ROFLCon returned recently to MIT, bringing together the things and people who are famous on the Internet. Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the MIT Media Lab Center for Civic Media and co-founder of the citizen journalist network Global Voices, was the moderator. He’s probably best known for the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism.

There are all kinds of great Internet memes out there that we don’t get to understand just because we don’t speak the languages. Memes require an enormous amount of background contextual knowledge to understand what, exactly, makes them funny.

Ethan referenced his previous ROFLCon appearance, where he talked about Makmende and challenged the organizers to bring in a more global outlook. Fortunately, ROFLCon responded in force and provided Ethan with an all-star panel of international Internet culture translators.

  • An Xiao Mina is a social media artist, strategist, translator, and many other things. If you’re reading Ai WeiWei, it’s probably due to her.
  • Anas Qtiesh is a Syrian blogger and program manager at Meedan, a non-profit community which bridges language barriers between Arabic and English about Mideast events. He aims to help us ask, how do we laugh along with the Syrian revolution?

Censorship and memes

An Xiao Mina started with the train crash in southern China, where government censors attempted to cover up the actual reasons for the crash, but failed to keep up with the speed of Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. The censorship department’s propaganda was ridiculed online in a variety of memes both comical and dramatic.

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An Xiao Mina

As most of us know, the Chinese web is censored in a variety of ways. There’s a censorship algorithm looking for certain keywords. There are human censors. And there’s real-name registration, so they know who you are when you post something. And lastly, the most powerful form of censorship is the self-censorship they force via chilling effects.

China has 512 million people online, 312 million of whom are using microblogs. An Xiao Mina is interested in political memes, because they’re almost impossible to censor.

Many of the Chinese memes, like Grass Mud Horse, evade censorship by keyword detection by relying on clever plays of language and euphemisms. Grass Mud Horse became the lolcat of Chinese political memes. There are plush toys, cartoons, fake Happy Meal toys, rage comics. This has turned into a metameme, The Ten Mythical creatures of Baidu.

An Xiao Mina called memes “the street art of the social web.” When artist Ai Weiwei was arrested and held without charge in 2011, he became famous on the Internet. His face showed up everywhere in many kinds of remixes online, from currency to propaganda posters. People turned sunflower seeds into a symbol for him, and a snack as common as Skittles proved impossible to censor. And then his face became actual street art in Beijing.

Memes of Beijing smog have been particularly successful, leading the city to take action to clean up the air. Many viral Chinese hits prove that humor is universal: a man in a bear costume sliding headfirst down a staircase.

Chen Guangcheng has also been the subject of memes. Most recently, sunglasses have been used to symbolize Guangcheng. (He is blind.) Artists are leading this initiative, similar to the Million Hoodies March for Trayvon Martin. One example is the Free CGC knock-off of Kentucky Fried Chicken. When Christian Bale tried to visit Guangcheng, he was roughed up by a heavy-set guard. So people on the Internet created “PandaMan versus Batman“ posters. And when Chen Guancheng escaped, he referred to the meme in the website. Others have created movie posters “Dong Si Gu redemption.”

How powerful are these going to be? We don’t know yet. However, An Xiao Mina thinks that the participatory culture of memes is leading to more participatory societies.

When Ai Weiwei was censored for pornography, people started posting photos of themselves partially nude. So Chinese human rights lawyer Li Tiantian has followed suit, posting a nude photo of herself as well.

Ethan asked An Xiao Mina where she finds the memes. She answered that she looks for them by following people on Weibo. As far as she knows, there’s no Reddit for China.

The youpix party

Next up was Bia Granja of @youPIX, a convenor of meme-based events in Brazil. She told us about the event, which brings in around 6,000 people. “Joining a youPIX Festival is like jumping into the Internet.” At YouPix, they party, they listen to music, and they discuss Internet culture. Other events involve a web culture quiz, which puts pies in people’s faces when they get Internet facts wrong. M00t came and danced to Sou Foda.

What’s Internet culture like in Brazil? The most famous meme is “Tenso,” a version of photobombing where a GIF zooms in on the face of a person in the background of a photo. She also talks about Cala Boca Galvao, a meme where Brazilians trolled people on the Internet to protest soccer presenter Galvão Bueno.

Bia hopes to use local memes to explain to us what goes on in Brazilians’ minds.

The Brazilian media landscape is consolidated among only a few companies and owning families, and these players have extended their dominance into the online space. Traditionally, Brazil has had very little in terms of alternative media. But 67% of Brazilians are on social networks. It’s the third-largest country for Facebook, the second largest for Twitter, the second largest for Tumblr, and the third largest on Google+. Brazilians own Orkut: 90% of Brazilians online have an Orkut account.

Bia showed us a series of popular Brazilian memes, including “Nipples are Very Controversial” boy.

One predictable rule for Brazilian Internet memes is that if it comes with a funky beat, it’ll likely be popular. The biggest Brazilian viral video of all time is the 2011 video “Sou Foda” which received 14 million views. A young boy dances in front of a green screen while rapping explicit lyrics. “Sou Foda” plays like a Brazilian Rebecca Black, low-fidelity music video and all.

Brazilians love to have fun. Bia said he was nervous coming into this panel with fellow speakers from Syria and China, because much of Brazilian online culture is focused on good times. As a developing country, things like literacy and Internet culture can be contentious, as the intellectual elites will say that Internet culture is using language wrong and lowering society. Bia thinks we should let them debate with each other and just have fun. After all, Brazil is incredibly powerful online. The most influential person on Twitter, according to the New York Times, is Brazilian Rafina Bastos.

Ethan pointed out that Bia knows every line of all these videos — that we need a meme dance champion smackdown.

the role of memes in the Syrian Revolution

Next up was Anas Qtiesh, a Syrian blogger and program manager at Meedan, a non-profit community which bridges language barriers between Arabic and English about Mideast events.

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He said that governments have control over how much fear they cast on the people. Memes are important because they help break that.

You couldn’t have a “Daily Show” or “Colbert Report” in Syria — they’d be taken down in a second. So Syrians rely on these Photoshopped images for solidarity, to know that they are not alone, that there are others resisting.

“Conspiracies are like germs, which increase every moment,” Syrian President Bashar Assad said on June 20. As soon as he said this, CGI germs from cold medicine commercials everywhere began appearing in satirical images.

Walid Muaellem, Syrian foreign minister, said “We’ll forget that Europe is on the map.” This led to a world map where Muaellen has eaten Europe, complete with cartoons of an engorged Muaellem scarfing down the continent.

Another quote, “He was a lion — we turned him into a giraffe, but he turned out to be a duck” led to fun animal-based mocking.

Beyond helping people break beyond fear, memes can also be propaganda. People created mock weapons with pipes and fireworks. Someone created a website for a fake Qatari Revolution, which led to other parody websites for Chinese Revolutions.

In these campaigns, official state propaganda was remastered, and then the meme evolved to “Chinesify” all of the things. Chinese clothing and culture was added to photos of Syrian leaders. This wasn’t meant to be racist against Chinese people, but rather mocking Syrian leaders and their denial of revolution.

And, Anas said, no revolution is complete without rage comics. The memes weren’t just against the regime. There are also cartoons challenging Islam with secularism, where secularism is represented by rage guy and a challenge accepted game. Others have created a history of their revolutions in rage face form.

Ethan concluded: “If Scumbag Assad doesn’t come out of this conference, we have missed a tremendous opportunity.”