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Wayne Marshall on Nu Whirled Music… and my thoughts, too…

For Tuesday’s Berkman lunch, we’re blessed with a visit from DJ, blogger and ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall, one of my favorite chroniclers of the future of digital culture. His talk is titled “The Unstable Platforms and Uneasy Peers of Brave New World Music“, a title that we could probably spend an hour unpacking.

Wayne’s talk is timely, perhaps, because of the current attention to the events of Wikileaks cablegate and the takedown of Wikileaks from Amazon. “What people take to be public platforms turn out to be anything but, and our spaces for free speech are not necessarily so free.” They’re unpredictable spaces for public speech because they’re commercial spaces. And what happens to music in these spaces may prefigure other developments in online spaces. “The ways in which culture and music are routed through the web show us some of the fault lines in public culture,” Marshall argues. “We can hear some of these songs and dances as ‘canaries in the coal mine'” of online culture – sometimes, these works disappear before our eyes due to decisions made by tool and platform owners.

One of the signatures of new world music, Marshall argues, is the watermark. Many of the audio tracks and videos that define new music scenes are marked with watermarks left by unlicensed demo software. He suggests that these watermarks may be becoming part of the aesthetics of these new forms. The people producing them are using professional-grade tools and pushing them to a public that’s potentially limitless in size. But the watermarks suggest they’ve got a different set of priorities than most producers – they’re less concerned with polish than with immediacy and immersion in the moment.

He shows this video from LA dance crew Marvel, Inc. This is one of the groups associated with the “Jerkin'” movement, a street dance associated with a small set of high schools in LA. Dance crews often take their names from comic books and cartoons, hence “Marvel Inc.” Marshall points out that the dances take place in public places, on sidewalks and in traffic-filled streets, and suggests that jerk is about public performance, both “in public places and in places as public as YouTube”. The video is a promotion for them as a crew, and for the music they’re using – the tracks danced to are listed, as is digitaldripped.com, a site that shares links to new hiphop beats and tracks. (The tracks associated with Jerkin’ are usually not available for purchase, Marshall explains – they’re downloads, not traditional releases.) And the video is heavily tagged, not just with the Marvel Inc. name and “jerkin”, but with names of rival crews and other artists associated with the movement. Despite the watermark on the video, other aspects of production and distribution suggest a high degree of care and savvy, creating a non-commercial circulation mechanism intended for their local (and perhaps, global) peers.

Watermarks appear in audio tracks as well. One of the key Jerkin’ tracks is “Buckle My Shoe” by Fly Kidd. Every few seconds, a British female voice announces “AVS Media Demo” in the midst of a catchy track. Marshall has looked for an “original” version of the track without the audio watermark and hasn’t been able to find one. The track used to be available on YouTube, but it’s been taken down, perhaps due to a copyright complaint. Now it’s available on Dailymotion, where you can’t see the video until sitting through a 30-second ad. “These are our public platforms,” Marshall tells us, “riddled with pop-up ads and watermarks”.

These platforms and tools may be rough around the edges, but they’re easy to use and easy to learn. One of the seminal Jerk tracks – “You’re a Jerk” by New Boyz – was produced using Fruity Loops, a commercial software package designed for easy loop creation. (The program offers a downloadable demo, and Marshall tells us that unlicensed and unlocked copies change hands frequently online.) It’s easy to find instructional videos on YouTube that show you how to make hiphop beats in Fruity Loops, which lowers barriers to producing new tracks. The New Boyz put a beat together, added rhymes over it and uploaded the audio track to their MySpace page. People in the Jerkin’ community began making videos of themselves dancing to the song and posting them to YouTube, which allowed the Boyz to track their success by searching YouTube for their names.

You’re unlikely to find a good version of the song this way anymore. The track became so popular that the New Boyz were signed to a small record label, and that label’s parent company (Warner Brothers) evidently asked YouTube to identify videos using the music. You can find the “official” version of the video (above), which has been viewed over 45 million times on YouTube. (I mention that last statistic for those who, like me, hadn’t heard about Jerk and briefly thought we had an insight into underground American youth culture. Little late for that, evidently…) People who’d posted videos using the song were told by YouTube that they either needed to mute the audio or choose another musical track to accompany their videos. That led to some very strange videos like the one below:

This video shows the Action Figures crew dancing to “You’re a Jerk” – it’s one of the videos that helped break the song, and Action Figures are featured in the “official” You’re a Jerk video. But this video now sports a strange, synthesized, neo-tribal beat that’s pretty far from anything the dancers originally performed to. Action Figures get to keep their video up, and perhaps benefit if anyone buys the (dreadful) track they’re now featuring, but the original video, important in popularizing Jerkin’ is now a very different document.

