. I recommend a background of lolcats – preferably multilingual ones – as you listen.


I gave a dozen public talks last month, and it’s possible that ROFLCon was the most intimidating of the bunch. I was asked by Tim Hwang, internet researcher (and Berkman Center affiliate) co-founder of The Awesome Foundation and of ROFLCon, to kick off the event by co-keynoting with (dear friend) danah boyd. danah actually works in the deep swamps of contemporary internet culture, so ROFLCon – a conference that takes both a loving and scholarly look at the phenomenon of internet memes – is close to home turf for her. I, on the other hand, tend to study things like the impact of cellphones in political organizing in the developing world, and wondered if there was any possible way to connect the sort of issues I work on with a conference that featured Mahir Cagri (of I Kiss You fame), the owner and videographer of Keyboard Cat and the author of Garfield Minus Garfield.

Turns out I was underestimating ROFLCon. Yes, there were panels where the main question seemed to be, “What’s it like to be a microcelebrity”… which may have included the panel danah and I moderated. And yes, there’s nothing to make you feel old and decrepit like walking into a panel where you don’t know a single one of the internet memes being celebrated. (No, I’d never heard of cornify. No, my world has not been substantially broadened by listening to their founder, wearing a unicorn mask, discuss vampires.) On the other hand, the panel on race – I can haz dream? – was one of the best conference panels I’ve ever attended. (If any network execs are reading this blog, let me just point out that a late night show based around Baratunde Thurston and Christian Lander would kill.) And many of the people at the conference seemed to be deeply engaged in the sorts of issues danah and I were talking about – Who creates internet culture? Whose voices are amplified and whose aren’t? What happens when marginal, weird cultures become mainstream?

Alex Leavitt did an excellent job of liveblogging our talks. I thought I’d post my notes and some of my slides as well – the full slide deck is online, though isn’t real useful without accompanying notes, which follow below.


It’s not easy being an academic at a conference like ROFLCon. The stars are the folks who’ve done something wonderful, weird, unforgetable, or so wonderfully weird it’s unforgetable. Those of us who are trying to make observations about the field feel a little like musicologists studying Bach – we can study his compositions exhaustively, but we’re acutely aware that we’re not going to write a mighty fugue. No matter how much I might study internet memes, I know I’m never going to accomplish something as majestic as keyboard cat… and I have to live with that truth every day of my life.

Unlike danah who can actually tell you something about internet culture, I study information in the developing world. Basically, I’m interested in the question of whether the internet, mobile phones and community radio can make people healthier, wealthier and more free.

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If you work in this field for very long, you’ll end up realizing that the basic question behind development economics is “Why are some people rich and other people poor?” There are better and worse answers to these questions. Some of the smartest answers focus on which parts of the world had animals and plants that were easily domesticated and which had endemic diseases. Other smart answers look at the ways in which colonialism held back development or look at the problems of bad governance and persistent conflict. Bad answers to the questions focus on the idea that some people are inherently, biologically smarter than others. This idea – “scientific racism” – surfaces throughout history, as the basis for eugenics and more recently in psuedo-scientific analyses of IQ scores.

If you’d like to understand just what a stinking heap of bullshit scientific racism theories are, I recommend spending some time in very poor nations. You’ll discover that many of the people you meet display extraordinary creativity as they navigate the challenges of everday survival. And you’ll start learning about people like William Kamkwamba, whose near death from famine in Malawi didn’t prevent him from building a fiendishly ingenious power-generating windmill from an old bicycle and some recycled PVC pipe.

My time in the developing world suggests to me that intelligence, creativity and humor are evenly distributed throughout the world. People’s ability to express their intelligence, creativity and humor – and our ability to encounter said traits – are heavily geographically constrained, but the basic distribution is near constant.

