Rachel Kalmar: It is my great pleasure today to introduce our speaker An Xiao Mina, who will be talking not about the Internet of Things but rather the things that emerge from the Internet. An is a technologist and researcher and fellow fellow at the Berkman Klein Center. She leads the product team at Meedan, which builds tools for global journalism. An is also working on a book about the topics that she's going to be discussing today, on Internet memes and social movements, which is going be published by Beacon Press.

Now, I've had the opportunity to get to know An over the last year at the Berkman Klein Center through the Hardware Working Group, which An and I together with Jason Griffey started. We also have the distinction of spanning fifteen timezones, which is a challenge that is known by all people who produce things in Shenzhen. So that's our own little taste of it.

My own research is about the Internet of Things, and so it's been really interesting hearing and learning about An's perspective, which is not about just the technology but more about how ideas on the Internet can turn into physical objects and how this process is shaped by people and by social movements. I'm excited to hear more about this today. Please join me in welcoming An.

An Xiao Mina: Thank you so much Rachel for the kind intro­duc­tion. Thank you every­one for com­ing to this talk. I’m excit­ed to speak here because I became acquaint­ed with the Berkman Klein com­mu­ni­ty about four years ago when I spoke at ROFLCon 3—Rolling On the Floor Laughing Con—on a pan­el that Ethan Zuckerman host­ed about Internet meme cul­ture glob­al­ly. And this talk today is kind of an exten­sion and evo­lu­tion of some of the research that I pre­sent­ed there, and is look­ing at some new trends around object cul­ture and its inter­sec­tion with Internet cul­ture.

So, I’m going to be talk­ing about hats, if that’s not obvi­ous from this pho­to. But I also want to clar­i­fy the hats I’m wear­ing today—the metaphor­i­cal hats. I’m a prod­uct man­ag­er so I think about prod­ucts and how prod­ucts enter the world and how they influ­ence the world and reach new audi­ences and users. And I also look at Internet cul­ture and how that inter­sects with social move­ments. I’m inter­est­ed in kind of the social pow­er of the Internet and some of its draw­backs as well. And I’m also a lit­tle bit of a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, so many of the pho­tos here are pho­tos that I’ve tak­en in dif­fer­ent con­texts around the United States and in China. And as I speak I encour­age you to ask ques­tions. We’ll have time after­ward for Q&A, but also feel free to just raise your hand and jump in if you have ques­tions.

I’ll talk­ing about two seem­ing­ly very dif­fer­ent con­texts, one of which is polit­i­cal cul­ture in the United States in the past few months, as evi­denced by this pho­to. And then I’m going to jump to Shenzhen in China, Southern China, to talk a lit­tle bit about com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion cul­ture over there. And I’m going to try to weave togeth­er some threads and themes, and talk a lit­tle bit about the mechan­ics of object pro­duc­tion as it meets net­worked cul­ture.

So I want to start with the Women’s March from just a few months back, and sub­se­quent march­es and protests that’ve hap­pened since then. From afar it’s always a very visu­al­ly strik­ing move­ment. You can always see a lot of signs, you can see a pletho­ra of pink hats. And I think what’s inter­est­ing here is when you start to zoom in and you see how those signs are struc­tured and how they’re often inter­sect­ing with the Internet. It’s very much a net­worked sort of protest in terms of its aes­thet­ics and media.

Over the past few years we’ve seen the emer­gence of hash­tags, these kind of dig­i­tal arti­facts pop­ping up on protest signs, from #BlackLivesMatter to #nasty, ref­er­enc­ing the hash­tag #nasty­woman that popped up after the third Presidential debate. These hash­tags are very inter­est­ing to me because it’s a dig­i­tal arti­fact that then gets expressed into the phys­i­cal sign. And why peo­ple do that is an open ques­tion and some­thing I’m inter­est­ed in talk­ing about.

That hash­tag is kind of cen­tral to the sign, and these hash­tags are start­ing to behave very sim­i­lar to how we see hash­tags on Twitter and Instagram posts, where they’re kind of tying togeth­er dif­fer­ent signs where the main theme is seman­ti­cal­ly very dif­fer­ent, but then you have these hash­tags that tie togeth­er those signs in the same way that dig­i­tal hash­tags might con­nect Instagram posts and tweets. But here it’s hap­pen­ing in the phys­i­cal world.

Several women lined up holding protest signs reading "nope" below a screenshot from a video of an octopus quickly retreating captioned "nope nope nope" etc.

And then you have oth­er sorts of dig­i­tal arti­facts pop­ping up, specif­i­cal­ly Internet memes. The nope nope nope” octo­pus has popped up in a num­ber of signs, with these nope nope nope” signs, which are very com­mon in dif­fer­ent protests.

A woman wearing a sign reading "Definitely gives a S#!T" next to a meme image of a honey badger captioned "Honey badget don't care"

You have the hon­ey bad­ger does­n’t care; this time the hon­ey bad­ger does care, and this a print­out of that same hon­ey bad­ger meme.

And then the This is fine” dog, which became very pop­u­lar in 2016 also pop­ping up on signs. And so you’re start­ing to see the emer­gence of kind of Internet meme cul­ture inside the phys­i­cal signs, which are then photographed—they’re they’re designed to be photographed—and then pushed back online, where they enter the Internet meme ver­nac­u­lar.

The hash­tag #WhyIMarch was a pop­u­lar hash­tag dur­ing the March, and there are a num­ber of peo­ple like this woman who was encour­ag­ing peo­ple to actu­al­ly write on the sign why they march. And she was real­ly riff­ing off the social media sup­port kit of the Women’s March, which had encour­aged peo­ple to use the hash­tag to indi­cate why they want to march. And so here again you have a dig­i­tal prac­tice placed onto the phys­i­cal sign, and then peo­ple were tak­ing pic­tures of that sign, putting it back online, back on the hash­tag. So it became part of the Internet ver­nac­u­lar, even though it was hap­pen­ing in phys­i­cal space.

Screenshot of April Daniel's tweet reading "First they came for the Muslims and we said 'not this time, motherfucker.'"

April Daniels on Twitter, 11/15/2016

Let’s dive into one of these kind of viral media. This is one of the more pop­u­lar tweets that emerged after the elec­tions, that came from pro­gres­sive cir­cles. And so this tweet from April Daniels as you can see got 14,000 retweets, real­ly res­onat­ed with a lot of peo­ple.

A woman holding up a protest sign with the text of the April Daniels tweet

Desusnice on Instagram, 1/29/2017

And then dur­ing the Muslim ban protests a few months ago, that same tweet start­ed show­ing up on signs. Because it had gone so viral, it start­ed to show up on dif­fer­ent signs. And this is one that was in Los Angeles I believe, and then it was then post­ed on Instagram and then once again entered the kind of cir­cu­la­tion on the Internet.

These are pho­tographs that I took of vari­a­tions of that. People were remix­ing that with—this is obvi­ous­ly Grumpy Cat. The rea­son she had includ­ed Grumpy Cat was so she could have a con­ver­sa­tion with her chil­dren with­out using the punch line for the orig­i­nal tweet.

