The LOLs of Nations: Understanding Global Memes
A Panel Proposal for SXSW Interactive in 2014
Global memes add snark and commentary to politics. Memes have helped citizens around the world express political support and dissent: from the meme that helped a cat run for office in Mexico, to the goats that lampooned government corruption in Uganda, to the Myanmar kitten that people used to protest the cost of cellphone service. Many memes stay within their culture, but advice animals, lolcats, and rage comics often get re-purposed in surprising ways outside their origin. What are the barriers for cross cultural memes to spread, and what is special about the ones that do? How are goat and cat memes an easier mechanism for people to begin to engage with international politics in an attempt to understand the LOLs?
We have been following these international internet memes phenomena closely and if you vote for us, we will present and discuss our findings at the next SXSW Interactive. Memes have been playing a growing role in multiple world contexts, a new technique in the repertoire of political expression available to citizens around the world.
To understand memes, we must go back to the ideas inception. The term, as almost everyone now knows, is a portmanteau allegedly first used by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkin. Originally the idea of the meme – a combination of a gene and mimic — was a bit of culture such as ideas, actions, or symbols that can move and become embedded in humans exceptionally well. Like a virus, memes were exceptional at crossing common barriers like language, race, or class. Dawkins was talking about a symbol like the star of david, or a Christmas carol which much of the world would instantly recognize and effortlessly share or partake in.
The idea of the meme was perfectly suited for what many techno-utopians believed the internet was going to become. The early internet, as rudimentary list-serves and Bulletin Board Systems were aflutter with idealism about the liberating potential of a global communication structure. How could wars, racism, nationalism, and other issues continue when the internet connected us all together? The future of the internet was heralded as a dawn of a new peaceful age of understanding.
So, how did that dream weather the exponential embracing of the internet into most westerner’s homes and into many of the world’s citizen’s pockets? While much of online platforms mirror the small and insular networks offline we thought we were escaping when we entered the digital world, to our techno-utopians’ dismay, much of our groupings followed us online. Homophily seen in geographic, ideological, ethnic, and linguistic barriers are stubbornly following us to the digital sphere. As much of the world is coming online, we have found the networked space increasingly policed by large governments, defined by corporate entities like Facebook, the linguistic barriers we felt offline stubbornly remain online. We brought all of our societal woes with us even as we become more and more connected.
For this panel, we plan to discuss the role of memes in this sphere, and how memes reflect local social and political contexts. Here are some of the questions we plan to address:
- What are some of the most popular internet memes outside the U.S.
- How are internet memes used for political dissent and support internationally?
- How do internet memes travel across borders and cultures?
- How do internet memes function an alternative discussion channel parallel to other media?
- How does U.S. “memeperialism” look like elsewhere in the world? why are US memes still so pervasive outside the US… or are they?
Please vote for us before 11:59 pm on September 6th!
Elena Agapie is a researcher in Human Computer Interaction. Elena received a Masters in Computer Science from Harvard University in 2013. She researches how we can enhance user interfaces to encourage better user behavior. Elena is particularly interested in how technology can help people overcome their biases and engage with more diverse information. Elena has been researching how people interact with opinions online, in news and through memes. Her work has been done in collaboration with the MIT Center for Civic Media and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. More recently Elena has done work in information retrieval and visualization at JPL/NASA and Fuji Xerox Palo Alto Research Lab. In 2011 Elena worked in Jerusalem supporting collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian high school students
J. Nathan Matias collaborates on technology and communities which empower people to become more creative, more effective, and more informed. He currently research and designs technology for cooperation across diversity at the MIT Center for Civic Media. Recent projects have included technology to measure and change women’s representation in the media, grassroots electricity markets in Kenya, and creative attribution online. He also facilitate @1book140, The Atlantic’s Twitter book club.
Nathan is a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Royal Society of Arts. Before joining MIT, Nathan participated in a series of UK tech startups and charities, including SwiftKey, The Ministry of Stories, and Dressipi.
Andrés Monroy-Hernández is a researcher in FUSE Labs at Microsoft Research. His work focuses on the study and design of social computing systems for creative collaboration and civic empowerment. Andrés has been recognized for his work examining the use of social media during war and political uprisings; and for creating the Scratch Online Community—a website where millions of young people learn to program and remix video games and animations. He is also the co-founder of Sana—a mobile healthcare system for the developing world. Andres was named one of the 35 Innovators under 35 by the MIT Technology Review (Spanish), and one of Boston’s Emerging Leaders by the Boston Business Journal. His work has been awarded at Ars Electronica, the MacArthur Digital Media & Learning Competition, received best paper awards at CSCW and ICWSM, and featured in The New York Times, CNN, Wired, NPR, and El País, among others.Andrés holds a PhD from the MIT Media Lab, and a bachelor’s from the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico.
Ben Valentine is a Strategist and Contributing Author for the Civic Beat as well as a freelance cultural critic, curator and creator based in San Francisco. He recently organized “Global Space”, a groundbreaking exhibition for the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art on the changing face of the individual in a neoliberal and networked world. Ben also co-curated the world’s first Tumblr Art Symposium, which included commissioned essays, panelists, an exhibition on the visual networked culture forming all over the world, especially on Tumblr. His writing has appeared on Hyperallergic, Idiom Mag, Salon, and C-Monster. He is currently preparing for a residency at the Internet Archive in San Francisco and working on building a Spanish and English Twitter translation platform.