Hi, every­body. Thanks for com­ing out ear­ly this Saturday morn­ing to hear from us. I’m going to stand up because I’m more com­fort­able stand­ing up.

Last sum­mer, peo­ple in Vietnam were eager­ly antic­i­pat­ing the pre­mier of a locally-produced film there called Bụi Đời Chợ Lớn, The Street Children of Chinatown.” It was a for­mu­la­ic gangster-style action film set in the Chinatown neigh­bor­hood of Ho Chi Minh City. People there were excit­ed for it because it was set in Ho Chi Minh City, it was rel­a­tive­ly rare for an import, and it was pro­mot­ed heav­i­ly for weeks. But just a few days before the June open­ing date of the film, offi­cials in the Ministry of Information and Communications can­celled the release of Bụi Đời Chợ Lớn. They said it was too vio­lent and it didn’t reflect the social real­i­ty of Vietnam, so that week­end every­body went to see World War Z and White House Down instead. I did. 

It’s not like this is with­out prece­dent. Vietnam has a long his­to­ry of cen­sor­ing pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment. A year pre­vi­ous­ly in 2012, the same gov­ern­ment office had banned all in-country screen­ings of The Hunger Games on a sim­i­lar premise, that it was too vio­lent. What offi­cials didn’t say at that time is that The Hunger Games depicts a pop­u­lar rev­o­lu­tion against a repres­sive, cor­rupt gov­ern­ment of self-serving elites intent on keep­ing its peo­ple poor, igno­rant, and pow­er­less. It must’ve slipped their minds.

But where peo­ple had tak­en the Hunger Games deci­sion in stride the year before, some­thing dif­fer­ent hap­pened last sum­mer. This hap­pened. Remixes and mashups of the film’s pro­mo­tion­al poster began appear­ing online. Technically unso­phis­ti­cat­ed but clever par­o­dies sub­tly mock­ing the Ministry’s deci­sion. Of course they includ­ed the oblig­a­tory remix of Hitler react­ing to the news. 

https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​U​G​G​G​J​z​v​6​ZME

Another ver­sion took a con­fronta­tion between two rival gangs that appeared in the film’s online trail­er and tweaked it before cen­sor­ship, and after cen­sor­ship. A site that remix­es pan­els and char­ac­ters from the Japanese man­ga Doraemon took that idea, mod­i­fied it, and post­ed their own ver­sion.

In a recur­sive iter­a­tive cycle, these images and hun­dreds oth­er like them were cre­at­ed, mod­i­fied, and shared thou­sands of times on Facebook, which has been blocked in Vietnam at the DNS lev­el since 2009. They appeared in many online dis­cus­sion forums that are so pop­u­lar there, such as [Vietnamese names]. Where the Hunger Games deci­sion came and went with­out much fan­fare the year before, this time the issue didn’t go any­where. It stayed alive, as every time some­one shared one of these images, anoth­er con­ver­sa­tion about it start­ed. And not every­body believed that the film should have been shown. There were lots of online com­ments defend­ing the ban, jus­ti­fy­ing the deci­sion to kill Bụi Đời Chợ Lớn. That’s not sur­pris­ing, but it is unusu­al because these very pub­lic debates and con­ver­sa­tions about this top­ic, cen­sor­ship, hadn’t real­ly exist­ed a year before. It’s also inter­est­ing because the peo­ple who cre­at­ed these images and shared them didn’t make their point with angry blog posts writ­ten in all-caps, but by using the tools of remix and pop cul­ture and humor.

Vietnam of course is Asia’s oth­er rapidly-developing auto­crat­ic Communist state. Like its neigh­bor to the North, [it] under­took qua­si free mar­ket reforms a cou­ple of decades ago and now Vietnam is in the midst of a huge eco­nom­ic boom. It has a big emerg­ing mid­dle class and an Internet pen­e­tra­tion of near­ly 40% among its 92 mil­lion peo­ple. Incidentally, Vietnam is the 13th largest nation in the world by pop­u­la­tion; true fact. As in China, almost all media in Vietnam is at least part­ly state-owned and very tight­ly con­trolled, and author­i­ties there have a habit of jail­ing out­spo­ken blog­gers on charges of abus­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic free­doms and spread­ing pro­pa­gan­da against the state. Last year sixty-one Vietnamese cit­i­zens were giv­en lengthy prison terms for peace­ful­ly express­ing them­selves on the Internet, more than any nation in the world, except for one. 

Unlike China, how­ev­er, Vietnam’s Internet is rel­a­tive­ly open. Google and YouTube are among the top-visited sites there. Most of the social media plat­forms that you and I use are avail­able there. And despite the block on Facebook at the DNS lev­el (eas­i­ly cir­cum­vent­ed) twen­ty mil­lion Vietnamese peo­ple update their sta­tus every day. That means that 70% of Vietnam’s Internet users have a Facebook page. In the US that figure’s 55%. 