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All of which leads us to the question at hand today: Daddy, where do memes come from? I suspect Drew will be asking me this question any day now, due to Rachel and my egregious tendency to misuse Cafe Press and the fact that we gave him the middle name “Wynn” in part so we could title his blog “For the Wynn“. In answering these questions, I find that I’m usually referring to Randall Munroe’s brilliant
Online Communities map, and to the fertile equatorial regions that extend from the Gulf of YouTube through the Ocean of Subculture. Within this region, there are areas whose soils – turned black with the charring of endless flamewars – are especially fertile for the cultivation of new memes. (sup, /b/?)

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I’m interested in mapping memes in a different way. Here’s a quick and dirty map of internet memes extracted from Know Your Meme. Yes, the US and Japan dominate global memetics (or, at least, they do based on the site, which has its own – recognized, now being addressed – cultural biases). But there’s a huge number of memes coming from almost all corners of the globe.

In development economics, we pay special attention to the so-called BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China – who we expect to become increasingly important over the next few decades due to their large populations, natural resources and rates of economic growth. And so we shouldn’t be surprised to find distinctly regional memes emerging from each of these countries – I offer as a gallery of superheroes Brother Sharp from China, Golimar from India, Glazastik from Russia and the legion that is Tenso from Brazil. You may not know who these viral wonders are, but the people who live in these rapidly developing nations do.

Assume I’m right and that creativity has a near-constant distribution. Assume also that access to the internet continues its explosive spread. The inescapable conclusion is that the next wave of internet memes is going to come from the developing world.

It’s already happening – I just watched the first major Kenyan internet meme come to life. The Nairobi-based band called “Just a Band” released a video for a song called “Ha-He” off their new album. The video’s absurdly good – it’s shot by the guys in the band, and it introduces a new superhero: Makmende.

Actually, “Makmende Amerudi” means “Makmende has returned”… “Makmende” was what you called a kid in the neighborhood in Kenyan in the 1990s who wanted to be Bruce Lee. I heard it and assumed that it was a sheng word – “sheng” is the blend of Swahili and English that’s Kenya’s unofficial national language – turns out that “Makmende” is what happens when Kenyans say “Go ahead, make my day”.

So Makmende kicks the ass of all comers in this video, gets the girl… who he promptly ignores, and spouts some incomprehensible but pithy aphorisms. This video went crazy in the Kenyan blogosphere – which is an extremely creative space – and we started seeing Makmende magazine covers, a 10,000 shilling note and lots of video remixes.

Above, we see a local television reporter come to a rapid and bad end when he has the misfortune of finding Makmende’s house… in sort of a Nairobi version of the Blair Witch project. And yes, Hitler’s upset about Makmende as well… But the best stuff actually has pretty low production values – it’s the website aggregating the sort of Makmende one-liners that shot across Twitter for a week or so after the video became popular. Sure, lots of the content here could have appeared on Chuck Norris Facts, but much of what’s there is indigenous to Kenya, and may not make sense if you’re not Kenyan.

Makmende’s so badass that he raises two philosophical questions for me. The first is, “Who gets to decide what’s a meme?”

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Brilliant and funny lexicographer Erin McKean tells us that new worlds enter the language because people love them enough to use them. Lexicographers aren’t the bouncers at the language club; they’re anthropologists, discovering and documenting how language gets used. This is clearly how memes work as well – if people adopt it, love it and transform, it’s a meme… and what anyone else says doesn’t matter.

But it sure as hell helps if it ends up in Wikipedia. Getting Makmende into Wikipedia was one of the first things Kenyans tried to do… and getting things into Wikipedia is a lot harder than it used to be. The article was deleted a couple of times before the authors realized that they needed to make the case that Makmende was Kenya’s first major internet meme, which made it notable. It hasn’t made it into Know Your Meme yet – it was summarily deadpooled when last submitted.

My hope is that all of us who are interested in internet culture can be anthropologists, not bouncers. Yes, not everything that gets posted online is worthy of our study and amplification… but it’s worth keeping in mind that we sometimes don’t understand the unfamiliar at first and would find it intensely cool if we took a bit more time to try and understand it.