Whole sites and the ecosystems they support can disappear as well. Marshall shows us a screenshot of Jamglue, a site that served as an audio YouTube, allowing you to upload, sequence and remix audio tracks. A search for “Jerkin” revealed 775 mixes and 812 tracks. When the site shut down, not only did the content disappear, but people’s profiles, information on what tracks they’d liked and disliked and other metadata was lost as well. (I suggested to Marshall that there’s an odd parallel to traditional ethnomusicology here. Pioneers like Hugo Zemp spent their careers visiting people whose cultures were in danger of extinction from assimilation or the death of elders and recording their music. Perhaps we’ll start seeing modern ethnomusicologists documenting fragile digital cultures before their extinction.)

If the platforms that support this new music are unstable, Marshall tells us, the peers involved are uneasy. The people building the Jerkin’ scene were using digital tools to communicate with local friends, often people they knew in the “real world”. But the tools they used ensured that their work circulated more widely, which in turn led to some fascinating remixes.

This version – “El Paso del Jerk” – from Panama uses the backing track from “You’re a Jerk” and updates it with a Spanish rap. The accompanying video steals large chunks from the official video, but inserts scenes of Panamanian youth performing the dance steps… and also sporting some of the fashions and cellphones featured in the American video. Marshall sees this as “Panamanian kids inserting themselves into global styles,” demonstrating that they’re part of a global trend, not just in music, but in fashion and style. Marshall notes that it’s harder for YouTube to automatically remove videos like this one – because the track has new vocals, it’s not visible to YouTube’s systems in the same way as slightly distorted versions of the original are.

Other adoption of Jerkin’ are closer to a fusion – “Yaba Daba Du” is a new “Jerk Bow” song that combines aspects of Jerk with “dem bow“, a distinctly Dominican version of Jamaican reggaeton. The dance steps featured in the video include elements that are recognizably from Jerkin’, as well as moves that are clearly local. And you can see elements of Jerkin’ fashion (backpacks, tight jeans, neon colors) meshing with other fashion statements.

The frontiers of this new musical space are being documented in blogs like Dave Quam’s “It’s After the End of the World” and “Ghetto Bassquake“, which document local dance genres around the world: Cumbia, Bubbling, Dancehall, Chicago Dancehall, Jerking, Kuduro and more. This music isn’t generally termed “world music” – it circulates as “global bass music” or “global ghettotech”. Marshall wonders about the motivations in featuring this music, noting that on some blogs it can turn into “flavor of the month”. Generously citing my work, he wonders whether we’ll see more blogs acting as bridges between musical cultures, not just featuring what’s going on in Angola or Panama, but translating and contextualizing. At present, though, that sort of translation doesn’t always happen.

This new musical space challenges the old definitions about “world music” – it’s no longer about the West and the rest, the Global North and Global South, Marshall offers. Jerkin’ can circulate around the world, moving from one “ghetto” to another, whether or not those neighborhoods are actually poor or are simply asserting themselves as part of global urban culture. We need to think through the problems that come from these uneasy peers – how do we understand each other and learn from each other’s adoption and remix of these influences? And how do we solve the problems we face with our platforms. It’s great to celebrate the ways people have worked through and around these constraints, but we also need to address the limitations.


David Weinberger and Jillian York both liveblogged the talk, and did a better job getting down comments and questions than I did, as I was moderating the discussion. And if you’ve got time, you might enjoy the video of the talk and the questions and answers that followed.

I should also mention that Wayne is a tremendous blogger and writes about these issues at length at Wayne and Wax – if you’re interested in what he had to say, you should go there immediately.


There are at least two big ideas I’m deeply interested in that came out in Wayne’s talk, which is why I was so thrilled he joined us at Berkman. First, the issue of corporate control of platforms and its influence on the spread of media is something where lessons from the music world may spread into other realms. You can argue that Wikileaks is, in a weird way, an outgrowth of Napster: once you digitize something, a song or a secret, its spread online may be inevitable. But that spread can be checked by decisions made by people who own the platforms on which we exchange digital information. YouTube might have argued that an original dance video to a copyrighted track could be entitled to a fair use defense and forced copyright holders to challenge “offenders” one by one, rather than building tools for mass content removal. Amazon could have demanded an injunction before ordering Wikileaks off its servers. I don’t mean to suggest a moral equivalence between these actions – I’m far more sympathetic to YouTube than to Amazon here – but it’s worth recognizing that platforms are shaped by corporate decisions, made for business reasons, and that these decisions may not be in the best interests of free speech or free culture. Whether the answer is pressuring corporate actors to change their behavior to protect public forms of expression on their platforms or to build platforms more free of corporate influence isn’t clear to me. But Wayne’s examples are a reminder that these platform constraints can be subtle and far-reaching.

Second, I’m interested in the idea that music might have more mobility in crossing national, linguistic and cultural borders than other forms of media, and as such, I’m pretty fascinated in what global bass music might tell us about cultural adoption, fusion or bridging. I’ve been thinking about encounters between cultures through a lens provided by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their book “Cosmopolitan Communications“. Norris and Inglehart are interested in the question of whether encountering media from other cultures changes ones cultural values. They look at the spread of news and entertainment media across national borders and analyze the World Values Survey to try and determine whether encountering media from other cultures changes local values.

They suggest that four things might happen when we encounter media from another culture:
– We might embrace it and it could overwhelm our local culture. (This is a fear often cited with regards to the spread of US culture – the fear of the McDonaldization of the world – and used to justify cultural protection legislation.)
– We might violently reject the other culture and ban it, as the Taliban has done with aspects of western culture
– We might embrace the outside influences and incorporate them into a hybrid culture, creating something new and interesting, like the majestic Bánh mì sandwich, in my opinion, the tastiest byproduct of European colonialism yet discovered.
– We might encounter the other culture, acknowledge it as different and choose not to incorporate or reject it.

Norris and Inglehart suggest that reaction #4 – which they refer to as “cultural firewalls” – is the most common, which explains why Paris is still Parisian despite the invasion of Ronald McDonald. Good multiculturalist that I am, I’m excited about reaction #3 and am patiently waiting for my local McDonalds to begin serving kelewele with their new Ghanaian Chicken Shitor Din sandwich. Wayne’s stories offer a good chance to test the possible models of cultural influence.

“Jerk Bow” looks a lot like evidence for reaction #3, the fusion of cultures, with LA meeting Jamaica in the Dominican Republic, and perhaps especially in the Dominican neighborhoods in NYC. At the same time, watching videos of Jerk around the world gives some support for outcome #1 – if you think that McDonalds is a powerful cultural force, take a close look at the international spread of the New York Yankees baseball cap. Hiphop, an art form built atop sampling and appropriation is either being appropriated all over the world, or is America’s leading weapon in a battle for global cultural dominance. I’m not sure I buy Wayne’s assertion that we’re beyond “the west and the rest” that categorized some types of world music – it seems like much of the influence in these musical spaces is flowing out from the US into other cultures and not flowing back into American hiphop. (Wayne points out that Mexican teens in the US are getting down to cumbia and Dominiyorkers to dem bow. And he points to MIA as bringing global influence into mainstream US dance music. I remain unconvinced until Kanye drops a Kuduro single.)

Music apparently has superpowers to leap across cultural borders. I listen to Baaba Maal’s Senegalese pop and I hear piano lines from Cuban jazz… which in turn came from West African influences filtered through the American South and cities along the Mississippi. Baaba Maal doesn’t speak Spanish, but he was able to pick up influences from latin jazz records popular in Senegal in the 1960s and 70s – musical influence can spread without the sorts of translation or cultural contextualization that we need to appreciate much media that crosses national borders on the internet. This superpower can be a curse – the ease of sampling means it’s quite possible to fall victim to “flavor of the month”, as Wayne warns, or to using source material badly or unfairly. The same technology that makes Yabba Dabba Du possible allows Deep Forest to appropriate a Solomon Islands lullaby and pass it off as pygmy music from Central Africa.

Wayne’s talk suggests to me that web video has this same sort of superpower. Not only can it convey music, it carries dance and fashion as well. And if we want to know if we’re assimilating, rejecting, fusing or ignoring cultures as they bump against one another, watching youth culture through the lens of YouTube may be our best lab to carry out these experiments.


Counting International Connections on Facebook

My friend Onnik Krikorian has become a Facebook evangelist. Onnik, a Brit of Armenian descent, living in Armenia, is the Global Voices editor for the Caucuses, which means he’s responsible for rounding up blogs from Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan as well as parts of Turkey and Russia. This task is seriously complicated by the long-term tensions in the region. Armenia and Azerbaijan are partisans in a “frozen” conflict – the Nagorno-Karabakh war, which lasted from 1988 – 1994, and remains largely unresolved.

It’s taken Onnik years to build up relationships with bloggers in Azerbaijan, relationships he needs to accurately cover the region. Azeri bloggers are often suspicious of his motives for connecting and wonder whether he’ll cover their thinking and writing fairly. But Onnik tells me that Facebook has emerged as a key space where Azeri and Armenians can interact. “There are no neutral spaces in the real world where we can get to know each other. Facebook provides that space online, and it’s allowing friendships to form that probably couldn’t happen in the physical world.” (Onnik documents some of the conversations taking place between Azeri and Armenian bloggers in a recent post on Global Voices.)

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Graph from the front page of peace.facebook.com

Onnik was talking about his love of Facebook at an event hosted by the US Institute for Peace, where I and colleagues at George Washington University and Columbia were presenting research we’d carried out on the use of social media in conflict situations. Onnik’s hopes for Facebook as a platform for peace were echoed by Adam Conner of Facebook, who showed the company’s new site, Peace on Facebook. The site documents friendships formed between people usually separated by geography, religion or politics. Some of the statistics seem clearly like good news – 29,651 friendships between Indians and Pakistanis per day. Others are rather dispiriting – 974 Muslim/Jewish connections in the past 24 hours.

I’m a data junkie, and there’s little more frustrating to me than an incomplete data set. Basically, by showing us a very small portion of the nation to nation social graph, Facebook is hinting that the whole graph is available: not just how many friendships Indian Facebook users form with Pakistani users, but how many they form with Americans, Canadians, Chinese, other Indians, etc. Obviously, this is info I’m interested in – I’ve been building a critique that argues that usage of social networking tools to build connections between people in the same country vastly outpaces use of these tools to cross national, cultural and religious borders.

Without the whole data set, it’s hard to know whether these numbers are encouraging or not. Are 29,651 Indian/Pakistani connections a lot? Or very few, in proportion to how many connections Indians and Pakistanis make on Facebook in total? In other words, we’ve got the numerator, but not the denominator – if we had a picture of how many connections Indians and Pakistanis make per day, we might have a better sense for whether this is an encouraging or discouraging number.

I made a first pass at this question this morning, using data I was able to obtain online. Facebook tells us that the average user has 130 friends – a number that might be out of date, as the same statistics page lists “over 400 million users”, not the half billion currently being celebrated in the media. (Ideally, we’d like to know how many new friends are added per day so we can compare apples to apples, but you got to war with the data you have…)

We also need a sense for how many Facebook users there are per country. Here, we turn to Nick Burcher who publishes tables of Facebook users per country on a regular basis. Nick tells readers that the data is from Facebook, and the Guardian appears to trust his accounts enough to feature those stats on their technology blog. They are, alas, incomplete – Burcher published stats for the 30 countries with the largest number of Facebook users, and revealed a few more countries in the comments thread on the post.

Because we don’t have data for Pakistan, we can’t answer the India/Pakistan question. But we can offer some analysis for Israel/Palestine and Greece/Turkey.

Facebook for Peace tells us that there are 15,747 connections between Israelis and Palestinians for the past 24 hours. The term “connection” is not clearly defined on the site – it’s not clear whether a reciprocated friendship is 1 connection or 2 – because I’m going to count the number of Israeli friends and Palestinian friends, it makes sense to count a reciprocal friendship as two connections. (If Facebook is counting differently than I am, my numbers are going to be half what they should be.)

3,006,460 Israelis are Facebook users… a pretty remarkable number, as it represents 39.92% of the total population of the nation and roughly 57% of the country’s 5.3 million internet users. There are very few Palestinian internet users – 84,240, or 2.24% of the population… This mostly reflects how few Palestinians are online, as Facebook is used by 21% of Palestine’s 400,000 internet users.

