Creating Technology for Social Change


Panelists: Dan Sinker (Mozilla / @MayorEmanuel), Biella Coleman (McGill University), Latoya Peterson (Racialicious), Molly Sauter @oddletters (mod – Comparative Media Studies). This post written with Erhardt Graef.

Molly Sauter introduces the panel: How do regular memes and politics collide? There’s the political world, the IRL world, and the internet world of hilarity and provocative humor.

Dan Sinker came to fame during a six-month @MayorEmanuel Twitter account telling an alternative and extremely profane version of reality of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s campaign. The first tweet went live the day Politico broke the story. It was a tale of a man who knew he was going to become mayor of Chicago, but who found the act of getting elected extremely tedious. He teams up with fictional David Axelrod, thinks up slogans, and adopts a puppy named Hambone and a mustachioed duck named Quaxelrod, also the name of the official website of the twitter feed:

The account drew a huge amount of attention, and 8-10 times the followers of the real Rahm Emanuel. The real politician has yet to keep up.

The account ended quite dramatically during a freak real-life hailstorm.

Complicating matters is that Dan remained anonymous throughout the entire affair.
Alexis Madrigal revealed his identity in The Atlantic in a piece “that, like, referenced Russian literature.”

The news trucks descended, which inevitably led to a live meeting with the Mayor himself. The live meeting was broadcast on TV and drive-time radio.

We see echoes of politicians embracing memes in Hillary Clinton’s meeting with the guys behind Texts From Hillary Tumblr. Savvy politicians have learned to disarm the meme by embracing it (Santorum?).

In fact, web-savvy politicians now seek to produce their own share-worthy memes. The Obama campaign has received 29,000 Facebook Likes on their Life of Julia project. The campaigns have learned about sharing and creating content that people want to share.

Unfortunately, the Mitt Romney campaign shut down the fake Mitt Romney Pinterest account, which poked fun at his immense wealth. Dan considers this a misstep. But the Romney campaign did score a win by taking over the Obama campaign’s #julia Twitter hashtag and subverting the narrative. “At age 14, #Julia joins Sluts for Obama…”. The hashtag’s originally intended purpose, to help the Obama campaign, now serves to roil up the GOP base.

The 2012 campaign will see billions of dollars in spending, mostly on television advertising, but we’re seeing memes play out online. The campaigns are fighting public battles over whether it’s worse to eat a dog or travel with one on the roof of your car.

Latoya Peterson, editor of Racialicious, loves to investigate the internet’s treatment of memes. She says the internet is just as segregated as public life, which we see most clearly in Shit Girls Say. Sheppard starts the site, and people around the internet see it and think, the girls I know don’t talk like that, leading to Shit Black Girls Say. A black man in drag parodies the statements the girls in his life say (“Basketball Wives is on…”).

As soon as the Shit ____ Say evolved, you saw it become racialized and adopted by various groups (her blog post on it). We watch Shit Asian Girls Say. The videos are humorous, but they also serve as in-house conversation: a racial group’s in-group discussion about race not intended for the general public.

These videos are really funny if you can identify with them. But with Shit Spanish Girls Say sparked a huge YouTube debate (which Latoya admits, is not the best way to measure controversy). Commenters fought out the definition of “Spanish,” and whether that included Dominicans and other groups.

The meme continues evolving, and you begin to see different types of marginalized identities producing their own versions. We see Shit Guys Say, and Shit Black Guys Say, where black women re-enact their favorite male quotes. The women’s perspectives received far less accolades and attention than the Shit Girls Say videos.

It goes deeper. Instead of men in drag talking about women, or vice versa, we break from the heteronormative path and see gay men themselves naming themselves in the meme, because no one else was going to name them. Latoya sees it as an assertion of identity in the broader culture.

Then we have Shit Southern Gay Guys Say, which Latoya loves for a number of reasons. You probably need to watch:

This conversation erupted with who we are, what our culture is, and how we make fun of each other within that culture. As happens on the internet, the meme evolves, and suddenly X is talking to Y. Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls, where black girls parody the things white girls have said to them their whole lives: “Is it bad to do blackface?”

Shit White Girls Say to Arab Girls: “Do you bellydance? Your family has oil money??”

We see many permutations. Shit White Guys Say to Asian Girls: “I bet you’re a terrible driver” “Where are you from? No, I mean, where are you really from? Where are your parents from?”

The variations show an articulation of the things individuals have heard because of their identity. People begin subverting the meme for activist ends: Stuff Cis People Say to Trans People

Folks who feel so marginalized, they begin poking fun at the offensive things their own allies say to them.(Shit Girls Say to Gay Guys).

The final activist mutation of the meme: Shit Everybody Says to Rape Victims. It serves as a public service announcement about the very real doubts rape victims face when they come out. “You were drunk. You hook up with everyone anyway. If he spent a lot of money on you, you knew you’d have to owe him something.”

The evolution of the meme has gone places no one anticipated. What began as a joke became a way to inform each other about our own identities, and take the time to articulate a conversation we don’t often hear.

Biella Coleman of McGill University is here to teach us Why Everything We Know About Anonymous is Wrong. She’s grown frustrated in recent weeks by the representations of anonymous that are sedimenting.

We have different interpretations of Anonymous. Evgeny Morozov and Yochai Benkler disagree, but our picture is incomplete.