My second question is: “Who gets to play along with an internet meme?” On the one hand, there’s not much preventing you from adding some Makmende facts to the mix. On the other hand, a lot of the funny stuff already posted doesn’t make much sense unless you know the language and the culture. “Makmende hangs his clothes on a Safaricom line” only is funny if you know that Safaricom is Kenya’s largest mobile phone company and doesn’t have any traditional phone lines.

My sense is that most memes don’t cross between cultures because we don’t understand the language, don’t understand the references or weren’t paying attention to that corner of the internet to start with. Those that do tend to be funny in a way that’s independent of language. The Back Dorm Boys are pretty funny, and it’s not hard to figure out how to join in the fun.

This question parallels one that internet scholars are spending a lot of time on: Do we have one internet or many? When a country like China heavily censors their internet and encourages the growth of a parallel internet, do we hit a point where it just doesn’t make sense to talk about “the internet” anymore? Perhaps we’ve got to talk about internets, and how they interconnect. And if 340 million Chinese internet users look mostly at Chinese sites, laugh at Chinese memes, maybe it makes sense that the Chinese internet will eventually run on its own protocols, which might make it easier to censor or control. Go far enough down this road and you can imagine diverging internets, each trying to best meet the needs of their users, and no longer having a world where we readily peer into each other’s internets.

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If we care about a single, united internet, it is imperative that we develop, discover and disseminate internet memes that we can laugh at together. When governments censor political sites on the internet, they alienate the small portion of their populations who already identify as politically dissident – and they can make the case that they’re protecting their citizens from terrorism or incitement to violence or pornography. But when they block our access to videos of cats flushing toilets, we see them for the heavy-handed bullies that they are. The cute cats serve as cover traffic for more serious political speech – so long as chinese users want to laugh at our cat videos, we’re encouraging people to circumvent censorship and potentially encounter all sorts of stuff on YouTube.

The Chinese have developed cute cat technology. Even a cursory glance at Youku shows that the once apparently insurmountable cat gap has been thoroughly bridged. And not just simple cute cats – Youku features cats flushing toilets! And not just western style toilets – squat toilets as well! If we accept my assertion that it’s politically critical for us to LOL together, we need not just to be studying Chinese net memes – we need to develop memes we can LOL at across cultures.

When we cross cultural borders in internet memespace, we’re usually laughing at someone else. Engrish, funny though it is, is basically the act of laughing at someone for failing to speak your (absurdly complex and irregular) mother tongue. I’m deeply impressed with people like Mahir a?r? who managed to turn the experience of being laughed at by the entire internet into laughing along with the joke. It takes an unusual personality to pull this off – I’m not sure that laughing at and inviting folks to laugh along is always the best way to go.

I’d rather take the example of Matt Harding, the video game developer who spent years travelling the world, dancing badly. After the success of his first video, Matt discovered that the piece of music he’d used – “Sweet Lullaby” by Deep Forest – had a problematic history. The very short version – the French musicians behind Deep Forest used a lullaby from the Solomon Islands to record their hit song, without seeking permission from the woman who sang the song and over the explicit objections of the musicologist who recorded it. Worse, they presented it in such a way that most listeners thought it came from central Africa, not from the south Pacific.

Matt could have dismissed this story as an ugly footnote to his adventures with internet fame. To his great credit, he didn’t. Instead, he went to Auki, a small town in the Solomon Islands, to interview a nephew of Afunakwa, the woman who’d recorded the original song. It was his way of apologizing for the complex past of the song, and his way of using the weirdness of internet fame to make his world – and all those of us who’ve watched the video – a little wider.

My conclusions?
– We can go from weird to wide, as Matt did, using the strange and quirky corners of the internet to prod us into curiosity
– It’s worth asking ourselves if we’re laughing at, or laughing with. And if we don’t like the answer, perhaps we need to change our behavior.
– Anthropologists are cooler than bouncers.
– If we don’t laugh at Chinese internet memes – the first step towards getting Chinese users to laugh at global memes – the censors win.
– “Erinaceous” is a totally awesome word.


