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“From Weird to Wide”

Ethan Zuckerman
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The fundamental question of development economics, my late mentor Dick Sabot taught me, is simple to formulate and hard to answer: “Why are some people wealthy and some people poor?” Why is the Democratic Republic of Congo, blessed with valuable minerals and timber, desperately poor, while resource-constrained Singapore is well off? (Birdsall, Ross, and Sabot 1995). In Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), geographer Jared Diamond suggests that the natural environment is destiny: people who had access to easily domesticated crops and animals were able to generate food surpluses and build complex cultures, while those less fortunate had to focus more on survival than on constructing complex societies. Looking toward the more recent past, statistician Hans Rosling (2009) sees reason to blame slow development on colonialism, observing that many postcolonial societies are only now showing improvements in life expectancy seen in colonial powers in the early twentieth century. Economist Paul Collier, in The Bottom Billion (2007), places the blame on bad governance, arguing that governments which find it more profitable to rob their coffers than to build infrastructure are doomed to underdevelopment.

We might think of these as helpful, but incomplete, answers to the question of uneven development. There’s another set of unhelpful answers that center around the idea that certain peoples are inherently, biologically smarter than others. This idea gained traction in the middle of the nineteenth century as racial anthropology or “scientific racism.” More recently, a variation on the idea has emerged in the pseudoscientific study of associations between IQ scores and race in books such as The Bell Curve by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994). Critiques of Herrnstein and Murray’s association between IQ and race point out that massive differences in educational opportunities available to rich and poor people might explain these different test scores (Jacoby and Glauberman 1995). The time I’ve spent traveling in the developing world suggests that it’s dangerous to discount the significance of opportunity. In societies where daily survival is a struggle, it can be very difficult to tell who’s a genius.

My work over the past two decades in sub-Saharan Africa has convinced me that intelligence, creativity, and humor are evenly distributed throughout the world. People’s ability to express their intelligence, creativity, and humor are heavily dependent on local circumstances, and the odds that we will even encounter these traits across barriers of language, nation, and culture are profoundly constrained by infrastructure, geography, and interest.

One of the great potentials of the Internet is the possibility of encountering cultural expression from any (sufficiently connected) corner of the globe (Rheingold 1993). If humor and creativity are evenly distributed on a global scale, we might anticipate encountering creative new content as people in different parts of the world gain Internet access. And this brings us to the topic at hand: the global distribution of Internet memes.

Since the early 1990s, a particular form of participatory cultural expression has gained traction with Internet users. Internet memes are viral ideas that invite remix and redistribution, most often by people unconnected to the idea’s original author. The rise of sites that track Internet memes allows us to explore whether some countries are more likely to generate memes than others.

As of mid-2010, the website Know Your Meme’s database features more than 3,000 memes, many of which are tagged with their nation of origin. At least 169 memes had emerged from Japanese Internet users, 29 from Australians, 23 from Germans, and 20 from the French. But memes aren’t solely a feature of countries that have long had widespread popularization of the Internet. The BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—are often grouped together by economists because they have large, rapidly growing economies and are expected to be dominant future actors on the world stage. Memetically, the BRICs are beginning to pull their weight. On Know Your Meme, they are collectively responsible for at least 100 memes, including gems such as Brother Sharp (犀利哥), a stylish-looking homeless man from Ningbo, China, who is often Photoshopped into movie posters as a heartthrob film star, and “Golimar,” a 1985 Tegulu-language remake of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video that has been remixed with English mondegreen subtitles.

Until recently, a map of global Internet memes would have shown an uncharted African continent. All that changed in March 2010, when Nairobi-based “experimental boy band” Just A Band released its video for “Ha-He,” a single from its second album, 82. Starting with the band’s first album in 2008, Just A Band releases have been accompanied with beautifully designed and shot music videos, posted on YouTube on the “justabandwidth” account, made primarily by band members Jim Chuchu, a designer and filmmaker, and Dan Muli, an animator. The video for “Ha-He” included the striking images and lush cinematography that fans had come to expect of the band. But it contained a key additional ingredient: a highly remixable Kenyan superhero, Makmende.

The “Ha-He” video announces itself as “Weekend Movie,” and the five-minute clip is a compact 1970s-esque Blaxploitation film featuring a karate-kicking badass, Makmende. After each feat of strength, we see a Day-Glo freeze-frame titled “Makmende Amerudi.” “Amerudi” is Swahili for “returns”; the origins of the term “Makmende” are more complicated. In the 1980s, Clint Eastwood films were popular in Nairobi, and one of his most famous characters, Dirty Harry, had a catchphrase—“Go ahead, make my day”—which was shortened to “Makmende” and used as a term for unruly boys who wouldn’t stop showing off their karate moves. “Makmende Amerudi” announces the return of the imaginary childhood action star, grown up and ready to rumble, a distinctly Kenyan superhero firmly rooted in 1970s American culture.

