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A draft for my talk at ROFLCon

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  • the weirdness of being an academic at this conferencethe stars are the folks who've done something wonderful, weird, unforgetable, or so wonderfully weird it's unforgettable... those of us who are trying to make observations about the field feel a little like musicologists studying Bach - we think we might know how these things work, but we're acutely aware that we're not going to write a mighty fugue.
  • No matter how much I might study internet memes, I know I'm never going to accomplish something as majestic as keyboard cat... and I have to live with that truth every day of my life
  • unlike danah who can actually tell you something about internet culture, I study information in the developing world - basically, I'm interested in the question of whether the internet, mobile phones, community radio can make people healthier, wealthier and more free
  • work in this field for long, and you bump into one basic question: why are some countries rich and other ones poor?there are better and worse answers to these questions - smart answers focus on which parts of the world had animals and plants that were easily domesticated, or on which nations were colonized by others
  • less smart answers focus on the idea that some people are inherently, biologically smarter than others. We used to call this idea eugenics, more recently it resurfaced as "the bell curve"
  • If you want to understand what a stinking heap of bullshit this particular theory is, I recommend living somewhere really poor for a little while and discovering just how creative people need to be to survive. You end up meeting guys who build electricity-generating windmills out of bicycles so they can power a radio I posit that human intelligence and creativity is evenly distributed throughout the world. It doesn't always manifest the same way, and we're not equally exposed to it, but I've yet to find a corner of the world that's ot filled with creative and funny people. Except maybe Belgium.
  • This leads us to a question more germane to matters at hand today -daddy, where do memes come from? (I thank God that Cafe Press didn't exist when I was a baby, as there would be countless baby photos of me in various pun-filled anti-Nixon garb...)
  • we're used to thinking of memes as coming from particular corners of the internet world (xkcd slide) - this equatorial belt, south of the n00b sea, just north of the IRC isles
  • And obviously, there are corners of the map where the rich soils - fertilized with the charcoal of countless flame wars - are particularly conducive to the growth of new memes
  • I'm interested in a different map of the world of memes. using Know Your Meme as my guide, I started trying to build a global map of memes. You'll be unsurprised to know that there are major clusters around North America and Japan... but there are significant memetic outbreaks in all corners of the world
  • In development economics, we often talk about the BRIC nations - that's Brazil, Russia, India and China - developing economies which we expect to become dominant powers in the next couple of decades due to their large populations, resources and vast resources of intellectual talent and creativity. I don't think it's a coincidence that all these countries register in double digits for meme creation
  • Assume I'm right and that creativity has a near-constant distributionAssume also that access to the internet continues its explosive spreadinescapable conclusion is that the next wave of internet memes is going to come from the developing world. It's already happening - I just watched the first major African internet meme come to life in Kenya.
  • "Makmende Amerudi" means "Makmende has returned"... "Makmende" was what you called a kid in the neighborhood in Kenyan in the 1990s who wanted to be Bruce Lee. I heard it and assumed that it was a sheng word - "sheng" is the blend of Swahili and English that's Kenya's unofficial national language - turns out that "Makmende" is what happens when Kenyans say "Go ahead, make my day
  • the first is: "Who gets to decide what's a meme?"Seems like a stupid question - lexicographer Erin McKean tells us that new worlds enter the language because people love them enough to use them - the lexicographers aren't the bouncers at the language club; they're anthropologists, discovering how language gets used.If people adopt it and love it, it's a meme...
  • but it sure as hell helps if it ends up in Wikipedia. Getting Makmende into Wikipedia was one of the first things Kenyans tried to do... and getting things into Wikipedia is a lot harder than it used to be. The article was deleted a couple of times before the authors realized that they needed to make the case that Makmende was Kenya's first major internet meme, which made it notable... Hasn't made it into Know Your Meme yet - confident that it's just a matter of anthropologists, not bouncers
  • Another question is: "Who gets to play along with an internet meme?"Not much preventing you from adding some Makmende facts to the mix. But a lot of the funny stuff doesn't make much sense unless you know the language and the culture. Makmende dries his clothes on a Safaricom line and stores them in a flash drive This is actually pretty funny if you know that Safaricom is Kenya's largest mobile phone company and doesn't have any traditional phone lines. Of course, unless you know that, it's probably incomprehensible
  • my sense is that most memes don't cross over because we don't understand the language, don't understand the references or weren't paying attention to that corner of the internet to start with. Those that do tend to be funny in a way that's independent of language - unless you're Belgian, the Back Dorm Boys are pretty funny, and it's not hard to figure out how to join in the fun
  • inside this is a question that internet scholars are spending a lot of time on - do we have one internet or many? when a country like China heavily censors their internet and encourages the growth of a parallel internet (youku slide) do we hit a point where it just doesn't make sense to talk about "the internet" anymore - we've got to talk about internets, and how they interconnect. And if 340 million Chinese internet users look mostly at Chinese sites, laugh at Chinese memes, maybe it makes sense that the Chinese internet will eventually run on its own protocols, which might make it easier to censor or control. Go far enough down this road and you can imagine diverging internets, each trying to best meet the needs of their users, and no longer having a world where we readily peer into each other's internetsif we care about a single, united internet, it is imperative that we develop, discover and disseminate internet memes that we can laugh at together. when governments censor political sites on the internet, they alienate the small portion of their populations who already identify as politically dissident - and they can make the case that they're protecting their citizens from terrorism or incitement to violence or pornography. But when they block our access to videos of cats flushing toilets, we see them for the heavy-handed bullies that they are. the cute cats serve as cover traffic for more serious political speech - so long as chinese users want to laugh at our cat videos, we're encouraging people to circumvent censorship and potentially encounter all sorts of stuff on YouTube... if they're just laughing at Chinese cats on Youku
  • instead of lol'ing at, lol'ing with really easy to laugh
  • Mahir Cagri - I kiss you, too. turned people laughing at him to laughing with himnot necessarily the best model - opportunity to laugh together
  • Matt Harding Rorogwela - Afunakwa
  • Weirdandwide

    1. 3. photo by make_change, CC
    2. 4. photo by Aluka_Digital_Library, CC photo by wwarby, CC
    3. 7. Daddy, where do memes come from?
    4. 9. ‘ sup, /b/?
    5. 10. 169 lots 169 33 27 24 23 20 18 sprechen sie lolcat? 19 18 16 15 11 9 8 7 4 2 2 5 6 29
    6. 11. Golimar - India Brother Sharp - China Glazastik - Russia Tenso - Brazil
    7. 21. erinaceous /ˌɛ.rɪˈneɪ.ʃəs/ (adjective) Of, pertaining to, or resembling a hedgehog. photo by meantux, CC
    8. 23. photo by rogiro, CC
    9. 30. pygmies solomon islands
    10. 31. Matt Harding interviews David Solo Auki, Malaita, the Solomon Islands
    11. 32. • Weird can lead to Wide. • Are we LOL’ing @ or LOL’ing with? • Anthropologists are cooler than bouncers. • If we don’t laugh at Chinese memes, the censors win. • “ Erinaceous” is an awesome word.
    12. 33. Makmende doesn’t thank audiences. But I do. Thank you. @ethanz