LIVEBLOG: The Future of the World Weird Web

Posted on April 30, 2010 by Alex Leavitt
Categories: Alex, Liveblog

The Future of the World Weird Web

Ethan Zuckerman (Berkman Center for Internet and Society)
danah boyd (Microsoft Research)

When ChatRoulette allowed a new generation of internet users to anonymously heckle, flash, offend – and occasionally build meaningful connections with – each other, old-skool net watchers wondered, “Does this mean that the ‘net is weird again?” In this talk, they will resist the urge to wax nostalgic about the past, but they will use ancient net culture to help ask some serious questions about what’s happened to weird. Researcher extraordinaire danah boyd will look at what’s happened as internet culture has been legitimated and validated, exploring how we maintain a hacker’s mindset about the internet – and the world as a whole – now that our tools and methods are no longer obscure. International man of mystery Ethan Zuckerman will ask who in the world gets to shape internet culture in a globalized age as he wonders whether we’ll end up LOLing together at Kenyan netmemes or LOLing at the incomprehensible and other.

Recorded by: @flourish & @wphillips49
Edited by: @alexleavitt

NOTE: This is not a full transcription of the panel. If you have any corrections, please contact alex@roflcon.org.

Ethan Zuckerman

This is a weird way to start the conference, because you are not coming to see the academics. Academics are less fun than people who do cool things online.
I used to be a musicologist, and you study Bach, and you realize no matter what you do you are never going to write a rockin’ fugue. And at some point you go “Why the hell am I doing this?”
Academics will never create the mystery and wonder of the things that people who aren’t academics make.

Interested in community uses of tech, tech within impoverished communities. Why are some people really, really rich? Why are others really, really poor? Most of the answers are based in history. Bad answers are answers that postulate some human beings are smart and others are dumb. This used to be “eugenics” and now we call it the bell curve. What’s interesting is looking at how cool shit comes from every corner of the globe.

Who has tech, who uses tech, who doesn’t, based on who goes where, and who has economic advantages?

Malawian man, William: wanted to listen to radio, so he just made one.
I’m interested in what happens when we get to the point where people like William, who are utterly brilliant, suddenly have the chance to be brilliant in front of the world.
Challenges the bell curve idea about technology

Transitions to: “Daddy, where do memes come from?”

Where do memes come from?
Normally when we look at where memes come from we look at maps. (Gulf of YouTube, then an image of who puts out memes)
Data from “Know Your Meme”: looking at who/what generates memes, and where

Memetic creativity depends on how long internet has been available/widely available
Brazil/Russia/India/China: BRIC countries going to rule the world: memes emerge from these BRIC areas
As we start thinking about memes, we discover that BRIC countries are putting out a lot of memes: Golimar/India, Brother Sharp/China, Tenso/Brazil, Glazasok/Russia

If we look at world/meme map, we see there are few memes in Africa. As an Africanist, I am deeply troubled by that white spot in the middle of the map and I’m here to tell you that Africans are fighting back.

The first meme that I know of out of Kenya called “Makmende Amerudii”
Makmende is halfway between Shaft and Kanye West. He always gets the girl, etc.
He’s the face of modern Kenya mixed with blaxploitation films and he swept through the Kenyan blogosphere.

The first thing we had to figure out: what the hell does Makmende mean?”
It was used to refer to the guy who thinks he’s a ninja in Nigeria. This means “Makmende is coming back.” Everyone thought it came out of Swahili/English slang but it turns out it came from “Make My Day!” Makmende has been remixed onto the currency, the band who made it (Just A Band) is behind all these remixes so quickly we started seeing videos taking off on Makmende – Makmende meeting the Blair Witch Project.
Also: Hitler Downfall Makmende mixes (And yet Makmende has managed to not get taken down from Youtube)
Makmende stuff mainly happens on Makmende.com (Chuck Norris with an African twist)

Reminds me of hedgehogs
Lexicographers, anthropologists of words: What are the words people are actually using?
Clearly internet memes work in the same way as words: if nobody uses it, it doesn’t have life; if they do, it does. And it doesn’t matter what anybody else says – except it kind of matters what Wikipedia says.

So one of the first things Kenyans did was make sure that they got the Makmende Wikipedia entry summary deleted. Part of it was the people editing Wikipedia going “What the hell are you talking about?” What they had to do was say “This is our first internet meme, this is our thing.” But it got deadpooled immediately and now we’re hoping someone will revive it… but the point is there is a danger that we are keeping things like Makmende out of the whole meme thing?

Cultural context means that Makmende isn’t really easily remixable by non-Kenyans.
What memes can everyone enjoy? Ones that are already cross-culturally famous.
F’rex, the Backdoor Boys. We all feel comfortable remixing goofy Backstreet Boys songs because they are so internationally famous. (The global embrace of goofy identities.)

One question: “Is there one internet or are there many?”
One of the things we’re worried about is China, which has blocked off big chunks of the internet that we all care about. It’s hard to get to YouTube, but you can get to YouKu… Different protocols = different Internets

China has bridged the cute cat gap! They have cute cat dominance! And they have cats flushing toilets! Not just western-style toilets, but also pit toilets! They’re far ahead of us in cute cat technology!

Usually we don’t lol at Chinese lolcats and they don’t lol at ours… which is problematic! Someday we may actually end up with internets that aren’t talking to each other and maybe someday internets that CAN’T talk to one another! We need to meme at each other!

It’s hugely important that we build memes that Chinese people laugh at, this is what allows us to have single connected internet. The easiest way to cross cultural barriers is to laugh at. Mahir, case in point.

Mahir: “I’m going to let you in on the joke WITH ME. We’re going to go from LOLing at to LOLing with.” In that sense he’s my idol. Matt Harding is also my idol.

“We’re going to laugh at this together.” We’re going to go from loling at to loling with. Matt became very famous with the video. Matt’s response to controversy over “Sweet Lullaby” being actually by a guy in the Solomon Islands, not “Pygmy music” was to go to interview the people who actually made that song, to find out the story about it.

“For that, Matt is my hero of the internet.” We need to go from being Weird to Wide. Need to get past loling at and towards loling with. We should approach internet as anthropologists, not bouncers. We need to look for memes in China… shared reference, belief, if we don’t have the same memes, we’ll have different internets. Also, the word “erinaceous” is only a word if we use it.

Final slide bullet points:

- Weird can lead to Wide.
- Are we LOLing at or LOLing with?
- Anthropologists are cooler than bouncers.
- If we don’t laugh at Chinese memes, the censors win.
- “Erinaceous” is an awesome word.

danah boyd

A lot of what we’re talking about, we say is “culture,” but it’s really “subculture.” It’s cool because the internet is populated by geeks, freaks and queers, and we all enjoy them, and have for a long time – cats have been funny forever – alt.tasteless invading rec.pets.cats to teach them how to cook cats – it was funny then and it’s funny now!

Everything we’ve seen was first embraced by geeks, freaks and queers – not actually youth! Subcultures taking and running with things. But what do we do now that things have gone mainstream? You go into anywhere and people know the same jokes, which make it a delightful moment, but… what is inside and what is outside, as Ethan has pointed out? How do social scientists make sense of this?

Connections to rave culture: Sarah Thornton (studies rave culture) argues about the essentialness of subcultural capital. Bourdieu got very interested in the idea of “cultural capital” which is how we got the idea of high/low culture – attending the Opera is high culture; not everyone can get access to it; it requires money, privilege and connections. But then along come subcultures, which remind us that this is not the only way to build culture. Access is easy, but being in the know is extremely hard. Showing up to a rave? Not expensive. Figuring out where it is? That’s hard.

If we think about what’s going on in this space, we realize the connection to subcultural capital, but now everything has been sped up. At one point it would take weeks for a song to go East Coast – West Coast, but now it’s minutes.

FOLLOW THE MONEY: which keeps infecting internet culture in lots of ways. We’re in another boom right now – the MBAs invading our spaces. “Why are people wearing suits? What’s going on here? Where is my San Francisco?” The funny thing after the crash was that we had a moment to reconsider what it meant to be weird and reclaim the internet. But while the MBAs took over Web 1.0, now we’ve got more people invading our cultural space – the Marketer.

You know what marketers are really good at or obsessed with? Cool hunting. All of a sudden being weird got to be cool. All the artifacts of subculture have become mainstream culture. This isn’t new, of course – business loves subculture. HOT TOPIC!

When we think about “for the lulz,” we have to think about what it means. The monetization is one thing, but the politicization is another one. We think about Dadaists, Surrealists, Yippies – people were participating in these movements for the lulz but they had a political statement that they were making.