And then of course also vari­a­tions where peo­ple have mod­i­fied that, and this is in Copley square in Boston.

Photo of a woman from behind, holding a protest sign on which "Black Lives Matter" can be read by people behind her.

And so what we’re see­ing today is protest signs have as their audi­ence and source of inspi­ra­tion both the phys­i­cal crowd around them, which is what tra­di­tion­al­ly protest signs have done; the wider Internet—the Internet where peo­ple are look­ing at pic­tures of these signs; and then all the oth­er protests as well. And what we’re see­ing is an emer­gence of kind of a shared visu­al and ver­bal vocab­u­lary of protest signs and oth­er objects that pop up around nation­al protests and increas­ing­ly in inter­na­tion­al protests in many Western con­texts.

And I includ­ed this one because this is kind of an indi­ca­tor of that new rela­tion­ship with the net­work, because many signs now have words on the back as well. Because there’s no longer this rela­tion­ship or assump­tion that the pho­tog­ra­ph­er will be in front of you but also might be part of the crowd and there­fore tak­ing pic­tures and there­fore maybe might be post­ing things online.

A man and woman seated next to each other, photographed from behind, she wearing a pink pussyhat, he a red baseball cap with "Inauguration Day" and the date visible on the side

Anyone who’s been to these march­es knows that there are also a num­ber of hats that’ve been pop­ping up. And this is a pic­ture I took at the Women’s March, because it was right after inau­gu­ra­tion day, of two types of hats. And it was very appar­ent to me when I entered Union Station to see pink hats and red hats, and very much the asso­ci­a­tion with these two hats is one of peo­ple com­ing for the com­ing for the Women’s March, and one of peo­ple com­ing for the inau­gu­ra­tion day.

And so I want to zoom in on the ones on the left first. These are the pink pussy­hats. This is the Pussyhat Project, start­ed real­ly [as] the brain­child of Krista Suh in Los Angeles and became part of a project with the Little Knittery in Los Angeles.

And I’m going to ask if we could start pass­ing out— I actu­al­ly brought some of the pink pussy­hats. And start look­ing at them, because from afar they all look very sim­i­lar. You see the sea of pink heads. But in detail they’re actu­al­ly quite dif­fer­ent. And the way the project worked was the Pussyhat Project dis­trib­uted pat­terns online that encour­aged peo­ple to to make these kind of pussy­hat designs, these pink yarn designs. And then they pre­fig­ured that with an illus­tra­tion of what that might look like at the March, to real­ly inspire peo­ple. And this hap­pened about two months before the March, and peo­ple start get­ting togeth­er in knit­ting cir­cles.

A man and woman wearing a variation of the pussyhat made of dark red and black fake fur

And instead of fol­low­ing the pat­tern word for word or kind of script by script, instead by peo­ple made vari­a­tions of that. And what I want to argue today is that part of these hats—these phys­i­cal hats are actu­al­ly fol­low­ing Internet meme cul­ture and the norms of Internet memes. And as you look at them, I’ll start tying that togeth­er.

But take a look at some of the these hats and these vari­a­tions. These are all vari­a­tions from DC. Here’s a black one with the rain­bow flag. These are from Maryland. And you can see on the sign dif­fer­ent col­ors beyond pink. And then this is one from Boston. This is pussy­hat screen­prints in Oakland.

So peo­ple are tak­ing the basic idea, the basic ker­nel of it, but often remix­ing it. And as you’re look­ing at these you can see in detail that there’s actu­al­ly quite a bit of vari­a­tion.

And there’s a loom passed around from Berkman’s own Carey Andersen, because she also made some as well and used a loom instead of the hand­made instruc­tions. So peo­ple often rein­ter­pret­ed the hat to their own skills and inter­ests.

And that was kind of the point. The point of the project was that it was net­worked. These are pic­tures from the Instagram account for the Pussyhat Project. And the whole goal here was that the hats were designed so that peo­ple who could not attend phys­i­cal­ly would make the hat. They would send it to some­one who was able to attend. That per­son who attend­ed would then take a pic­ture of them­selves with the hat, and send that back to the mak­er. And so the whole point of this was that it was dig­i­tal, it was net­worked, and it was par­tic­i­pa­to­ry in a way that com­bined both the phys­i­cal and the dig­i­tal.

I sug­gest defin­ing an inter­net meme as
(a) a group of dig­i­tal items shar­ing com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics of con­tent, form, and/or stance;
(b) that were cre­at­ed with aware­ness of each oth­er; and
© were cir­cu­lat­ed, imi­tat­ed, and trans­formed via the inter­net by mul­ti­ple users.
Limor Shifman, A Meme is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part One) [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

So what I’m talk­ing about today is that I think these these hats, these signs, and these oth­er objects that I’ll be talk­ing about today are part of Internet meme cul­ture in a dif­fer­ent way than we tra­di­tion­al­ly think about objects. So when I talk about Internet meme, I want to make a dis­tinc­tion between the kind of Dawkins sense of meme, which is the notion of the cul­tur­al unit, and the kind of notion of the Internet meme.

Limor Shifman has writ­ten about this, and it helps us make a dis­tinc­tion between between—you know, the word Internet meme” has kind of emerged in the cul­ture of the Internet as this kind of unique prac­tice, so this thing on the Internet that hap­pens that’s kind of diverged—like a meme—from the orig­i­nal Dawkins sense of meme. So when I’m talk­ing about meme today, when I’m talk­ing about memet­ics, I’m typ­i­cal­ly talk­ing about Internet memes specif­i­cal­ly.

And so Shifman’s def­i­n­i­tion of memes is a use­ful one that I tend to agree with, that helps us think a lit­tle bit about what’s going on with these hats and these signs. So, an Internet meme is a group of dig­i­tal objects that share a com­mon stance, form, and con­tent. And so you have these kind of shared char­ac­ter­is­tics, where there’s a Platonic form but no one is alike. They’re cre­at­ed with aware­ness of each oth­er, so there’s this kind of social com­po­nent to it. And then they’re cir­cu­lat­ed, imi­tat­ed, and trans­formed via the Internet by mul­ti­ple users.

This last part is real­ly impor­tant because this notion of trans­for­ma­tion and mul­ti­plic­i­ty is what makes an Internet meme dif­fer­ent from a viral object, at least with­in the def­i­n­i­tion that I’m talk­ing about today. Because a viral object might be like the Old Spice video that is shared fre­quent­ly and is looked at and viewed, but does­n’t have this notion of trans­for­ma­tion. Whereas as a video like the Gangnam Style” video, where peo­ple are danc­ing along cre­at­ing their own videos is clos­er to what an Internet meme is, at least in this def­i­n­i­tion.

The results of a Google Images search for Nyan Cat, showing many variations and interpretations

So the clas­sic exam­ple of course is the Nyan Cat. And you’re look­ing at the Nyan Cat, it has com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics of form, there are mul­ti­ple peo­ple cre­at­ing ver­sions of this, they’re fol­low­ing the 8‑bit for­mat and this idea of a cat with a Pop Tart, but often remix­ing and reshap­ing it based on their per­spec­tives, their inter­ests, or con­tri­bu­tions.