At 3,090,700 Palestinian and Israeli Facebook users, we should see almost 402 million friendships involving an Israeli or a Palestinian. If we extrapolate from 15,747 friendships a day to 5.7 million a year, we’re looking at Israeli/Palestinian friendships representing 1.43% of friendships in the Israeli/Palestinian space… with all sorts of caveats. (The biggest is that the use of a year-long interval to calculate total friendships is totally arbitrary and probably not supportable. If you’ve got better data or a suggestion for a better estimation method, please don’t hesitate to speak up.)

We get very different results from looking at Greece and Turkey. 2,838,700 Greeks are Facebook members (25.11% of the national population), while 22,552,540 Turks (31.08% of the population) are. That’s roughly 3.3 billion friendships projected, and our year-long approximation finds us just over 4 million Greek/Turkish connections. That suggests that only 0.12% of friendships in the pool are Turkish/Greek friendships.

What explains the disparity between these numbers? While there’s certainly a long history of tension between Greece and Turkey, the last major military confrontation between the nations ended in 1922. Israel and Palestine, on the other hand, are involved with an active conflict and Israel’s recent incursion into Gaza ended a few months ago. What gives?

It’s possible that the numerous efforts designed to build friendship between Israeli and Palestinian youth are having an impact, much as Onnik’s work in Armenia and Azerbaijan is showing positive results. But there’s another possibility – 20% of the Israeli population are Arab citizen of Israel, and the majority of this set is of Palestinian origin. It’s certainly possible that the high percentage of Israeli/Palestinian friendship includes a large set of friendships between people of Palestinian origin in Israel and Palestinians… indeed, given the difficulty for both populations in meeting in physical space, we’d expect to see increased use of the internet as a meeting space to compensate for the difficulties of meeting in the physical world. This could be a factor in explaining India/Pakistan friendships as well, as well as Albanian/Serbian friendships, as the emergence of new nations through partition and conflict left groups united by cultures, separated by borders.

My goal in this post isn’t to belittle the power of Facebook for providing a border-transcending space where friendships can be built – Onnik’s story makes it clear that Facebook is a real and powerful tool for good, at least in the Armenian/Azeri space. But I continue to think that we overestimate how many of our online contacts cross borders and underestimate how often these tools are used to reinforce local friendships. I’d invite friends at Facebook to correct my numbers or my math… and mention that we could do a much better job of answering these questions if Facebook would release a data set that shows us all the cross-national connections made on the service.

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Ross Perez has created some great interactive maps that visualize the adoption of Facebook around the world, using Burcher’s data – worth your time.


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.


Makmende’s so huge, he can’t fit in Wikipedia

“After platinum, albums go Makmende”

“They once made a makmende toilet paper, but there was a problem: It wouldn’t take shit from anybody!!!”

“Makmende hangs his clothes on a safaricom line and when they dry he stores them in a flashdisk!”

If those simple truths don’t make sense to you, you’re probably not a Kenyan blogger. For the past few days, Kenya’s blogosphere and twitterers have been in thrall to the latest African superhero, and what might be Kenya’s first viral internet meme. An article in a Wall Street Journal blog today confirmed that Makmende is receiving attention beyond East Africa, demonstrating that our Kenyan friends are just as capable as any Moldovan boy band of creating internet buzz.

The video for Just a Band’s single “Ha-He” features a badass protagonist straight out of blaxploitation films. Armed with an array of freeze-frame kung fu moves, Makmende brings justice to the mean streets of a hazy, sun-drenched city that seems caught somewhere between Nairobi and 1970s LA. Tongue is firmly in cheek, as the video credits introduce characters including “Taste of Daynjah”, “Wrong Number” and bad guys “The Askyua Matha Black Militants”.

archer at Mwanamishale fills the rest of us in on the meaning of the term, Makmende:

Makmende was a term used way back in the early to mid 1990s to refer to someone who thinks hes a superhero. For example, if a boy whos watched one too many kung-fu movies on TV decides to unleash his newly acquired combat skills, he would be asked Unajidai Makmende, eh? (Who do you think you are, Makmende?) Trust me, there was a Makmende in every hood!

