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. 

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.