And in many ways, the pussy­hats fol­low the same for­mats, right. And in many ways it’s as much dig­i­tal when you look Etsy, look on Google Shopping… Look on any web site and just Google pussy­hat,” you will see that wide vari­ety of vari­a­tion, just like you do with dig­i­tal memes.

And I think this is inten­tion­al. I think this is peo­ple aware of the fact that they’ll be pho­tographed, the fact that these images will be cir­cu­lat­ed online, and that their con­tri­bu­tion will be part of the shared a visu­al lan­guage around protest in the United

Now, there’s often a con­trast drawn between—and espe­cial­ly on the week­end of the Women’s March—between the hand-knit pink hats and then the red Make America Great Again mer­chan­dise that was per­ceived to be mass-produced.

And again, from afar it looked like that, right. You see pink hats, you see red hats. But as you dig deep­er you see that these kind of mass-produced objects also have this notion of remix and mul­ti­plic­i­ty that we asso­ciate with Internet meme cul­ture, and as I argue here with object meme cul­ture as well.

These are oth­er pho­tos that I took dur­ing the Women’s March. This is a man who’s wear­ing a red hat that he had remixed because he was cam­paign­ing for trans­gen­der equal­i­ty in North Carolina. And so remixed the red hat to reclaim the notion of the red hat for his polit­i­cal cause.

Other hats includ­ed WTF America.” This woman had the Unitarian Universalist prin­ci­ples on her hat. Our own Ethan Zuckerman made a remix; this is Make America Kind Again”

And if we could start pass­ing around the red hats—I think those are cir­cu­lat­ing now—some of the red hats cir­cu­lat­ing include this one from Jeronima Saldaña who’s an activists/artist who who cre­at­ed all these remix­es in response to key phras­es and things that had been cir­cu­lat­ing online. And you can see those hats, and you see how they’re made. They all take the form but then they remix it, they mod­i­fy it.

It’s a very dif­fer­ent process of course from the knit­ted hats, which rely on hand pro­duc­tion, and I’ll walk through how those are made. But the spir­it of this is the same, is that with dig­i­tal objects we’re used to the idea that they nev­er stay still. And now we’re start­ing to see this with cer­tain a class of phys­i­cal objects as well.

And I would argue also part of the effec­tive­ness of the hat, if you look at Jeronimo’s pro­file pic­ture, is that this becomes a polit­i­cal indi­ca­tor, a dec­la­ra­tion of polit­i­cal alle­giance through self­ie cul­ture. So once again the hat is phys­i­cal but it’s also dig­i­tal. In the same way that screen over­lays for mar­riage equal­i­ty had been a way to indi­cate polit­i­cal alle­giance, now you have hats as well. And that’s part of the effec­tive­ness of the red hats.

So, 2016 was known as the meme elec­tion. I think a lot of peo­ple were observ­ing this. I’m sure many of us were observ­ing the num­ber of memes that were pop­ping up. But I think what was miss­ing from this con­ver­sa­tion was this notion that meme life­cy­cles now include both dig­i­tal objects, and increas­ing­ly, phys­i­cal objects.

Meme lifecycles include both digital objects and physical objects

And let’s take a look at what I mean by that. You can see in the back­ground some of the nasty woman” mugs.

So remem­ber dur­ing the third pres­i­den­tial debate when the Republican can­di­date called the Democratic can­di­date such a nasty woman.” I’m sure many of us remem­ber this moment. Within sec­onds, peo­ple respond­ed. They cre­at­ed a hash­tag, #nasty­woman, #nasty, as a way of reclaim­ing that phrase as a source of pow­er rather than an insult.

Within min­utes of that, there were dig­i­tal ones. People remixed the Janet Jackson album Nasty to include Hillary Clinton’s face. There were comics of these. We’re used to this kind of thing hap­pen­ing now. This is the meme elec­tion.

But what was inter­est­ing to me was the prod­uct meme that popped up after that. If you search on Google Shopping for nasty woman pil­low, nasty woman cloth bag, nasty woman hat, nasty woman mug, nasty woman pin, nasty woman stick­er… Think about any prod­uct and put nasty woman,” you’ll prob­a­bly find that prod­uct. And you’ll prob­a­bly find end­less vari­a­tions of that prod­uct, in much the same way that the dig­i­tal memes were cir­cu­lat­ing.

Those memes then, as they shift, they became part of self­ie memes. This is a pho­to from a fundrais­er for the Texas Democrats. And then they cir­cu­late, they cir­cu­late, they go back online, and again this kind of inter­sec­tion between the dig­i­tal and the phys­i­cal with objects are just as memet­ic as the dig­i­tal objects. The phys­i­cal objects are just as memet­ic as the dig­i­tal objects.

And so I argue we should extend our under­stand­ing of Internet memes to include phys­i­cal objects as well. A cer­tain class of phys­i­cal objects, not yet nasty woman, com­put­ers, or cars—or maybe there are, I’m not sure. But for a cer­tain class phys­i­cal objects, you have this notion of remix­ing almost as quick­ly as dig­i­tal objects.

None of this is a sur­prise or an acci­dent. Since 2008—the Facebook election—the meme elec­tion has seen a well­spring of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments that have made it easy for us to quick­ly adapt a t‑shirt for any idea that we have on the Internet. So it’s easy for us to slap on on text, a logo, a dig­i­tal meme, and put that on t‑shirt, indi­cate a price, and then do some fundrais­ing around that. And then you can get the match­ing mug as well.

Sites like Teespring, Vistaprint, let you order just one hat of a kind. So if you real­ly feel pas­sion­ate about that hash­tag you could just get one for your­self.

CustomInk, there’s a hat float­ing around from CustomInk. Allows you to do this for all kinds of prod­ucts. They real­ly stream­line that process so that it’s much sim­pler to take your idea into a phys­i­cal object in the same way that Photoshop has done for images.

April Daniels on Twitter, 2/1/2017

And if we fol­low the path of April Daniels’ tweets, she got so much response from November out for her tweet that she then went on to Teespring, cre­at­ed a shirt using that tweet, and then cre­at­ed a fundrais­er for the ACLU.

It should be as easy to bring a prod­uct to mar­ket as it is to have a great idea. The best ideas should win, not just the ones with access to cap­i­tal.
Walker Williams, These Guys Made a T‑Shirt. Now Silicon Valley Is Giving Them Millions” [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

This is all delib­er­ate. Walker Williams, the founder of Teespring, in an inter­view not­ed that the goal here, the goal of the site, is to bring a prod­uct to mar­ket as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. To take care of the pro­duc­tion, the logis­tics of ship­ping, the logis­tics of print­ing, so that all you have to do is have the idea and so you can get your audi­ence as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. So it stream­lines this process. This is why it’s just as easy—almost as easy—to type a hash­tag as it is to make a t‑shirt with that hash­tag. Because you have tools and process­es that make that sim­ple.