It’s also impor­tant to keep in mind that for gen­er­a­tions Vietnam has nur­tured a col­lec­tivist, Confucian ide­ol­o­gy that places nation­al devel­op­ment, polit­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty, social har­mo­ny, and respect for author­i­ty above almost all indi­vid­ual inter­ests. A great fire­wall has nev­er real­ly been nec­es­sary here, between the chill­ing effect of reg­u­lar arrests and impris­on­ments and decades of social con­di­tion­ing, polit­i­cal com­men­tary on the Internet is under­stand­ably rare. It’s con­sid­ered dan­ger­ous, point­less, and—at least among old­er citizens—Un-Vietnamese. But that’s chang­ing.

For the past five years I’ve taught a course called Asian Cybercultures” at RMIT University. It’s an Australian off-shore cam­pus in Saigon. Last spring I noticed that many of my stu­dents had begun cit­ing exam­ples of remix cul­ture and user-generated con­tent from a new image-sharing web­site call­ing itself hai.VL. The name means fun­ny” in Vietnamese, among oth­er much-naughtier things. The users of hai.VL, which seems remark­ably sim­i­lar to sites like 9GAG, have begun churn­ing out sil­ly troll­faces and tem­plate memes. And these images pro­lif­er­at­ed across the Vietnamese web with aston­ish­ing speed, part­ly because social media is an affir­ma­tion of every­thing a col­lec­tivist cul­ture holds most dear. And also because today’s Vietnamese youth, who have come of age in a glob­al­ized Internet-connected soci­ety, are very dif­fer­ent peo­ple from their grand­par­ents and their par­ents. They out­num­ber them, too. 65% of the cur­rent pop­u­la­tion is under the age of 30

But there’s anoth­er rea­son. Last year at almost exact­ly the same moment, as many of you might recall, Facebook intro­duced a new func­tion allow­ing users to com­ment by post­ing an image with no accom­pa­ny­ing text. This changed every­thing. In a place where the wrong words can land you in jail, there’s a pow­er­ful sense of secu­ri­ty in being able to express your­self to thou­sands of peo­ple with­out writ­ing any­thing. Almost overnight meme cul­ture blew up in Vietnam. Pretty soon hai.VL was giv­ing Google and YouTube com­pe­ti­tion for web traf­fic, clones of hai.VL popped up like mush­rooms, and the remix­ers began get­ting more cre­ative.

Header for the Tuyết Bitch Collection's Facebook page, July 2015

Header for the Tuyết Bitch Collection’s Facebook page, ~July 2015

This is the Tuyết Bitch Collection. It’s a Facebook page that was cre­at­ed last August and it now has a lit­tle over a quar­ter of a mil­lion fol­low­ers. The Tuyết Bitch Collection spe­cial­izes in remix­ing Disney ani­mat­ed film stills and char­ac­ters with Vietnamese text and com­plex ref­er­ences to the social and pop cul­tur­al ecosys­tem. They put up two or three of these a day, riff­ing on the kind of issues that all Vietnamese youth would be able to iden­ti­fy with. Money, fam­i­ly, love, sex, the lack of sex, cur­rent web trends, issues in the news. They rarely engage in overt polit­i­cal talk, but in an author­i­tar­i­an nation with no civ­il soci­ety, in which every mov­ing part is explic­it­ly con­trolled by a sin­gle par­ty, pret­ty much every­thing is polit­i­cal by default. A typ­i­cal post from these guys gets ten to twen­ty thou­sand likes, a few hun­dred com­ments, and is shared as many as a thou­sand times across the Facebook net­work, and that’s only on Facebook. I know glob­al brands that would kill for that kind of engage­ment. Tuyết Bitch is two young guys, both with full time jobs, who do this on lap­tops out of their bed­rooms in their spare time. 

Photo of a kitten on a lawn, labeled "Non-threatening cuddly kitten. Who would censor anything this cute?"

This all puts me in mind of what Ethan Zuckerman of Berkman Center has called The Cute Cat Theory of dig­i­tal activism. Among oth­er things that the­o­ry sug­gests that ordi­nary online tools and plat­forms, the kind that peo­ple com­mon­ly use to share innocu­ous con­tent such as cute pic­tures of cats make it pos­si­ble for non-activist users to cre­ate and dis­sem­i­nate activist con­tent online. And to me that seems like exact­ly what’s hap­pen­ing here. I would guess that very few of the young Vietnamese par­tic­i­pat­ing in all of this think of them­selves as activists with a polit­i­cal agen­da. They’re just kids com­mu­ni­cat­ing in the way that seems most nat­ur­al to them about things they find inter­est­ing and amus­ing. The tools of remix and meme cul­ture are by nature innocu­ous. Most of the stuff from Tuyết Bitch is cre­at­ed in PowerPoint, if you can believe it. How much less threat­en­ing can you get than the Ancient Aliens guy?