We’re at a really interesting crossroads. When I was a teen my friends were hackers and we spent a lot of time breaking into anything we could get our hands on. None of us thought twice about what we were doing. How stupid could people be? Did people really make their password ‘password’? But then my high school boyfriend got arrested for hacking into the Navy’s computers. And in the process of trying to defend him we discovered that there was a much wider hacking culture and we had to ask ourselves what it meant to be part of their culture.

For most teens that I interview, things are so mainstream. They consume memes but they don’t think much of it. There are no hackers anymore, basically. The way that that dominated every single internet community when I grew up? Not so much. But there’s a similar mindset in social hacking. It’s no longer about hacking computers, it’s about hacking the attention economy. People do these things but they don’t realize that there’s a collective.

And we’ve got cultural capital now. We’re becoming mainstream, becoming the dominant discourse.

What we have to ask is, what do we lose in this process? What are the economic possibilities of this? How much of the decisions we make are about becoming part of the mainstream and getting validated? We’re going after all the people who are “selling out” – but nobody’s quite sure what that means anymore. What does it mean to sell out? I work for Microsoft Research! To what degree is that selling out and to what degree is that just “working from the inside”?

Remember and own the hacker mindset. Think about where this is going and what kind of cultural hacker you want to be. How do we make sure that hacking makes connections, not splinters?

Question Tool – Q&A

Ethan: danah, you’re saying a couple things: we’re hacking different systems than we used to. We’re still trying to hack attention. But at the same time you’re pointing to the “crisis in weirdness” – what happens when the weird goes mainstream really quickly? Are we suffering from a national weirdness deficit?

danah: I don’t think we’re in a national weirdness crisis, we’re running into a new and interesting tension. Memes immediately become a commercial. The attention economy is where the mainstream is going. To what degree are we becoming the attention economy and to what degree are we challenging it?

[slapstick with a screen that comes up and down all the time]

Ethan: What Kenyan friends wanted more than anything else was for people to pay attention to them. Now that everybody has a voice, the scarce thing is who do people choose to pay attention to? That is possibly the answer to the question of “what’s so valuable about internet coherency?”

danah: Subcultures give us a place to be in the world, make sense of things. Finding other people like me, for validation. They overcome geography, but the question is, do we want one global subculture? Does coherency get us towards anything politically valuable? The problem is that people are trying to take fragments and make them cohere, and then depoliticizing them. Because all of these actions individually are making statements.

Ethan: One question is “Are you and I old?” I have the first consumer digital camera right here. And maybe we are! The /b/tards are sort of doing their own thing and not “hacking.” There’s not ONE way to be hacker, no such thing as hacker culture.

danah: Well, yes we’re old but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have something to learn from the past! I spoke at the “35th anniversary of the internet” and was like wow, um, we don’t think about the people who created the internet anymore! But there’s a lot to learn from people like that (Howard Rheingold etc). There are these patterns in it – and it’s worth it to learn this lore.

Ethan: Does it make any sense to follow meme culture outside your RL culture? The internet gives us opportunity to…spread more, to more people. We’re getting to point where we’re worried about our own subcultures, but less attention is paid to wide world of subcultures.

Ethan: I’m answering a bunch of questions about crosscultural memetics. We need to figure out how to archive global memes, yes – I run a website called Global Voices and we realized very early on that we need to find the guy in Namibia to be our African editor (or something) and have other folks in Europe, South America, Asia etc. And this is going to eventually happen in places like Know Your Meme. Now – is it just for the lulz? Memes are incredibly political! River Crab and Grass Mud Horse: when people got censored they’d start a new blog and then they’d say it; then ‘censor’ got blocked. They started saying ‘I’ve been harmonized,’ and then that got censored. Then they started saying ‘river crab’ because it sounds almost exactly like ‘harmonized.’ ‘Grass mud horse’ fights the river crab, because it sounds like an intense swear word. Fact is that viral ideas are pretty much the only thing that DOES save the world. Democracy’s a meme!

danah: re: economics and marketing, is very connected to what Ethan’s talking about. Because in Europe the assumption is “Oh, this is OK if the government does it, but it’s not OK if a corporation does it.” I think of marketing as a way of usurping power from people. I get frustrated with advertising culture because guess who clicks on ads? Those who are least privileged. The way your materials are being used are to market to people who don’t have the money/ability to do otherwise. Ad culture is not about making money in an evenly distributed way.

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