So I’m going to tran­si­tion now to China. And I want you to hold this thought about this idea of out­sourc­ing a project, and out­sourc­ing sort of the tools and the abil­i­ty to cre­ate for­mer­ly com­plex prod­ucts, and start think­ing about this in oth­er contexts—in the com­mer­cial con­text.

So I want to take you to Shenzhen. Shenzhen is a small city of twelve mil­lion peo­ple in the Pearl River Delta. If some­thing is made in China, it’s prob­a­bly made in the Pearl River Delta. And if that some­thing is hard­ware, it’s prob­a­bly made in Shenzhen. This is a region of the world typ­i­cal­ly known as the world’s fac­to­ry, where the stereo­types of Made in China,” cheap prod­ucts, copy­cat goods, things like, are pop­ping up and being shipped around the world.

This infra­struc­ture has also giv­en birth to a new type of object pro­duc­tion, known as shanzhai. And I’ll talk about shanzhai, and I apol­o­gize to the non-Chinese speak­ers, but Shenzhen and shanzhai have noth­ing to do—they’re not relat­ed ety­mo­log­i­cal­ly, although they sound very sim­i­lar. But shanzhai pro­duc­tion is endem­ic to Shenzhen.

What we’re see­ing right now is a shift in nar­ra­tive about Shenzhen from made in China to cre­at­ed in China. And in the Western world, the nar­ra­tive is shift­ing [to] Shenzhen as the Silicon Valley of hard­ware. How many of you have heard that phrase, Shenzhen is the Silicon Valley of hard­ware? It’s start­ing to emerge, yeah. It’s start­ing to become more famil­iar as the nar­ra­tives around what is made in China, how things are made in China, is start­ing to shift.

But what inter­est­ed me was— At one point I was inter­est­ed in kind of Silicon Valley prac­tices enter­ing Shenzhen. But I was also inter­est­ed in self­ie sticks. And I’ll talk a lit­tle bit about why that is. But let me define shanzhai for you real­ly quick­ly. Shanzhai means moun­tain ban­dit,” and it’s typ­i­cal­ly trans­lat­ed as boot­leg” but in many cas­es it’s actu­al­ly a form of open pro­duc­tion that very much looks very sim­i­lar to the hat pro­duc­tion, to the yarn pro­duc­tion, where many peo­ple are pro­duc­ing objects using raw mate­ri­als.

And so if I can ask if we can start pass­ing around the self­ie sticks. I brought a bunch of self­ie sticks from Shenzhen. And again, from afar they all look the same, but as you look clos­er you start to see these char­ac­ter­is­tics, these com­mon char­ac­ters of form, style, stance. And I’ll talk a lit­tle bit about how this open com­mu­ni­ty of pro­duc­tion is now inter­sect­ing with the Internet.

So for those of who don’t have self­ie sticks in your hands, here’s some pho­tos I’ve tak­en from around the world. This is from New York. This is from Paris; sor­ry it’s a lit­tle dark. This is from Spain.

These are from China. And the self­ie sick is itself an iter­a­tion, it’s itself a remix of the cul­ture of pro­duc­ing tripods. And so you remove the tri­pod base, and then you get a self­ie stick. And so this is real­ly the evo­lu­tion of the self­ie stick, in the form of iter­a­tion. There is no one self­ie stick. There is no one pro­duc­er of self­ie sticks. There’s no one fac­to­ry of self­ie sticks. There’s no one ship­per of self­ie sticks. It’s a high­ly multiply-produced and dis­trib­uted prod­uct. And yet some­how it went glob­al and became a glob­al prod­uct very quick­ly.

And there are a ton of vari­a­tions. There’s ones with mir­rors— [To audi­ence:] Yes.

Audience 1: [Question inaudi­ble]

Mina: There is, actu­al­ly, and we can talk about that, actu­al­ly. So let’s hold on to that note.

There are self­ie sticks with Bluetooth trig­gers. This is a self­ie stick that has no trig­ger because it comes with an app that detects when you are doing the peace sign, which is a com­mon sign that Asians use when get­ting a pic­ture tak­en, and it auto­mat­i­cal­ly takes your pic­ture.

There’s a tiny self­ie stick. Their are mid-size self sticks. All of these self­ie sticks are in this wide vari­ety of vari­a­tion. And so when we’re talk­ing about patents, for instance, the ques­tion of course is then which self­ie stick is patent­ed and to what extent are vari­a­tions cov­ered by that patent or not? And so it’s an open ques­tion.

By work­ing togeth­er, the at first small but quick­ly expand­ing net­work of pro­duc­ers, design­ers, entre­pre­neurs, engi­neers, ven­dors, and traders was able to com­pete with the large con­tract man­u­fac­tur­ers and their inter­na­tion­al clients, reach­ing emer­gent glob­al mar­kets pre­vi­ous­ly untapped by Western IT giants.
Seyram Avle and Silvia Lindtner, Design(ing) Here’ and There’: Tech Entrepreneurs, Global Markets, and Reflexivity in Design Processes [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

The way that shanzhai works, this is a great descrip­tion from Silvia Lindtner and Seyram Avle, who wrote about shanzhai, is that it’s a net­worked process. It’s very much bottom-up pro­duc­tion rather than top-down sup­ply chain man­age­ment. What that means is that a small but quickly-expanding net­work of pro­duc­ers, design­ers, entre­pre­neurs, engi­neers, ven­dors, and traders are work­ing in a net­worked way to com­pete in the glob­al mar­kets, and typ­i­cal­ly in Global South mar­kets, to cre­ate prod­ucts that peo­ple peo­ple want but typ­i­cal­ly don’t have access to from kind of top-down sup­ply chain man­age­ment com­pa­nies. And so shanzhai is very much a net­worked process with­in Shenzhen—Shenzhen the city not shanzhai the pro­duc­tion process.

Shenzhen the city, you have stores where you can buy the raw parts to make elec­tron­ics. You can also buy the elec­tron­ics them­selves. The shanzhai ecosys­tem has cre­at­ed minia­ture phones, it’s cre­at­ed Bluetooth karaoke mics for your smart­phone. And these are phones that were exhib­it­ed at the V&A Museum exhi­bi­tion in the Shenzhen Biennale. And these phones were again a remix of exist­ing phones but with larg­er but­tons, so that elder­ly peo­ple or peo­ple with visu­al impair­ments could actu­al­ly read the but­tons.

And so our nar­ra­tives about prod­ucts that come out of Shenzhen as copy­cats real­ly need to shift to start think­ing about this notion of remix. That there’s a base prod­uct that peo­ple are often riff­ing off of, and then mak­ing vari­a­tions that did­n’t exist before. [To audi­ence:] Yes.

Audience 2: You put your own brand on that, and sell it.

Mina: Yeah, that’s right. That’s a great point. So what we’re see­ing here is an exam­ple of white-label pro­duc­tion. So in that notion of brand it’s very sim­i­lar to the hats, actu­al­ly, where you can order these phones online and then place a brand or brand iden­ti­ty or logo, sim­i­lar to the hats and how the hats work. And so these adap­ta­tions are very much designed for peo­ple to come from the Internet to say, Okay, I want these sort of phones. I’m going to slap a logo on it and then cre­ate that.” And so it’s a good exam­ple of white-label pro­duc­tion as well.

Products are market-tested direct­ly by throw­ing small batch­es of sev­er­al thou­sand pieces into the mar­ket. If there is demand and they sell quick­ly, more will be pro­duced. If the mar­ket demands some­thing else, alter­ations to the func­tion­al­i­ty and design will be made. Here, pro­to­typ­ing and con­sumer test­ing occur rapid­ly and along­side the man­u­fac­tur­ing iter­a­tion process, rather than occur­ring before­hand (where it is com­mon­ly placed in Western-centric, pri­mar­i­ly Silicon Valley type design mod­els).
Silvia Lindtner, Hacking in Shenzhen inter­view [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

So the way shanzhai works is very sim­i­lar to how dig­i­tal con­tent works. And if any­one’s ever test­ed head­lines for jour­nal­ism arti­cles, in jour­nal­ism peo­ple will often test ten dif­fer­ent head­lines, throw them all out, see which ones get res­o­nance, and then pick the one that gets the most likes and clicks and then ampli­fy that one.

Shanzhai works in a very sim­i­lar way to dig­i­tal con­tent in that regard. Products are market-tested direct­ly by throw­ing small batch­es of sev­er­al thou­sand pieces into the mar­ket. You can imag­ine the first self­ie sticks, peo­ple weren’t sure if those would actu­al­ly reach mar­ket sat­u­ra­tion or mar­ket inter­est. And so they would just throw out a few hun­dred and see what hap­pened, and then see if peo­ple respond­ed and want­ed to buy some.

And then here, it’s actu­al­ly a very dif­fer­ent process from how Silicon Valley typ­i­cal­ly works. Here pro­to­typ­ing and con­sumer test­ing occur rapid­ly and along­side the man­u­fac­tur­ing iter­a­tion process. So as you’re throw­ing things out, as with those head­lines, as with dig­i­tal con­tent, you’re also get­ting feed­back imme­di­ate­ly from buy­ers. And so that’s how shanzhai works. It’s very much an open sys­tem.

And this was real­ly before the Internet start­ed to take hold in China. And so as the Internet is con­nect­ing with this kind of open net­work sys­tem, we’re start­ing to see that the Internet is in many dif­fer­ent ways short­en­ing pro­duc­tion time. I did a work­shop with Sam Hu at the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, which was found­ed by David Li, who’s a friend of Berkman and an advis­er at the Digital Asia Hub. And there they’re real­ly study­ing dif­fer­ent styles of open inno­va­tion. They look dif­fer­ent from our typ­i­cal def­i­n­i­tions in the West about what inno­va­tion looks like.

And so what Sam was real­ly argu­ing as we did this work­shop is that the Internet is short­en­ing pro­duc­tion time. Typically in Shenzhen with the shanzhai ecosys­tem, a phone can be built in twenty-six days. A new phone can be built in twenty-six days. And Sam was argu­ing that that can be dra­mat­i­cal­ly short­ened to some­times as short as two weeks, but prob­a­bly a lit­tle bit longer than that. But in any case, we’re see­ing increas­es in effi­cien­cy.

And to break that down a lit­tle bit, these are few exam­ples of what that might look like. So WeChat—how many of you are famil­iar with WeChat? Chinese lan­guage social net­work, kind of resem­bles WhatsApp or Facebook. It’s allowed for peo­ple to direct­ly com­mu­ni­cate with their fac­to­ry, regard­less of where they are. Importantly, it’s allowed for user feed­back loops, so that users of self­ie sticks or oth­er prod­ucts can have direct inter­ac­tion and con­tri­bu­tions with the design­ers and mak­ers. So you have a tighter feed­back loop so peo­ple can make those quick inte­gra­tions that I was just talk­ing about. You have direct sales and epay­ment. And epay­ment is real­ly impor­tant because it means you don’t even have to leave your house to buy a new prod­uct.

Taobao about is anoth­er site. How many of you are famil­iar with Taobao? It’s kind of an eBay-like plat­form, yeah. So Taobao has crowd­fund­ing as well. So, sim­i­lar to those Teespring hats that I was show­ing, where you can test an idea, see how many peo­ple buy it, before you make a pro­duc­tion line. This allows for crowd fund­ing of dif­fer­ent prod­ucts. It’s also direct sales, and Taobao real­ly taps into the shanzhai ecosys­tem because it pro­vides data for the things that you’re sell­ing so that you can respond, just like head­lines, to the ones that are trend­ing and quick­ly spin up new pro­duc­tion lines.

Alibaba Express han­dles ship­ping logis­tics. So the dif­fi­cul­ty of mov­ing atoms across coun­tries becomes stream­lined.

And then there are also Western net­works, and this is probably—I’m not sure—probably how the self­ie stick, the hov­er­board, e‑cigarettes, first start­ed emerg­ing in Western con­texts. And through Kickstarter, through Amazon, it allowed for crowd­fund­ing and direct sales online.

And then also through Instagram. Instagram is a key way that a lot of the shanzhai ecosys­tem is test­ed in glob­al mar­kets, based on likes and shares. So peo­ple can again, just like with dig­i­tal con­tent, test an idea before com­mit­ting to the full thing.

Wired Companies

  1. A burst of dig­i­tal­ly dri­ven pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.
  2. Greater access to financ­ing and low­er risk.
  3. Growing base of con­sumers and rich­er inter­ac­tions.
  4. Lower bar­ri­ers to inno­va­tion.
  5. New com­pe­ti­tion as the Internet empow­ers entre­pre­neurs and small busi­ness­es.

McKinsey Quarterly, China’s ris­ing Internet wave: Wired com­pa­nies [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

McKinsey’s done a report on this on wired com­pa­nies. And so there’s a num­ber of ben­e­fits that a com­pa­ny gets when they con­nect with the Internet. And obvi­ous­ly there’s this kind of boost in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. But as we saw with the t‑shirts, as you get an increase in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty you also get a flow­er­ing of cre­ativ­i­ty. So points four and five are real­ly rel­e­vant to this con­ver­sa­tion, where you have these low­er bar­ri­ers to inno­va­tion. It’s low­er bar­ri­ers to pro­duc­tion, to cre­ation. So that once you have an idea online, it’s easy to real­ize that and actu­al­ize that in phys­i­cal space.

And then also new com­pe­ti­tion, because it empow­ers entre­pre­neurs and small busi­ness. We can debate that point, but the point here is that it’s eas­i­er for an indi­vid­ual with a ran­dom idea to make a prod­uct and then test it in the glob­al mar­ket.

And self­ie sticks again are a good exam­ple of that, because self­ie sticks are kind of a spec­ta­cle. This is a self­ie stick with a light. And it’s a spec­ta­cle when it’s being used, and peo­ple are com­pelled to take a pic­ture of it. And when they take a pic­ture of it, they post it back online and then peo­ple are won­der­ing, Oh, where did you get that self­ie stick?” So just like those dig­i­tal memes, the self­ie stick becomes part of dig­i­tal meme cul­ture and Internet meme cul­ture. And then those sales on Instagram are cir­cu­lat­ing on the same net­works on which self­ie stick memes are cir­cu­lat­ing.