On the sur­face it all appears to be just harm­less fun and there­fore inof­fen­sive to both gov­ern­ment offi­cials and, cru­cial­ly, to oth­er cit­i­zens. The medi­um of the mes­sage allows indi­rect social and polit­i­cal com­men­tary to sneak in dis­guised as lulz. And it also assures that the con­tent is shared much more wide­ly and viewed much more wide­ly than direct cri­tique would be. In between the two poles of the starry-eyed techno-utopians and the skep­tics there are thinkers who’ve sug­gest­ed that the real poten­tial of online tools for social change in places like Vietnam is not nec­es­sar­i­ly in coor­di­nat­ing mas­sive street protests and mobi­liz­ing activist move­ments but rather in how they enable cit­i­zens to artic­u­late and debate a wel­ter of con­flict­ing ideas through­out soci­ety. In oth­er words, social media may mat­ter most not in the streets and the squares but in the myr­i­ad spaces of the social com­mons that Jürgen Habermas called the pub­lic sphere. These images and the world­views behind them are becom­ing part of the nation­al dis­course in Vietnam. And in the process they are qui­et­ly, incre­men­tal­ly shift­ing the zeit­geist.

One more exam­ple. Last sum­mer Vietnam’s top health offi­cial bad­ly bun­gled her ministry’s response to a series of vaccine-related infant deaths. This time the remix­ers drove the online con­ver­sa­tion again with a flood of repur­posed images. 

This one is an imag­i­nary new nation­al stamp hon­or­ing the health min­is­ter for her ser­vice, but it just wouldn’t stick. Online com­menters had great fun explain­ing that’s because peo­ple were spit­ting on the front of the stamp instead of the back. Photos of the Minster—not an espe­cial­ly attrac­tive woman—[were] giv­en a wide, end­less vari­ety of satir­i­cal cap­tions. The Tuyết Bitch Collection got involved in the fun, not sur­pris­ing­ly. Another ver­sion was a mock adver­tise­ment which had the Minister endors­ing a potent anti-shame cream. A favorite of mine was a get out of trou­ble free” card for gov­ern­ment offi­cials used in dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions to get out of penal­ties of all kinds, unlim­it­ed usage. 

After a cou­ple of months of this a main­stream online news­pa­per, The Petrotimes, pub­lished an op-ed in which they sug­gest­ed that maybe for the good of the coun­try it might be best if the Minister con­sid­ered step­ping down. This was the first time in the his­to­ry of mod­ern Vietnam that a state-controlled news out­let had open­ly called for the res­ig­na­tion of a senior par­ty offi­cial. Within a few hours, not sur­pris­ing­ly, the op-ed had been tak­en down, rel­e­gat­ed to the Memory Hole, but screen­grabs of that op-ed con­tin­ued to cir­cu­late wide­ly around Vietnam. And at a news con­fer­ence a short time lat­er, a top par­ty offi­cial was asked on the record if he thought that the Health Minister should resign over pres­sure from Vietnam’s online pub­lic sphere.”

Vietnam is hard­ly the only place where this has been hap­pen­ing. We saw it just a few weeks ago in Turkey, as all of you prob­a­bly remem­ber. Artist and Internet com­men­ta­tor An Xiao Mina of The Civic Beat called meme cul­ture the street art of the Internet.” She’s point­ed out that Weibo users in China have for a long time been using Internet memes to cir­cum­vent and mock gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship there. They can even jump the rails of the web and burst out into the real world, where their impact is even more pow­er­ful.

It’s often said by way of crit­i­cism that these images are ama­teur­ish and juve­nile and short-lived, and that’s true. But they seem to be achiev­ing what all the finger-wagging from the dis­si­dent blog­gers in Western democ­ra­cies has not. They’re chang­ing minds. And they’re doing it so pre­cise­ly because they are juve­nile and short-lived and ephemer­al and yes, often sil­ly. That’s the whole point.

"Y U NO Guy" meme image captioned "Why you no give us Internet freedom?"

As for what all this means for Vietnam’s future well, I think if we’re expect­ing Tahrir Square or Gezi Park to to break out in Hanoi any­time soon, that’s not going to hap­pen. Vietnam has had enough of vio­lent con­flict to last for a very long time. But as schol­ars like Clay Shirky and Zeynep Tufekci have sug­gest­ed, per­haps it’s time we stop spend­ing so much time spend­ing atten­tion to the high dra­ma of social media-fuelled protests and instead start con­sid­er­ing these tools’ roles in capac­i­ty build­ing. It’s also a mis­take to con­sid­er all of this through the lens of Western assump­tions and expec­ta­tions. A young Vietnamese friend of mine said to me recent­ly, The rev­o­lu­tion is begin­ning here. But it will hap­pen in a Vietnamese way, not a Western way.”

One more point. Last November, a few months after Vietnam’s meme com­mu­ni­ty went apeshit over the cen­shorship of Bụi Đời Chợ Lớn and just a year after Vietnam had banned The Hunger Games through­out the coun­try, the sec­ond film in that fran­chise, Catching Fire, opened in hun­dreds of Vietnamese cin­e­mas with­out a word from the cen­sor­ship com­mit­tee about it being too vio­lent or too any­thing.

Thank you.

Further Reference

Prior to Theorizing the Web, Patric posted Make Lulz, Not War on Medium, which contains an early version of parts of this talk.


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