Given the high production values of the video, the fact that it accompanies a sweet track from Just a Band, and that the video producers evidently released a set of photoshopped magazine covers featuring Makmende as GQ’s sole “Badass of the Year”, perhaps it’s not surprising that Kenyan netizens have taken the Makmende trend to the next level. He’s got a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a dedicated website filled with thousands of testimonies to his badassitude: “Makmende uses viagra in his eyedrops, just to look hard.”

The obvious parallel is Chuck Norris Facts, an internet meme that manifested mostly through image macros that attest to the action star’s manliness. (“Chuck Norris counted to infinity. Twice.”) For now, the Makmende phenomenon appears to be largely text-based, with Kenyans around the world connecting the events of the day to Makmende’s movements: “is the massive pour in Nairobi as a result of Makmende’s tear after the WSJ feature?”

What he doesn’t have is a Wikipedia page. I searched this morning on the English-language Wikipedia and got a page telling me that Makmende had been deleted:

* 00:37, 24 March 2010 Flyguy649 (talk | contribs) deleted “Makmende” ? (CSD G3: Pure Vandalism)
* 22:53, 23 March 2010 Malik Shabazz (talk | contribs) deleted “Makmende” ? (G12: Unambiguous copyright infringement (CSDH))
* 18:30, 23 March 2010 JoJan (talk | contribs) deleted “Makmende” ? (G1: Patent nonsense, meaningless, or incomprehensible)

Looks like multiple attempts to establish a Makmende page have been shot down. Fair enough – the inclusionist/deletionist argument that’s gripped Wikipedia centers in part on the documentation of ephemeral culture. Perhaps an English language encyclopedia doesn’t need mention of every internet meme… though pages exist for Numa Numa, the song that inspired the viral video, the guy who performed in the viral video, and so on. Perhaps if Makmende reaches the heights of internet fame that memes like Eduard Khil or Back Dorm Boys have achieved, he’ll no longer be “patent nonsense, meaningless or incomprehensible.”

Here’s an interesting puzzle for Wikipedia. Makmende may never become particularly important to English speaking users outside of Kenya. But the phenomenon’s quite important within the Kenyan internet: it’s the first meme I can remember going truly viral and inspiring a wave of participation from Kenyans around the world. I recall a conversation at 2006 Wikimania in Cambridge where (friend and GV editor) Ndesanjo Macha, a major contributor to the Swahili Wikipedia, explained that the topics covered in that wikipedia were likely to be different from those included in the English wikipedia. (More articles on east African culture, less on Pokemon, perhaps.) Indeed, the Wikipedias in Gaelic, Welsh and Plattdtsch are cultural projects as much as attempts to make key reference materials available, as most speakers of these languages are fluent in other languages that have much larger Wikipedias.

Most Wikipedians seemed to accept the idea that different languages and cultures might want to include different topics in their encyclopedias. But what happens when we share a language but not a culture? Is there a point where Makmende is sufficiently important to English-speaking Kenyans that he merits a Wikipedia page even if most English-speakers couldn’t care less? Or is there an implicit assumption that an English-language Wikipedia is designed to enshrine landmarks of shared historical and cultural importance to people who share a language?

For me, Makmende’s a reminder that the internet isn’t as small and connected as we tend to believe it is. We occasionally catch glimpses over cultural walls when we use these tools. Sometimes we respond with fascination and seek to learn more. Often, our behavior’s not as admirable. danah boyd closed her talk on Digital Visibility at Supernova this past year with an uncomfortable observation about racism in Twitter:

Think of those who complained when the Trending Topics on Twitter reflected icons of the black community during the Black Entertainment Television awards. Tweets like: “wow!! too many negros in the trending topics for me. I may be done with this whole twitter thing.” and “Did anyone see the new trending topics? I don’t think this is a very good neighborhood. Lock the car doors kids.” and “Why are all the black people on trending topics? Neyo? Beyonce? Tyra? Jamie Foxx? Is it black history month again? LOL”. These tweets should send a shiver down your spine. Perhaps these people assumed that Twitter was a white-dominant space where blacks were welcome only if they were a minority.

danah goes on to point out that not everyone reacts to encountering topics outside of their comfort sphere with shock or surprise. I found it encouraging that the Wall Street Journal saw the emergence of a Kenyan meme as a chance to explore Kenyan internet culture rather than to turn away in ignorance or disinterest. Let’s hope the next time Makmende seeks a place in Wikipedia, he’s met with a bit more curiosity and less dismissal.