So if we can imag­ine— This is a very rough dia­gram; this is much rougher than the oth­er one. But if we can imag­ine the kind of meme-sparking event— I’m sure we all remem­ber the first time we saw some­one using a self­ie stick and how odd that looked. And the kind of com­pul­sion to take the pic­ture. That pic­ture as it cir­cu­lates online, it’s being watched, and peo­ple are look­ing at the trends of self­ie sticks. Which ones are cir­cu­lat­ing, which ones are pop­u­lar, where are they com­ing from. And then in the shanzhai ecosys­tem, peo­ple can cre­ate a vari­a­tion, post it online, test that on Instagram, test it on Taobao, test it on oth­er sites. And then get feed­back from their users.

And often­times they often bypass the phys­i­cal mar­kets. They just rely on the Internet as a means of dis­tri­b­u­tion. And so the object dis­tri­b­u­tion is look­ing just as memet­ic as kind of the way that the dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of those objects are spread­ing. And then final­ly, if it goes into phys­i­cal mar­kets it’s often reached a cer­tain scale. And so at that point it becomes like the self­ie stick, a glob­al prod­uct that you can now find in pret­ty much every major tourist site around the world.

So Internet memes are inter­est­ing just as a cul­tur­al prac­tice, and then they kind of feed into the kind of human inter­est in remix­ing and riff­ing. And when I think about memes I often think about tech­no­log­i­cal enablers, and look­ing at memes in a vari­ety of glob­al con­texts like China, Uganda, Kenya, United States. And the meme cul­ture often depends on the tech­no­log­i­cal cul­ture and the tech­no­log­i­cal capac­i­ty of the con­text in which memes oper­ate.

And so ear­ly hash­tag memes often sprung up in the dialup con­text, or in low-bandwidth con­texts. So the tech­no­log­i­cal abil­i­ty to dis­trib­ute memes lim­it­ed peo­ple to text and hash­tags and ASCII art. And so they used net­works like Blogspot or Twitter, and then you have the pro­duc­tion capac­i­ty for key­boards and com­put­ers.

Photos and videos. As broad­band comes around in dif­fer­ent con­texts, that’s when pho­to and video memes start to emerge. You start to see the remix­es of YouTube videos, Vine videos, etc. enabled by broad­band and mobile broad­band, and then also the emer­gence of net­works that allow peo­ple to have that kind of shared space that’s so impor­tant to Internet meme cul­ture. And then also the pro­duc­tion of this. You need smart­phones, you need cam­eras, you need edit­ing soft­ware, to real­ly effec­tive­ly make a visu­al meme.

And I argue that we’re at that stage now with objects. And what I mean by that is that we have a means of dis­tri­b­u­tion. We have sim­ple ways to sim­pli­fy that: UPS, Shyp, Alibaba. And then you have net­works that allow for shar­ing: Ravelry for knit­ting net­works; Taobao for hard­ware; Amazon for oth­er types of prod­ucts; Thingiverse for 3D print­ing. And then you have a means of pro­duc­tion as well. You have the shanzhai ecosys­tem in China, you have mak­er spaces and knit­ting spaces in the United States, you have 3D print­ers as well.

And to some extent, dis­tri­b­u­tion can also hap­pen on the Internet. This is most true with knit­ting pat­terns and with scripts for 3D print­ing, where the raw mate­ri­als are local­ly avail­able, but the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the code to make those raw mate­ri­als into objects can be done through the Internet.

So to con­clude, I want to just kind of share three points. One is that object memes reflect an aes­thet­ic rebut­tal to this notion of dig­i­tal dual­ism. Digital dual­ism is the idea that the dig­i­tal world and the real world are sep­a­rate. We often talk about the real world and the vir­tu­al world, but as we see the inter­sec­tion of Internet memes and object memes, we’re see­ing that Internet cul­ture is influ­enc­ing cul­ture more gen­er­al­ly. And vice ver­sa. And so I don’t think it’s use­ful to think of Internet cul­ture as entire­ly sep­a­rate from the cul­ture at large, and we’re start­ing to see that lit­er­al­ly man­i­fest­ing itself in protest cul­ture in United States.

The Internet meme frame­work is also a use­ful way to under­stand a cer­tain range of object pro­duc­tion, a cer­tain sort of infor­mal pro­duc­tion that com­bines net­worked modes of pro­duc­tion sim­i­lar to shanzhai or the hat print­ing, with the glob­al reach of the Internet and glob­al ship­ping ser­vices as well. The abil­i­ty to move bits and atoms with just as much ease and effi­cien­cy.

And then third­ly, thanks to key tech­no­log­i­cal enabel­ers like white-label sites that allow for us to inter­face with the mak­ers and pro­duc­ers, we’re see­ing more than gains in effi­cien­cy; we’re also see­ing a burst in cre­ativ­i­ty from a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of peo­ple. And so as you get that kind of ease of pro­duc­tion you also get an increase in cre­ativ­i­ty. And so objects pro­duce in this way start to behave like dig­i­tal objects. They’re remix­able, they nev­er quite stay still. They’re infor­mal, they’re pro­duced by indi­vid­u­als, and they’re not pro­duced with kind of top-down super­vi­sion. And they appear to be ran­dom, much to many peo­ple’s con­ster­na­tion but also to many peo­ple’s delight. And that ran­dom­ness is a key part of this. As you look at the objects, a year ago they would have seemed com­plete­ly ran­dom.

So that’s the con­ver­sa­tion. Those are the notes I want­ed to share. And in true shanzhai fash­ion, I just want­ed to throw those out there and then get feed­back and let oth­er peo­ple guide the con­ver­sa­tion from here. So thank you very much.

Rachel Kalmar: Thank you, An. That was super interesting. I was wondering, are there different characteristics of an online meme that make it more likely to cross over into the physical? You gave a few examples of political meme. Are there things that have to do with identity, or what kinds of demographics would be more likely to engage in this?

An Xiao Mina: Yeah that's a very interesting question. I do think that—because especially when we're talking about hats and t-shirts, those are identity signals. In protest culture before the Internet, we had buttons and pins and stickers and bumper stickers as a means connecting our political identity with kind of a physical object that either we wore on our person or that we drove around with.

And so I do think that at least in the political context, often the digital memes that have to do with a strong sense of self or a strong sense of the emotion tend to do very well. A recent one is "She Persisted," the meme that popped up in response to the phrase— Something like, "She spoke up. We told her to be quiet. And nevertheless, she persisted," for Elizabeth Warren. And so things that evoke strong emotion tend to pop up more frequently in these physical objects.

Audience 3: There's something very attractive about the production model that you showed in China. But I recall hearing about one of its disadvantages about a year ago, which is remember the exploding hoverboards?

Mina: Yes, absolutely.

