I had a terrific week this past week in Edinburgh as a speaker for TEDGlobal 2013. Imagine my surprise a few months ago when TED reached out and asked me to speak on the topic of Chinese internet culture. I was in Uganda at the time and pushed back, saying this is a larger global phenomenon. To do this talk, I’d have to cover my emergent research in China, Uganda, Kenya and the United States. Happily, they agreed, and what emerged was a talk spanning content in three continents, some of which was quite funny, while all of it was about creative communities using internet vernacular to express themselves on civic issues.
I spoke on Friday morning’s Tech Impact session alongside some excellent speakers, including Anant Agarwal, who launched EdX; Eben Upton, who made the Raspberry Pi; the novelist Abha Dawesar; the fabulous sound artist and deejay Tim Exile; mathemagician Arthur Benjamin; and internet privacy researcher Alessandro Acquisti. It was a tough slot, as TEDsters had just partied the night away that Thursday, but I really enjoyed this series of talks on new technologies and the internet, with an array of complex perspectives.
I talked specifically about the emergence of the norms of internet culture–image memes, hashtag jokes, etc.–in civic expression around the world. The basic outline of the talk started with China and the arrest of Ai Weiwei. I was a member of his studio at the time, and at first I saw the horrifying censorship and propaganda used to stamp out his name on the web and spread disinformation.
But in the midst of that, I also started to see internet humor, jokes, puns and images being used to slip past official censors and speak out about his arrest. I use that moment as a springboard to talking about other memes in China, what I’ve been seeing in East Africa, and then talking about trends I’ve noticed between Chen Guangcheng and Trayvon Martin.
I then tried tie it all together with a writer from a fourth continent: Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright, activist and later President, who wrote The Power of the Powerless a decade before the Velvet Revolution and decades before the internetz took hold around the world.
Some have asked about the video, and it should be noted that not all videos are released and TEDGlobal videos will be released well into 2014. However, there have been a few responses online that I thought were worth highlighting. Firstly, from TED, Kate Torgovnick at the TED blog put together a lovely write-up, quoted below, while Thu-Huong Ha called me out for saying “fuck your mother” in Mandarin on stage.
“This is a vernacular that’s both global in scope and really quite personal and local in its context,” says Mina. ”These memes are about more than just humor. They do what art and visual expression have always done — make us feel less alone.”
“These memes, these jokes, these fuzzy creatures — this is the street art of our social web,” says Mina. “These are the posters we place on our digital windows. Through them, we are learning to create media environment that represents who we are and what we value.”
TEDxNYU wrote this, though they placed my talk in “All Together Now” (it should be in “Tech Impact”!):
In “All Together Now,” you couldn’t help but feel moved that within all manner of hate, corruption, poverty, and pain, there is still an electric connection between community that reminds us all that we are in this world together. No one made this clearer than An Xiao Mina, who discussed the power of online memes in a hyper media-controlled country like China. In times of great distress, the people have used symbols to bypass Chinese online government censorship to protest the harsh policies of the government like with famous political artist Ai Wei Wei.
Le Temps Monde wrote this up, and hopefully Google Translate is correct, because my French is horrible. But I get the gist in general:
Simple, redoutable, viral, incoercible .Désormais, grâce à l’Internet, partout où la répression, la brutalité gouvernementale, l’oppression règnent, se développent les «mèmes internet»…. Pour An Xiao Mina, ces détournements viraux sont à l’Internet social ce que l’art des rues est à la polis dans la vie réelle: une signalétique de nos identités, de nos valeurs, de nos combats et de nos convictions.
And some from the Twittersphere:
Just reading about @anxiaostudio‘s TED talk is making me think differently about memes. Internet humor as a way to fight censorship.
— Jillian Steinhauer (@jilnotjill) June 14, 2013
— TED Global (@TEDGlobal) June 14, 2013
— Els De Keyser (@ElsDK) June 15, 2013
— Courtney Martin (@courtwrites) June 14, 2013
I owe a special round of thanks to the TED team for helping me prepare: TEDGlobal curator Bruno Giussani, TED.com editor Emily McManus, Virtuozo speaking coaches Michael Weitz and Abigail Tenenbaum (I highly recommend their services!) and the always cool and calm speaker concierge Priscilla Fazaikas and her team. To Kristin Windbigler, Doug Chilcott and the TED Open Translation Project team. It’s rare for to meet such a capable group of people committed to excellence and sharing ideas.
I also owe particular thanks to my friends and supporters, who have helped me shape and refine my ideas over time, most especially to Jen Yu and Maggie Tran, who designed the amazing slides and animation in my talk; Tricia Wang, Sean Kolodji and my co-founder at The Civic Beat, Jason Li, for coaching me and holding my hand during many pre-talk anxieties. And to those who’ve supported and pushed my research further amidst waves of self-doubt: Ben Valentine, Dorothy Santos, Hrag Vartanian, Ethan Zuckerman, Tim Hwang, Christina Xu, Jan Chipchase, Clay Shirky, Christopher Wong, Catherine Geanuracos, Sunny Bates, Michael Niyitegeka, Ed Bice, Anas Qtiesh, Mwesigwa Daniel, Chris Csikszentmihalyi, Mark Kaigwa, Ernest Bazanye, Peter Kakoma, Samuel Kamugisha, Zachary Brisson. To my family, both biological and chosen. To my mentors at Art Center College of Design, UNICEF and Intel for making my research in Uganda possible. To the artists who generously placed their work on a Creative Commons License for my talk: Andre Holthe, Joanie San Chirico, Aaron Chen, Laura Isaac, Jonny Gray, Phil Good, Prerna Sampat, Crazy Crab, Carloe Liu, Anna L. Conti, Isaac Mao, Saida, Susan MacMillan. And last but not least to Ai Weiwei and the FAKE Design team, especially Jennifer Ng, Anthony Pins, Xu Ye, Inserk Yang and Brendan McGetrick, for planting a little sunflower seed in my head years ago. There are countless others I’ve no doubt forgotten to list here; check back as this post evolves over time.
TED holds up a high bar by asking speakers to “give the talk of your life”. I can’t be the one to judge if I’ve met that bar, but I know that the quality of my talk would not have been possible without all of these individuals. I list these names with care because I believe all our successes are socially situated, and they simply wouldn’t be possible without creative collaboration large and small.
Moving Forward: Jamming with The Civic Beat
While I hope I’ll have many more talks in my life, this will certainly be an unforgettable milestone for many years to come, reflecting my research and practice as an artist and creative techie. And, I hope, it’s just a beginning. If you believe in global internet culture and memes and joy and creative community and this very new and often wacky but always incredible form of civic expression, let’s push this forward.
Join me and our growing team at The Civic Beat and following us on Twitter and Tumblr as we discuss and celebrate this emergent phenomenon. We want to hear your ideas. We want to hear from your part of the world. Our goal is to tell the world’s stories through internet culture, and there are so many ways to go about that. Our working theory is that internet culture can serve as a bridge culture, a visual language that we all understand, and the fact that this language is being used for civic expression in so many global contexts is difficult to ignore.
Let’s keep this energy moving–there’s so much more out there at this intersection of internet culture and civic life, and, as I say in my talk, it’s high time we pay more serious attention.
This is a cross-post from the personal blog of The Civic Beat co-founder An Xiao Mina.