Roughly six seconds after I posted this piece, Twitter users reported a new version of the Makmende article on WIkipedia. Here’s hoping this one survives summary deletion…!


Asashoryu resigns. Will sumo ever globalize?

Here’s a story I missed while I was out with eye surgery: Asashoryu, one of the greatest sumo wrestlers in history, has retired. And needless to say, for anyone who follows sumo: it’s not quite that simple as that. Indeed, this retirement might lead to an international falling out between Mongolia and Japan. And it provides an opportunity for reflection on the challenges the sumo world – and, perhaps, Japan as a whole – faces in an era of globalization.

Since 2003, Asashoryu – born Dolgorsurengiin Dagvadorj in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, has competed in Japanese sumo as a yokozuna, the highest achievable rank in the sport. He’s won 25 tournaments, giving him the third highest win total in the history of the sport, and in 2005, he won each of the six tournaments, an unprecedented feat. Given his success, you might think he’d be celebrated as a pillar of the sumo world. You’d be wrong.

Asashoryu’s got some strikes against him with potential Japanese fans. His rap sheet is almost as long as his list of tournament wins. His “crimes” range from violations of sumo’s strict laws of decorum, to real transgressions. Here’s how I explained his complex image in sumo the last time he trangressed – leading to an unprecedented two-tournament suspension:

Lets imagine for a moment that youre Asashoryu, the sole yokozuna in sumo for three and a half years, a near-unbeatable champion of a sport that demands not just physical prowess, but ritual stoicism and dignity. You report an injury from the most recent tournament in Nagoya, where you won your 21st Emperors cup, and return to your native Mongolia to recouperate from your injuries. Then you appear in a charity soccer game in Mongolia, apparently well enough to run around on the field. Obviously, youre a faker, a fraud, a charlatan, who deserves punishment, either by losing your rank (which would mean retirement from the sport) or by being suspended from tournaments.

Okay, now lets pretend that youre a 26 year-old Mongolian named Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj. You live and work in Japan, where people loathe you. Youre constantly accused of participating in match fixing, which seems a bit odd as you win almost all your matches shouldnt they be accusing your opponents of throwing matches and complaining about their lack of honor? Youre criticized for transgressions real and imagined being “too aggressive” and “staring too hard” at opponents in a sport that demands that you throw them to the ground or out of the ring, but also for pulling hair and for scraps with fellow wrestlers outside the ring. Your appearance at bars is the subject of constant tabloid headlines. And youve got a temper, which complicates matters.

On the other hand, youre a national hero in your native Mongolia, and unsurprisingly you do your best to spend as much time there are possible. Despite recouperating from a back injury, friends ask you to take the field with Japanese soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata at an event designed to promote soccer in Mongolia. When this causes a shitstorm in Japan, the Mongolian embassy formally apologizes on your behalf…

Unfortunately, Asa’s most recent (alleged) transgression was more serious than an ill-advised foortball match. Japanese tabloids report that Asashoryu got quite drunk in a nightclub during the January basho and beat up someone who’s been variously identified as a fellow patron, a nightclub employee, the bartender, the bar owner… Asashoryu hasn’t commented on the incident, except to say that the reports of the incident were “quite different” than what actually occured. Faced with a likely ban from the sport, he resigned and will be allowed a formal retirement ceremony… and will recieve a retirement allowance of over $1m USD.

I was pissed off at the Japan Sumo Association when they suspended Asa for playing football in Mongolia. I’m more sympathetic to their decision here… but I’m deeply saddened. I’m sad not just that I won’t get to see Asa shatter the record for tournament wins (the conspiracy theory in the Mongolian community says that JSA had to find a pretext to eject Asa before he surpassed records held by Japanese yokozuna). I’m sad that sumo and Asa couldn’t find a way to work together to allow the most talented man in the sport to continue a record-setting career.

I don’t pretend to understand all the nuances of sumo decorum, but it always seemed to me that some aspect of Asa’s uneasy status in sumo circles had to do with his strong Mongolian identity. Non-Japanese have been a part of sumo for decades, and some have been embraced by Japanese fans… though generally to the same extent that they embraced Japanese culture. Hakuho, Asashoryu’s primary rival the past few years and fellow yokozuna, is also from Mongolia, but has been far more widely accepted in Japanese sumo circles, perhaps because he’s more soft-spoken and modest, perhaps because he married a Japanese girlfriend (a decision which angered some of his Mongolian fans.)