Audience 3: And it sounds like they came from a system like this, where there were many different manufacturers, they were weakly branded or unbranded, and it was really impossible for anybody whether whether you were an airline, or a store that wanted to sell them, or a consumer, or Consumer Reports magazine—nobody could really tell what were the safe models and which weren't, because the branding was so weak and the production was so distributed. What are your thoughts on that?

Mina: Sure. Absolutely. I think that's absolutely right. I think I completely agree. And I think this is why I often reference digital meme culture, because digital meme culture, as we know now, is not always rosy. There's a lot of fake digital memes floating around. There's a lot of unregulated memes, so we don't know what's real or fake.

Audience 3: [comments inaudible]

Mina: Multiple sources. Yeah, that part I'm less sure of. Definitely hoverboards, because of this weak regulation and because multiple people can produce this, right, and there's this competition for lower price with maximum sales, right. It's the same dynamics that we see with digital memes. As we think about content that circulates online, it's often not necessarily reliable? We don't know. And we often need an extra layer of verification and checking. And so absolutely, these I informal modes of production with physical objects tend to inherit the same problems digital memes—already we see in the digital context. So I think the hoverboard's a very good example of that.

Fortunately, selfie sticks don't explode. This one might, because it does have a battery. And what you do have is e-cigarettes made in the ecosystem that do explode in your face. And so on the lack of regulation is a risk, just as it is in digital contexts.

Audience 4: I think the problem with the phone was the design of the battery casing somehow had been rounded and it was smaller than spec, so any batter would've been bad.

Mina: Okay. Do you know the process by which those batteries are made?

Audience 4: I saw some reports.

Mina You saw tech reports.

Audience 4: It was the case size, the design of the battery itself. [inaudible]

Audience 5: Did you say the 2016 election was the "meme election?"

Mina: A lot of people said that, yes.

Audience 5: Yeah. I'm wondering what the memes were among evangelicals or conservatives, because I think it was used there as well.

Mina: Yeah, absolutely.

Audience 5: What are some examples on that side.

Mina: Absolutely. Deplorables. If you look at the hashtag #deplorables— So, when Hillary Clinton referred to many of Trump's supporters as a "basket of deplorables," it was that same practice of reclamation of what was intended as an insult into a form of empowerment. And so you have—

Audience 5: I'm a deplorable. Right.

Mina: Excuse me?

Audience 5: Like, "I'm a deplorable." Yeah yeah.

Mina: Exactly. And so if you search for t-shirts, hats, mugs, cloth bags, pillows, you get the same phenomenon. And so you have the deplorables hashtag, the deplorables memes, you had DeploraBall, which was a physical gathering on inauguration day, and then you also have the physical objects. So this kind of meme ecosystem exists just as much time on other right as it does on the left, and with other circles as well.

Audience 5: I wonder if it won the election for him.

Mina: It's debatable. There's a conversation around that. Meme practitioners on the right refer often to meme magic that helped elect Trump. And so…yeah. But when we think about memes and influencing elections, I would argue that we really need to think about the larger media ecosystem and how the memes relate to that. And so I think it's a more complex question simply looking at the memes, if that makes sense.

Audience 6: Thank you for this really thought-provoking talk. I take weird factory process tours. So I've got a comment on that last question and another question for you.

Mina: Sure, please.

Audience 6: Swizzle sticks. I've actually toured the factory that's the major swizzle stick manufacturer in the United States. And their secret sauce is they figured out how to combine inkjet printing with injectable plastic mold so that they can do custom swizzle sticks. So that's another sort of example that you probably wouldn't come at through these normal means of seeing that.

Another factor I've toured—and this was a number of years ago—was a lightbulb factory in Ohio. And like a lot of factories you might tour, the first question you end up asking is "Why are you still here?" You know, why are you still in the United States and not being produced in China? And their answer was "Walmart." It turns out that Walmart's product cycle time for light bulbs—like seasonal lightbulbs for Christmas—is too short for the slow boat from China, as it were.

So my question is what's the shipping network for these products that make them sort of memeable at, you know, Internet speed? Is there something about them that lends them to air shipment, etc. rather than being stuffed on a freighter that's going to take weeks and weeks, thus completely changing the iteration time.

Mina: Right, right. Yeah, I think with many, because of the particularities of the Pearl River Delta, because it's been the factor of the world for so long, shipping networks have to go through there. And so what you often see with informal production and kind of informal makers who are not you necessarily part of those shipping networks, they're able to piggyback on to existing shipping networks to get the products out there. It's not particularly fast, but it's much faster than before, because of those efficiencies.

And then what sometimes happens, and this is more on the speculative side, but what I've been talking about with people who do the kind of global distribution of some of these informal objects is that one, they'll test it on Instagram. And then they'll actually fly someone over, someone who might be flying back to whatever context it is, to then start showing them around and put them in a shop, see if people buy that. And that's one way that people skim over.

But there is still of course the limitation around the shipping. Something that's important here is also the logistics of shipping, which is customs, packaging, things like that. And that's part of what makes things faster, is that you have infrastructure that makes it much simpler to do that. And I think an American analog is a product called Shyp. Are people familiar with Shyp? Shyp allows you to just take a picture of an object and then someone will just show up, pick it up, package it and ship it for you. Very easy, right. So the ability to move the object is still bound by geography and laws of physics. But all the other logistics are streamlined substantially by services.

Rachel Kalmar: I'm going to go off script for a second. I'm just curious, who in this room has engaged in making a physical version of an Internet meme in whatever way you see that? So, I was also curious about demographics of who's most engaged in this, and also is this mobilizing communities or demographics that wouldn't ordinarily be engagement Internet memes.

Mina: Yeah, yeah. So, the the demographics that I'm noticing tend to be people in their twenties. So people with a little bit more access, beyond the kind of digital memes. Because these are people who are organizing events. And so Jeronimo Saldaña is a good example of someone who is an organizer and activist who wanted to use hats as a way of galvanizing people to come out.

And I think there's something important there about the kind of physical manifestation in terms of social movements. Because by putting on these hats, by putting on these shirts, people indicate once they're in a crowd that they're part of that crowd. So when you have photographs—and that's why these pink hats are really important—there's no ambiguity about who's there. It's kind of a direct address to misinformation networks around what crowds are gathering. So often, we see pictures of crowds that are misused. You know, the photos of the LA protests are actually from Venezuela a few years ago. But with the pink hats it was a very clear code that this was happening, particular to this event.

So in terms of demographics, I do notice that it's more common with activists and the people that activists are trying to organize and rally.

Audience 7: Rachel's question sparked this question in my mind. Have you looked into culture surrounding turning memes into Halloween costumes, or the cosplay community?

Mina: Yes. Yeah, I haven't looked formally. But there's an annual gathering in New York called HallowMEME for Halloween, where people dress up as memes. And so I think looking at creative communities like cosplay, even street art, these kind of creative communities, long before these object cultures that I just referenced, used the Internet as part of their sharing and their kind of inspiration. And so you have networks where people can post their ideas, post their tips, and then other people in other contexts can then do the same.

