I have a new essay out in The Atlantic looking at the remarkable parallels between the Trayvon Martin hoodie meme and the Chen Guangcheng sunglasses meme, which arose independently in their respective internets:
From the outset, the stories of Trayvon Martin and Chen Guangcheng couldn’t have seemed more different. One, a young black man shot to death in central Florida while carrying a bag of Skittles. The other, a blind lawyer activist in rural Shandong held under illegal detention in his own home.
But in recent months, both men became sensations on their respective Internets, which are largely divided by linguistic and technical barriers. In the United States this past March, it was impossible to ignore the name of Trayvon Martin, or forget the hoodie he was wearing. And in China this past year, although Chen Guangcheng’s name was officially censored from search queries, his name and face were on the fingertips of web activists as they found ways to advocate for his release. In both cases, sustained internet activity kept the conversations about these two men in public discourse.
Living in China for the past year, I’d become increasingly aware of how memes could be quite effective in contexts where public speech is extremely limited. The memes slip by the usual censorship techniques and inspire others to co-create, thus propagating the message amongst an ad hoc community that’s not easy to shut down.
But it wasn’t until I saw the Trayvon Martin hoodie meme come together shortly after I returned to the US that I realized that memes have a vital role in any cultural context:
It’s more difficult to sort out the role of internet memes in the US, where opportunities for public expression are diverse. In an environment with the legal right to public speech and assembly, memes seem comically ineffectual. How could an image posted to Tumblr or Facebook possibly be helpful when there are so many other proven channels to try?
Because the images involve individuals’ faces, I’ve opted not to include a screenshot, but I recommend you try it out for yourself. Load up these two pages side by side:
For this article, I interviewed Know Your Meme co-founder Kenyatta Cheese, who made a very interesting follow-up post on his blog:
The thing that fascinates me most about the life of political memes isn’t necessarily the spread (they’re fairly easy to map) but the “anti-memes” that will occasionally pop up to try and counter and stop the original meme from spreading.
Cheese talks more about the anti-Trayvon messages that were floating around the internet (and that were eventually drowned out by the hoodie meme). Again, in a completely different context and for completely different reasons, anti-Chen Guangcheng messages were being propagated online, most likely by the 50 Cent Party. In this case, it’s not clear who drowned out who, as it’s difficult to gauge broader public sentiment in China. But certainly in activist circles Chen’s name and face became synonymous with “light and truth” (the literal definition of “Guangcheng”), and it was that image of Chen that spread to the West. Here’s more from artist Crazy Crab, who started the sunglasses meme:
To do this type of activity in China, you first need to consider the safety of participants and protect the security of their messages. You also need to consider how to eliminate message interference. When broadcasting a message on the social web, it’s very easy to receive malicious interference. The first message can be lost or altered. This is my own experience. I believe that when beginning an [internet] activity, you need to consider these two points.
Are you aware of memes used in other political and cultural contexts for social ends? The universality and parallels of the above memes, which came about independently of each other, suggests to me that the idiosyncrasies of internet culture are starting to bleed over more and more into the “real world”. I suspect we’ll see more and more of this.
Update July 15: