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
(c) 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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