And so what's interesting about looking at this in protest culture is seeing how that again establishes a kind of visual and verbal vocabulary that makes a protest in Chicago, in Seattle, in San Francisco, in New York, all kind of feel the same in terms of the media objects. But I think you have the same phenomenon with other creative communities. Knitting, certainly long before the pussyhats, it was very important that it was also a networked community as much as it is physical.

Audience 8: I don't know how relevant this is to what you're talking about, but my favorite cap was from Norway. And it was mostly red, and it had a white and blue stripe. But people kept stopping me on the street and wanting to know if I was a Trump supporter. Finally my wife said, "You know, wearing that cap is just not a good idea."

Mina: Yeah. So, I think that's an interesting example of how symbologies can be transformed, the kind of hegemonic meaning of the symbol (like a baseball cap and a red baseball cap), that before it might not have meant anything in particular. It might've signaled allegiance to a sports team. But that can then have its meaning overtaken by a larger collective of people who agreed to a certain meaning of that symbol.

And I think that's why it's so important to also understand the kind of remix cultures that emerge out of that. Because what people are doing is responding to that hegemonic symbolic symbology of the red hat and trying to transform it into another sort of meaning. So you have "Make America Mexico Again" hats, you have Jose Antonio Vargas who's an immigrant rights activist, created an "Immigrants Make America Great" red hat, and that's on his Twitter handle. And so the these attempts to reshape the symbology should be seen as activist actions that try to change the meaning of these things. And whether or not that's successful is a different debate.

Audience 9: From a non-advocacy stance, I kept thinking about films, like blockbuster films, even. Or perhaps larger indie films that could… Like a hybrid. So you have this marketing of products, that go along with Disney or something like that. And I'm wondering if there could be, or if that would work for them, to connect with the bottom-up approach to get their products connected to the film more widespreadly—widespreaded marketed.

Mina: Absolutely. There's a different talk I could give for marketers that would be basically the same slides but with different talking points. I think when we're talking about marketing and film distribution, when when people listen in on hashtags or on trending memes about any given movie, they're also listening for how the audience is responding to that. And I can think of one example that's not quite a film but is kind of related, Lego.

Lego had for the longest time distributed instructions for how to use Lego. And they noticed that people were sharing tips on how to make other kinds of bigger products, other kind of Lego combinations. And for a while there was a little resistance. But pretty soon they embraced that kind of bottom-up production and then created Lego communities so that people could share that.

So absolutely, I think there's a lot of value for marketers or people who are trying to promote a brand to think about this beyond the social movement context. And I'm pretty sure I can find an example of a branded selfie stick or a branded hat that kind of dips into this. But no specific examples come to mind right now.

Audience 10: I just want to reintroduce a question that got asked earlier and you put off, which was about the patents and selfie sticks.

Mina: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. So the his of patents and selfie sticks is actually very interesting. The first patent that I'm aware of was by a Japanese man… I'm going to misquote this, so I'm going to spread misinformation but it's…I think in the 70s? [speaker's correction: 80s] who'd created a kind of selfie stick-like device that wasn't quite ready for the market because you didn't have smartphones.

And then you see selfie sticks in chindogu, which is a Japanese art of creating useless inventions. And I think that was in the 80s. [speaker's correction: 90s] And so back then it was deemed as a useless invention but again, because the cameras hadn't caught up, the networks hadn't caught up.

And then there is a—I believe he's Canadian, created another patent for a selfie stick. And thinking about patent law's a little outside my—

Audience 10: [comments partially inaudible] …if the patents are that old they would all have expired.

Mina: Many of them yeah, I believe so. But also there's this question—and a patent lawyer would have to comment on this. Given the variation of selfie sticks that you've seen, does the patent cover all those variations. Because again, when we look from afar it always looks like there's one selfie stick. But when you actually go into depth into what's happening in Shenzhen, there's actually a wide variety of variation. And the original patents probably look very different from this one with the light, for instance.

Kalmar: I have a follow-on question, which is, in your research or in research of other people, do you know of anybody that's mapping out the evolution of some of these memes, especially with the physical part. Again I'm curious about the selfie stick. Like, how it spread. Do you know of anybody doing that kind of work?

Mina: No. I'm not, actually. If there's other people familiar with this I'd be great— I'm actually interested in starting to map one of these. I suspect—I have two hunches right now and I'll just say them on record—is that the karaoke mic for smartphones, and also certain types of Bluetooth headphones might be the next thing that kind of percolates in global markets. And so I'd be really interested in working with someone to track that.

The logistics of that are very difficult because you need people who can go to factories, visit them, see how those are made and then track that online. And then start tracking the global distribution. Much of the production out of Shenzhen is designed not for US or Western markets but for global markets in Africa, parts of Asia, and Latin America. And so you need a pretty broad research network to really follow that. But I'd be thrilled to work with people on that if there's any interest.

Audience 11: A [inaudible] question about language. In the 1800s, studies of the demographic transition showed that patterns of changing fertility went by language, very fine language group divisions. And I wondered if anyone's looked at the role of language, especially in non—in Africa, or in places where there's a wide variety of languages and pretty low bandwidth.

Mina: Yeah, that's another core interests of mine, is actually language barriers on the Internet and how how language pairs exacerbate existing inequalities. And so there's actually a big challenge with shanzhai makers. Most of them only speak Chinese, obviously. And if they do speak English, it's not necessarily vernacular, fluent English. And so there's a strong interest from shanzhai communities— They can make things, but it's very hard for them to kind of market it and get it out there to the broader world. Just in English, English alone. And so a lot of shanzhai makers will just make something but it won't necessarily see the light of day because you kind of have a gap from production to distribution and marketing.

And so certainly in the contexts we can extrapolate. I don't have specific examples, but everything I've looked at have been typically majority languages of a given country. So it might be English, Spanish, Indonesian. But not the indigenous languages or local languages. On the other hand, because these are physical objects, because digital meme culture is often language-agnostic, these things tend to spread regardless. But yeah, that's largely speculation. I haven't dived into that specifically.

Audience 12: During your talk you spoke briefly about how companies use Instagram to market their products. Can you speak a little bit more about that?

Mina: So the way that an Instagram marketing might work is a company—and typically they're small shops who have a physical stall. So this is an extension of the idea of physical stalls which are common in China, where an individual will have a small shop with their products. But to extend their network, they'll often use a place like Instagram or WeChat to market (so specific products they have), and then test that with likes and see if people are interested in principle to the idea.

So this becomes a low-cost way to test it, very similar again— I use this analogy of headline testing for online newspapers, because it's a very similar process to that, where newspapers will test ten different headlines. And they'll see which one really percolate. And it's very similar to that with Instagram.

And the Instagram strategy is very common in the Global South. And part of the reason it is that common is because people are already there, on Instagram, on their mobile phones, and it's much less of a hassle for someone to just scroll through Instagram than it is to go to a dedicated web site that might not be mobile-ready.

Kalmar: Great. Let's have another round of applause for An. Thank you.

Mina: Thank you.

Further Reference

Pepe, Nasty Women, and the Memeing of American Politics, by An Xiao Mina, at Beacon Broadside

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