Our first assumption is that Anonymous is fundamentally inchoate and spectral, fluid and distributed. We retell the group’s own mythos. These people are present on very stable IRC channels: AnonOps, AnonNet, and Voxanon. They’re anonymous, but if you hang out there long enough, you can get a very real sense of who is who and who’s doing what. We feed the hysteria around Anonymous by painting them as invisible spectres, which is exactly what overactive governments and law enforcement officials want.

We also frame Anonymous as some good, some evil, and all powerful. This isn’t really the case. They haven’t done anything to take lives or cause real damage. They’ve never been able to take down a website capable of major financial transactions, because those websites have the resources to fight DDoS attacks.

AntiSec‘s controversial hacking work is the closest we get to real harm, but even then we see an FBI informant steering hackers into more aggressive behavior.

Another incorrect aspect of our understanding of Anonymous is that they provide ammunition to those wanting to strengthen the surveillance state. Yes, Biella says, but more like rubber bullets than machine gun ammunition).

Quotes H.L. Mencken: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

If Anonymous were to disappear, the surveillance state would not. It’s entrenched in our institutions, regardless of what Anonymous does.

Others argue that their political impact is insignificant because what they dish out is pure spectacle. Yes, they’re good at spectacle, because of the DDoSing and the lulzes and other stupid things that garner media attention. On its own, this is ineffective, but it can be a very valuable tool in a diverse political kit.

If Biella had to choose between Anonyous and the EFF as the group fighting for my digital rights, she’d choose the EFF, but it’s not a zero-sum game and she doesn’t have to pick. She says we need investigative journalists who put the pieces of the puzzle together, we need activist organizations, and we need internet service providers who push back on the demands of surveillance from governments.

Biella argues that Anonymous has provided a small oasis of anonymity in a desert of surveillance, much like the literal facility currently being built in the desert in Utah by the National Security Administration. Their work has helped expose the creeping tendrils of the surveillance state. Their work doesn’t fortify the surveillance state, because it’s already here, but Biella’s concern is that it might fortify the policies cementing these forms of resistance as criminal behavior.

I don’t think you can call them a movement; it’s just an idea. And don’t we have a collective responsibility to say what we think is bullshit? Aren’t we all Anonymous?
Biella: There are many people that use the name Anonymous. But if we lost IRC… Anonymous needs those stable places to exist, and real relationships form online. With AntiSec, there had been a lot of criticism from within Anonymous, including rumors of government infiltration.

I work with the National Lawyers Guild to provide Anonymous with defense attorneys. Often times the people who are accused of criminal activity were caught up in the middle of things. Do we defend them as mere pawns in a bigger game, or work to define their action as politically protected behavior?
Biella: You can represent them as concentric circles of more and less involvement…

Dan, why did you stay secret?
Dan: I didn’t want to lose my job; I was a professor at a school in Chicago. The account was pretty vile. As it grew, I felt like I had a certain amount of cover. I liked Dan Line’s Fake Steve Jobs when you it was anonymous it allowed you to suspend disbelief and enjoy it even more. The other reason is I’m not a “Fame Whore.” I remember writing to Alexis Madrigal at the time saying I’m a little bit worried about this because it’s going to make my life a little bit crazy. And it got way more crazy than I thought that it would. There was definitely a protection of self involved.
Latoya: Share the experience. No one on the internet knows that you are a dog. References Lisa Nakamura’s work on identity and race online. You see this the most in fandom where you can be as passionate as you want but if you start asserting your personal identity more and more you can get ostracized. You can ask why the guitars are six-string or five-string in Guitar Hero, but certain questions are out of bounds like, “Why isn’t there a single black guitarist?” danah boyd talks about this in terms of exploring queer identity online. And Ethan’s work has been asking more generally, “Who is the ‘we’ here?”
Dan: Anonymous is a good example of this when they say “We are legion,” which doesn’t work if you know they are 25 people.
Biella: The fascinating thing with Anonymous is that their pseudo-anonymity allows a relatively high amount of diversity in a political movement. It allows people who are not alike to congregate around actual values rather than demographic identity.

For Biella, you talked a lot about the hobgoblins that mainstream media has created. I was wondering if you had a suggestion of how to change that mainstream media discourse since there is evidence that suggests this is how they treat social movements in general.
Biella: Mainstream media likes to make heroes out of individuals in social movements. I recommend Whitney Phillips work on trolls. I have spoken to 150 reporters over the past year and a half and I know it has some effect.

The Shit _____ Say uses the trope of montage and the rhythm of comedy to convey their message as memes. Is there are way this can be done more seriously?
Latoya: Comedy breaks down walls. I understand it therefore I can parody it. Shit Girls Say was already on its third video when you saw the first spinoffs start coming out. A lot of this is about how power is subverted which is where humor is a really powerful tool. When you get the rape victim video you can no longer laugh because you know the underlying truth is not funny, which I think was the real power of that video. Having that moment of reaction of it’s so serious that I can’t laugh is really moving.

Dan: It’s well-documented, and certainly not monopolized by the internet, that humor allows us to laugh at things. Mayor Rahm Emanuel let us talk about how fucked Chicago is, and how 21 years of the Daly administration fucked us beyond repair.

“It’s a lot funnier to talk about sticking your dick in the parking meter and fucking it” then the actual case of the city’s parking meters being privatized.

Humor also spreads a lot more easily. The tens of thousands of retweets allowed Dan to experiment with what combination of the word ‘fuck’ and political commentary would be the most shared.