Friday, April 30, 2010
The importance of LOLing with, rather than LOLing at
We're at ROFLcon II and already loving it.
Just listened to the wonderful Ethan Zuckerman speak about the importance of sharing memes--and laughter--across geopolitical regions and borders. I wish everyone could here this presentation--it was fast-paced and covered such an enormous amount of terrain. Basically, the heart of his talk was: Weird can lead to Wide. that is, memes can help us to understand other countries more at the human level through shared jokes and "insider knowledge" (e.g., Chinese bloggers finding their way around the censors by developing shared language for talking about censorship that doesn't get censored).
Ethan has a long-held interest in how digital technologies are being taken up in ways that can potentially work in economically sustaining ways for people who are among the poorest in the world. He used the example of William Kamkwamba, who created a wind-powered power generator for his village (to seriously and grossly over-summarise the incredible feat that this was--the book about William's achievement and "Won't say no" attitude is a must read!). Ethan is interested interested in what happens when people like William have a chance to be brilliant in front of the whole world.
We're not going to do justice to Ethan's presentation, but here are some of the important things he covered:
- Mapping where key memes have originated and are most popular -- and how tightly this is tied to how long the internet has been in place in a region.
- Ethan calls on us all to pay attention to memes happening outside our own countries (we're in the U.S., so the emphasis was very much on getting beyond U.S. cultural frames of reference). Memes he recommends include: Brother Sharp in China – a stylish homeless man, who now stars in a number of movies, and who probably doesn't know that he doesn't know; the Golimar meme from India (a Bollywood take on Michael Jackson's "Thriller"), and the Tenso meme from Brazil; and the Makmende meme from Kenya (more on this below).
- Ethan’s an Africanist and has lived and worked there and has had the good fortune to watch Kenya’s first internet meme take off. The meme is Makmende – Makmende is a superhero on so many levels. As Ethan explains, he’s the face of modern Africa, mixed with blaxploitation of the 1970s. It's super-cool, and wonderfully funny. It turns out, Ethan explains, that "makmende" is a word that's been around for a long time in Kenya to describe a "wannabe" or "tryhard". Turns out that the word utself actually comes from Clint Eastwood's famous line: "Make my day". so there are videos of Makmende in action, a Chuck-Norris-like lists of facts about Makmende, and lots of remixes.
- Lexicogrpahers look at the words people are actually using, because this is is how words become part of language. If no-one loves the new word/idea, if no-one remixes it, then it won't have a life. If it doesn’t appeal to anyone, then it won’t go anywhere.
- the primary group behind Makmende wrote a Wikipedia entry and it was summarily deleted three times. The Kenyan crew worked out that they needed to explicitly say it was the first Kenyan meme. And then it got stay on Wikipedia.
- Ethan made the point about about the danger is that we — as a collective — can become gatekeepers online (“bouncers”, even) who police what or who is in and what or who isn’t. For Ethan, there is enormous potential for problems with respect to over-emphasising "insiderliness" rather than "all-in-together".
If we don’t laugh at Chinese memes, the censors win.
- Ethan posed the question: What’s the meme we’re all going to LOL at? He raises it as a serious question for people to think about.
- There's also room for "meme sleuthing" (this isn't how Ethan described it, but our take on what he was saying), where people track down/unpick the complexities of emmes. for example--and this is Ethan's example--Matt Harding (of the delightful "Where in the world is Matt?" dancing videos). the song that Matt uses as the soundtrack to his video is “Sweet Lullaby” by a group of French Techno musicians. It’s on an album or music described as “pygmie music” – but what Matt discovered is that the music was actually recorded in the Solomon Islands (where the locals are definitely not pygmies!). Matt also documented speaking with the people who were recorded and shed important light on their music and songs that might otherwise have remained known only to a few people.
He also asks: Is there one internet, or many. China, for example, has blocked off huge swathes of the internet, which make it a different experience for users inside China, compared to users outside China. YouTube is blocked, but a Chinese version of it - Youku.com - is proving really popular. And features a lot of cute cats, too! BUT, Ethan points out, China has managed to bridge the cute cat gap. We don’t generally lol at Chinese cute cats, and the Chinese don’t tend to laugh at our cute cats. It’s of enormous geopolitical importance that we build memes that the Chinese laugh at, and that the Chinese memes emems that we laugh at. We laugh at Engrish. We laugh at people who butcher English (e.g., Mahir “I Kiss You”); but it's much more useful and fruitful to LOL with others, rather than laugh at them. Shared references and shared beliefs re important f—and if we don’t get to the piint were not lolling at the same thing, then we risk losing important things.
For Ethan, viral ideas are pretty much the only thing that can save the world.
And what Ethan's Kenyan friends want more than anything else, is to have people pay attention to them via their Makmende meme. they want to draw attention to the fact that Kenya does>does have excellent graphic designers, excellent humourists, super savvy internet folk, and more. So head on over to Makmende.com and help spread the LOLs!