As the Internetz Goes Global: Internet Culture in an African Context

Two articles I’ve written about internet culture in East Africa have now gone live.  As these things happen, they came out within days of each other, although they were written months apart.  Ah, serendipity.

As part of my work and studies with Art Center, I’ve been living on and off in Uganda for three months now, and I’ve been living on the Ugandan internet for much longer, and it’s been great to get a better understanding of how internet culture is working here and in East Africa more generally.  After looking so closely at internet culture and civic life in China and the United States, it was good to get a new perspective.  And these two articles kind of sum it up–the internet’s going to look a lot different, and we’re going to see more and more perspectives as historically marginalized people join the web.  It will look a little like Los Angeles or New York, maybe, with the hodgepodge of cultures bumping into each other everyday.

Chickens, Goats and Cows… Oh My!
The first went live on Ethnography Matters, and it’s a look at the chickens and goats of the Ugandan internet.  I presented some of this research very briefly at the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium at NYU ITP, but I’m glad to have a chance to expound a bit more on it.  As I’m not a traditional academic researcher, I use blogs and other media to get my thoughts out in the public.  There’ll be a book on all this one day soon too, I hope.

Here’s a little snippet, where I detail my surprise that lolcats really don’t resonate in Uganda:

And yet, when I showed some of my favorite lolcats to internet savvy youth in Uganda, they didn’t giggle in the same way I’d seen Chinese and Philippine users giggle. The idea was funny, to be sure, and they liked the idea. Long cat, grumpy cat, ceiling cat–what I’d understood to be the canon of internet culture simply didn’t translate.

So what did these urban, internet-savvy youth find funny? One individual, Samuel Kamugisha, sent me some of his favorite funny pictures from the the Ugandan internet. A large number of them contained the very animals I’d seen everyday on the streets: chickens and goats. Chickens wearing shoes. Chickens wearing sunglasses. A goat getting swabbed by a metal wand. Not all of these images originated per se from the Ugandan internet, but they certainly circulated amongst Ugandans as funny images.

Read more here.

I hone in on cute things, but it’s an entry point to my larger point.  Our assumptions about the internet, all the way down to a basic truth like cute cats, have been culturally situated.  Those who’ve been using the web so far have been the types of people who have cats.  The internet will look very very different in the coming years.

Be sure to check out the rest of the speakers at the Symposium for our panel, including Heather Ford, Morgan Ames, Mark Kaigwa and Panthea Lee.  It was really an honor to speak alongside them, and I’m especially grateful to Tricia Wang for inviting me to join and share my quirky curiosities.

Poking Fun at Foreign Media
Anyway, back to culturally situating on the web.  Case in point are the 2013 elections in Kenya.  In contrast to the 2007 elections, they were largely peaceful, and that’s a major success, a victory really and something Kenyans should be proud of.  Yes, there are still a lot of questions about the validity of the elections, but peaceful elections are not easy.

Which is why it was a downright shame that foreign media were focusing only on incidents of violence rather than celebrating the peace, which took years of hard work following the 2007 elections.  But we live in an increasingly connected world now, and Kenyans have a vehicle not just to share their perspective to make sure they’re heard.  And that vehicle is internet humor.  Here’s what I wrote in Al Jazeera’s Op-Ed section:

In her terrific TEDGlobal talk, Nigerian writer Chimanada Adichie spoke of the dangers of a single story: “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

The rise of blogs and online publishing platforms was theoretically supposed to solve this problem. And in some sense, that is true: there are plenty of stories now available online and writers have a wider variety of outlets to choose from. But readers still have a finite amount of time, attention and cognitive energy in any given day. The cost of publishing has decreased considerably, but the chances of being heard remain slim.

This is where hashtag memes like #TweetLikeaForeignJournalist and #Ottawapiskat carry additional weight. Humour has a long history in politics, from satirical cartoons to the court jester. It breaks down barriers and makes difficult social and political issues easier to broach and discuss. What Twitter and other social media enable is a much broader range of jesters and joke makers to participate and form a community.

Read more here.

There’s something really interesting going on here.  In previous eras, there would have been no way for Kenyans by and large to talk about misrepresentation in the media.  It’s hard to get attention in this media saturated environment.  But that’s why memes are effective–by its nature, internet humor gets attention.  That’s what it’s designed for.  And it was so effective that many news outlets covered the jokes, then pivoted on their coverage.

The humor here is important–it set just the right tone to get foreign journalists blushing rather than defensive.  And it was a type of humor–internet humor–that anyone who uses the internet can understand.  The fact that it’s networked also helped.  It grew and grew, allowing for a form of digital public assembly that’s difficult to ignore.  The humor alone isn’t enough–there’s no texture, there’s no room for nuance–but it’s a start.  It’s a wake-up call that people around the world aren’t just listening, they’re ready to talk back and tell their own side in a way that will get attention.

In Summary: Kenyata Cheese Meets Uhuru Kenyatta
What’s the thread in all this, what binds internet culture and civics in Uganda, China and the United States (and elsewhere)?  There’s a story here about community online and what community looks like; about getting attention, whether in a censored environment or media-limited one; about  The fact that it takes me–an Asian American–to amplify these stories is not lost on me.  But many of these stories were already amplified, and many were never intended to be amplified.  They were meant for the community of social media users to discuss amongst themselves.  I just came along and started poking around and finding some really amazing stuff that I had to share.  The internet’s going to look very very different as more of the developing world comes online, and we’re going to see a lot more chickens, llamas, goats and pigs angling for space amidst the lolcats and lolruses.

One amazing tidbit, and something I don’t think we should set aside too quickly, is that my friend Kenyatta Cheese started receiving tweets intended for Kenyan President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta.  Now, I can’t think of anyone more perfect to receive these notes, as Mr. Cheese is an internet culture researcher and co-founder of Know Your Meme.  So when he started receiving notes of congratulations to his Twitter handle, @kenyatta, he changed his profile to read: “NOT THE TWITTER ACCOUNT OF UHURU KENYATTA but I will respond to questions posed @kenyatta.”

I endorse naming a city after me RT @: So will they change the new Post Modern City's name to @ now that he is president?
kenyatta cheese
I will refuse to stand trial RT @: The plot around @ #KenyaElections thickens via @
kenyatta cheese

This is amazing.  How could it ever have been possible for this kind of mistaken identity to occur between continents, between a Brooklynite and a Nariobian (is that the right word?).  Now, what makes this possible is that Kenyans on Twitter often speak English, and they are using the same platform as Kenyatta.  Something similar wouldn’t happen to, say, an English-speaking Chinese-American named Jinping, after the ascendance of Xi Jinping.  But it’s still remarkable to think about how we’re going to deal with millions more people coming online and sharing the same spaces that have traditionally been occupied by Europeans and North Americans.

There’s so much more I want to say about my time in Uganda, and especially my time in northern Uganda.  I want to talk about the physical structure of the internet, the amazing modes of informal data transfer I witnessed, how kung fu movies get translated into the Luo language, and the new project I’m developing to facilitate communications in a limited-connectivity environment, how the LGBT community uses Facebook (hint: they love to party), and the Ugandan chief who invented a new type of kimbap (aka Korean sushi) that I will call the “Kampala roll”.  But there will be time for that later.  And soon.

But for now, I have to thank the good folks at Afrinnovator (Mark Kaigwa), Urban Legend Kampala (Ernest Bazanye and Peter Kakoma), Zyee Idyaz (Samuel Kamugisha) and TechPost (Daniel Mwesigwa) for helping me navigate this new space.

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