In the most iconic shot of the video, Makmende takes a red tie from his fallen assailant and ties it like a hachimaki headband below his Afro. Chuchu and his bandmates remixed this image into a set of magazine covers, where Makmende appears as GQ’s “Badass of the Year” and Esquire’s “Favorite Hero of All Time.” By using remixing in its own work, Just A Band encouraged fans to do the same. The Kenyan blogosphere quickly obliged, and remixers contributed a 10,000 Kenyan shilling note (about US$123 at the time) featuring Makmende, several movie posters and magazine covers, and the cover of the Kenyan school system’s Primary Mathematics textbook remixed as “Primary Makmende’tics”—all featuring Makmende in his iconic pose.

Kenya has at least 15,000 Twitter users (Southwood 2010), and many used the 140-character medium to share the message of Makmende. Messages such as “They tried to make a Makmende toilet paper, but there was a problem: it wouldn’t take shit from anyone” or “Makmende doesn’t cheat death—he wins fair and square” may sound familiar to anyone who’s followed Internet memes such as “Chuck Norris Facts,” a series of testimonials about that American karate champion and movie star’s improbable powers. Other Makmende tweets showed a familiarity with U.S. popular culture: “When Makmende wants a massage, he asks Jack Bauer to torture him.” And others have a distinctly Kenyan flair: “Makmende bit a mosquito and it died of malaria” and “Makmende hangs his clothes on a Safaricom line to dry”—a line that’s funnier if you know that Safaricom, Kenya’s leading mobile phone network, doesn’t maintain any wired telephone lines.

Most ambitious were the video remixes. In one inspired by the 1999 U.S. horror film The Blair Witch Project, a pair of Kenyan TV reporters track Makmende to his apartment, where the superhero assaults them and destroys their camera. And one remixer brought Makmende into one of the most popular video memes, the “Hitler Finds Out” meme. In the meme, remixers add their own humorous subtitles to a scene from the 2004 German-language film Downfall, starring Bruno Ganz as Hitler in his bunker in the final days of the Third Reich. In the remixed scenes, Hitler’s meltdown about his military defeats are turned instead into rants on a wide range of topics, in this case, about his fury at discovering that Makmende is marching into Germany and that no one warned him.

If Kenyan remixers were reaching out to the global Internet meme community with a “Hitler Finds Out” remix, their overtures were not immediately requited. Makmende’s fans tried to create a Wikipedia entry for the superhero, but their first three attempts were rapidly deleted by editors. One was deleted because the article was little more than a joke. The other two were legitimate attempts at an article which were deleted for presumptive copyright violation and for lack of notability (Klein 2010). Similar attempts to enter Makmende into Know Your Meme’s database also failed—he was quickly “deadpooled” because Know Your Meme contributors could find no evidence on the sites they visited that Makmende was being remixed.

Know Your Meme’s participants were looking in the wrong places—Makmende wasn’t being remixed on 4chan and reddit but in Kenyan blogs and forums that they were generally unaware of. Wikipedia was persuaded of Makmende’s importance when the phenomenon was written about in a Wall Street Journal blog (Vinograd 2010), and Know Your Meme reexamined the meme after I gave a presentation on Makmende at ROFLCon, an annual conference on Internet memes (Zuckerman 2010). In both cases, the idea that Makmende was Kenya’s first Internet meme was a critical part of inclusion in these compendia. Legitimation by mainstream media allowed Makmende to be included in these sites, which in turn legitimated him in the eyes of global Internet culture.

The rise of Makmende in Kenya and his struggle for acceptance on the broader Internet raises uncomfortable questions about Internet culture. Who gets to decide what is and what isn’t accepted as an Internet meme? Who’s able to participate in and play along with these memes? When we encounter memes from other cultures online, are we acting as bouncers, keeping the unworthy jokes out of our databases? Or are we acting as cultural anthropologists, striving to understand and contextualize what’s occurring in another culture?

Many of the Internet memes that have crossed cultural lines use common media starting points to allow participation. The Back Dorm Boys were a pair of Guangzhou Arts Institute students, Wei Wei (韋煒) and Huang Yixin (黃藝馨), who posted online videos of themselves lip-syncing to Western and Eastern pop songs. In a widely circulated 2005 video, they lip-synced The Backstreet Boys’ song “I Want It That Way.” Wearing Yao Ming Houston Rockets jerseys and accompanying their performance with overly dramatic gestures, their video offered ample opportunities for remix. Around the world, pairs of lip-syncers donned similar attire and hammed it up for the camera, making fun both of the pop songs and of the Chinese students’ remixes. Since The Back Dorm Boys’ videos were an obvious parody, the re-remixes read as being in the same spirit as the original remixes.

Not all cross-cultural remixes manage to “laugh with,” as The Back Dorm Boys–inspired videos do—often we end up “laughing at.” “Engrish” refers to a category of humor sites that laugh at English mangled by speakers of East Asian languages, usually on signs or menus. While many of the examples offered on a site such as Engrish.com are very funny, the humor is based on laughing at someone else’s ignorance. Fortunately, turnabout is fair play, and sites featuring Westerners with tattoos that portray Chinese characters that have either nonsensical or embarrassing meanings are now becoming popular.

Perhaps the hardest challenge in an online space is not moving from laughing at to laughing with but moving from ignoring something to engaging with and learning about it. Matt Harding shot to Internet fame in 2005 with a web video titled “Where the Hell Is Matt?” In the video, Harding does a (goofy) dance in locations around the globe. The video became a viral hit and transformed Harding’s life, turning him into a professional traveler and videographer, sponsored by Stride Gum and by VISA. The soundtrack for the first two videos he produced was Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby,” an international dance hit with a troubled history. The French composers of the song used a sample of a lullaby from the Solomon Islands without permission or credit to either Afunakwa, the woman who sang the song, or Hugo Zemp, the ethnomusicologist who recorded it. As Matt learned about the story behind “Sweet Lullaby,” he resolved to release future videos using original, properly credited music. And he traveled to the Solomon Islands to interview Afunakwa’s surviving family members about the song. His dance videos have been watched many thousands of times more than the interview with Afunakwa’s family, but Harding (2007) indicated he considered the story so important that he intended another Solomon Islands trip to explore the story in more detail. In 2011, he returned to the Solomon Islands, met with Afunakwa’s descendants, and set up a fund to support their educational expenses.

While encouraging people to move from laughing at to laughing with, or from encounter to understanding, may seem like a laudable but trivial goal, there’s a deeper political agenda behind the idea. As governments move to control speech on the Internet, local content regulations and Internet filtering regimes threaten to turn the Internet from a shared, multinational space into a fragmented, nationalized space. Already, the Internet looks like a very different place from within China than from the outside. It’s not just the “Great Firewall,” which prevents access to a wide range of content. Indigenous Chinese social media platforms host the majority of Chinese-language conversations, rather than tools such as Facebook and YouTube that are used throughout much of the rest of the world. A fragmented Internet is easier to monitor, control, and censor—Chinese authorities are able to block access to sites outside China and to exert control over online speech on sites hosted by domestic companies.

If the only reason for a Chinese Internet user to seek out content from a banned site is political, it’s easier for an authoritarian regime to justify censorship. If Chinese users are seeking access to YouTube because they want to participate in the culture of remixing Internet memes, it’s much harder to deny access on political grounds. Block Human Rights Watch, and the government alienates a small group of activists. Block people from participating in a global game remixing The Back Dorm Boys, and a much larger audience may decide to find ways to circumvent Internet censorship (Zuckerman 2008).

Transnational culture requires transnational platforms. To the extent that online culture becomes isolated to a single country—Americans participating only in American memes, Chinese only in Chinese memes—there’s less incentive to seek a governance structure for the Internet that accommodates all participating nations, not just the interests of a single nation. In this framing, perhaps finding ways to laugh at Kenyan Internet memes and to participate in the process of remix isn’t just about encountering a wider, weirder world. It’s about ensuring we build an Internet that allows cross-cultural contact to take place, whether the content is as politically heavy as a protest movement or as light as a LOLcat.

 

References

Birdsall, Nancy, David Ross, and Richard Sabot. 1995. “Inequality and Growth Reconsidered: Lessons from East Asia.” World Bank Economic Review 9 (3): 477–508.

Collier, Paul. 2007. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done about It. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton.

Harding, Matt. 2007. “Where the Hell Is Afunakwa?” Video at mattharding2718’s YouTube channel. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiHTh6NnoWo.

Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.

Jacoby, Russell, and Naomi Glauberman, eds. 1995. The Bell Curve Debate: History, Documents, Opinions. New York: Times Books.

Klein, SJ. 2010. Comment on Ethan Zuckerman, “Makmende’s So Huge, He Can’t Fit in Wikipedia.” My Heart’s in Accra (blog), March 24. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2010/03/24/makmendes-so-huge-he-cant-fit-in-wikipedia/#comment-1974067.

Rheingold, Howard. 1993. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Rosling, Hans. 2009. “Let My Dataset Change Your Mindset.” Talk at TED@State in Washington DC, June 3. Available at http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_at_state.html.

Southwood, Russell. 2010. “Two Snippets.” Tweet from @BalancingActAfr on Twitter. http://twitter.com/BalancingActAfr/status/8949317456887808.

Vinograd, Cassandra. 2010. “Kenya Launches Country’s First Viral Music Video.” Speakeast (blog), Wall Street Journal, March 24. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2010/03/24/kenya-launches-countrys-first-viral-music-video/.

Zuckerman, Ethan. 2008. “The Cute Cat Theory Talk at ETech.” My Heart’s in Accra (blog), March 8. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/03/08/the-cute-cat-theory-talk-at-etech/.

———. 2010. “ROFLCon: From Weird to Wide.” My Heart’s in Accra (blog), May 5. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2010/05/03/roflcon-from-weird-to-wide/.

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