Highlights of presenting the talk included:

– Co-presenting with danah, which encouraged significantly sillier behavior than I generally engage in when on stage. I’d like to believe that I would always be willing to crouch behind a podium wearing a fluffy red hat before delivering a keynote… but it’s just not true. Add danah to the mix and it suddenly is.

– Matt Harding jumping up when his name was mentioned and dancing in the audience. I’m thankful that he came on stage after the talk to introduce himself and apologize if I freaked him out by spontaneously hugging him. I just think he’s wicked cool and deserves recognition for using the internet to show us (one facet of) how wide and wonderful the world can be.

– Meeting Mahir, who turns out to be utterly lovely in person. Yes, he immediately started filming our meeting via flip video and digital camera, and yes, he did invite me, my wife and infant son to visit him in Izmir… but I got the sense that it wasn’t in any way an act, just his particular version of friendliness. It felt more wonderful than weird.

– Talking with the guys from Know Your Meme, who are working really hard to ensure that their site is global and inclusive, and who are trying to take some pages from the Global Voices playbook, recruiting local editors who understand memes in their corners of the world. I’ve got high hopes of a Makmende article in development soon, and hope perhaps for a GV/KYM alliance where we source and research global memes.

In other words, I had a blast. Thanks to everyone involved and hope you had as much fun as I did.

8 Responses to “ROFLCon: From Weird to Wide”

  1. Joe McCarthy says:

    Ethan: great post, and I’m sure the talk was great as well!

    And, regarding the topics of China, humor and cultural translations, or lack thereof, I also enjoyed your commentary in the recent On The Media episode about Bridging the Online Language Barriers.

  2. Jacob says:

    Thanks for coming Ethan, your talk was as amusing as it was insightful.

    Although I love internet memes for their creativity and spontaneity, I came to ROFLcon with a bit of resentment towards them for being the time consuming products of boredom, which I view as the ultimate luxury for those of us in the Western world that can’t figure out what to do with ourselves because we have so much abundance.

    Seeing some of the examples you highlighted in your talk showed me the unifying importance behind these creations, and I couldn’t help but smile for those who have Makmende to look up to.

    Enjoy Chile, and keep up the great work. I look forward to being a part of it (I hope).

    ~Jacob

  3. Ethan! thanks for posting this – here is the link to the radio show I made out of ROFLcon – your panel really inspired the whole thing.
    http://www.wfmu.org/playlists/shows/35653

  4. Cornify says:

    Ethan, your talk was great. Similar to the previous comment, I had no idea about the cultural richness that goes on behind the scenes. Your talk was a great start for the conference, and getting to know other meme creators, curators and participants over the following days was super inspiring. I had no idea this community was so diverse and buzzing.

    Hope you enjoyed the sparkly happiness we’re looking to spread with Cornify as well. If you ever run out of unicorns or rainbows, let me know, I’d be more than happy to help out (maybe Cornify could be the official unicorn & rainbow sponsor of MIT?).

  5. Dan Walsh says:

    Hi Ethan, Dan from G-G here, I had a blast at ROFLCon but for the record – I thought your piece on Makmende was the most entertaining thing I saw at the convention, brilliant.

  6. Ida says:

    ROFLCon sounds awesome! MUST go next year…

    Thanks for the notes on your talk, Ethan. I’m not sure how many Ethiopian internet memes there are, but I’ve seen some cell phone equivalents that satirize the PM. Too bad we can’t all laugh at those on the net.

  7. Mario says:

    interesting blog, good posts, come back for more, have bookmarked the page

  8. sarah says:

    Hi Ethan – thanks for an amazing post. I’m working on a paper for the Oxford Internet Institute’s conference this year which may be (slightly) relevant to the point about diversity of meme sources. The paper is on internet access and fragile states. Much as I hate the term fragile states, its useful coverall for what I’m trying to talk about – the impact/potential impact of net access In concert with cellphone tech) on corruption, ethnic fragmentation and political activity, and diasporic engagement (in concert with cellphones). I’m using PNG as a case study. Loved the Auki reference in you post. Go the Pacific Islands!

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