Geoff Dean has a thoughtful essay that tries to predict the future for Asashoryu. He notes that most retired rikishi look for work in the wider world of sumo: “He can become a stable master, open a sumo restaurant, become a sumo commentator, or in some way, stay connected to the sumo world.” That’s probably not an option for Asa. Instead, he might follow Akebono, a Hawaiian-born yokozuna, into the mixed martial arts and into less-dignified corners of Japanese pop culture. Underlying Dean’s essay is the point that former non-Japanese sumo wrestlers often have a better opportunity to maintain their status and fame by staying in Japan after their sumo careers have ended. It’s hard for me to imagine Asa doing this – I think it’s more likely that he’ll find a way to stay in combat sports while being based in his homeland.

Dean observes that the most recent golden age of sumo occurred when a Japanese yokozuna – Takanohana – faced off against foreign yokozuna Akebono. This could happen again if Kotomitsuki – one of two Japanese ozeki – makes a run for promotion to join Hakuho as yokozuna. (The other Japanese ozeki – Kaio – is older than I am and will retire soon.) But the real story of sumo this past decade has been the rise of foreign rikishi into the highest ranks – Hakuho (Mongolian, yokozuna), Harumafuju (Mongolian, ozeki), Kotooshu (Bulgarian, ozeki), Baruto (Estonian, sekiwake). There are some Japanese sumo fans who aren’t excited about the idea of a Mongolian/Bulgarian rivalry at the top of the sport. I attended the April basho in Tokyo a few years back and was stunned to see fans handing out colorful photos emblazoned with the image of Japanese ozeki Chiyotaikai… but no one handing out anything featuring the higher-ranked yokozuna, Asashoryu.

Writing in Forbes, Tim Kelly sees sumo’s resistance to accepting Asashoryu and other foreign competitors as a symptom of larger problems associated with a closed society: “Japan, like sumo, is closed, preferring to persevere through depopulation and economic stagnation rather than open its borders to the stimulus offered by opportunity-hungry foreigners. What they choose to ignore is that Japan is running out of money, people and ideas.” He makes that case that Japan needs to increase immigration to spur the Japanese economy and cultivate creativity, and suggests a good first step would be to figure out how to get used to controversial outsiders like Asa, rather than expelling him.

I’m not able to make sweeping generalizations about the Japanese economy or offer as strong a prescription as Kelly does for Japanese society. I will say that I’ve been very proud as a Red Sox fan of the way my team and its fanbase have embraced our two Japanese stars, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima. Shortly after the Sox paid an unbelievable sum of money to negotiate with Matsuzaka, local sportswriters started referring to the new star as “Dice-K”, a nickname designed to help Boston fans correctly pronounce the unfamiliar Japanese name. (I’d love to figure out whether the team started this practice, or whether a clever sportwriter came up with it.) The Red Sox played regular season games in Japan in 2008, and there’s now a third Japanese pitcher – Junichi Tazawa – on the Sox roster. It’s routine to see Sox fans in Fenway sporting Matsuzaka shirts in Fenway with the pitcher’s name written in Hiragana.

Things could have gotten very ugly for Matsuzaka in Boston this past year. He had a lousy season, in part because he showed up for spring training nursing injuries from the World Baseball Classic, where he’d represented Japan and won the MVP trophy (and beat the US in the semifinal round.) Boston was pretty sympathetic, actually – I heard more commentary about the danger of the Baseball Classic for all MLB players than I did specific criticism of Dice-K.

I don’t mean to offer a facile comparison between Boston (which has its own complex history of racism and xenophobia to live down) and Japan and suggest that one’s open and the other closed. What I’ll say instead is that baseball’s become a global sport by embracing players from around the world at its highest level, the MLB. (And not just players – Ecuadorian radio personality Jaime Jarrin is a genuine celebrity in LA as the Spanish-language radio voice of the LA Dodgers.) Sumo could become a global sport by similarly embracing and celebrating this new wave of Asian and European talent. Instead, they’ve banned a pair of Russian wrestlers for alleged drug use and hounded the most talented man in a generation out of the sport. Not a great moment for sumo cosmopolitanism.


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