MeituXiuxiu, Cultural diffusion, and Asia Exotica

This week my social media feeds have been flooded with updates from White friends who have just discovered 美图绣绣 (mei3 tu2 xiu4 xiu4), or “meitu” as it is popularly known in the English-speaking world. Among Influencers and everyday users in Singapore, and in the vein of nationalist acronymic efficiency, the app is more commonly abbreviated as “mtxx”.

MeituXiuxiu has been a vital part of the Influencer ecology in Singapore since 2013, where the tasteful editing or “shopping” of selfies is neither shamed nor scorned but celebrated and rewarded. I have written about the monetizing of such selfie skills as a form of “subversive frivolity“. While mobile phone-editing apps are proliferate in Singapore, as is elsewhere in East Asia, MeituXiuxiu was one of the earliest players in the app industry with built-in single-button functions that “augmented” or “corrected” bodies according to dominant standards of Chinese beauty in the region.

Guided by context from my fieldwork among Influencers and their use of MeituXiuxiu, in this post I try to make sense of the recent uptake of MeituXiuxiu among English-speaking White folk. Screengrabs were taken from the Apple app store, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter on 19 January 2017, 1000-1030hrs, GMT+8.  Continue reading MeituXiuxiu, Cultural diffusion, and Asia Exotica

Code-switching and linguistic acrobatics on the internet

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When I was conference-hopping last month, I caught up with an academic friend who had unfollowed me on Twitter. While transiting from a proper academic conversation at the dinner table of a nice restaurant to a more intimate catch-up about our personal lives over drinks in a cosy bar, my friend admitted that they thought my use of Twitter was very “brave”. I didn’t understand. Specifically, they had unfollowed me because my Twitter stream was too “cluttered” and “spammy” and my tweeting habits were too frequent. It seemed “brave” was polite-speak for “homgh aren’t you afraid someone important might see your tweets”? Continue reading Code-switching and linguistic acrobatics on the internet

From Subversive Frivolity to Normativity: A lineage of Trump memes

The internet has been saturated with Trump memes. Some times they are hilarious, some times they are hurtful. Some times they bring relief, some times they are agonizing. This post is a product of my observations and archive of Trump memes and their evolving power from “subversive frivolity” to “normativity”. I demonstrate how Trump memes have transited along a continuum as: attention fodder, subversive frivolity, the new normal, and popular culture.

Screengrabs with the black header were archived from the mobile app version of 9gag on 8 November 2016, around 0001hrs, GMT+8 time. They include all the posts tagged “Trump”, with the earliest backdating to 14 weeks. There were 141 original memes in total but a handful have been omitted from this post. Screengrabs without the black header were archived from various news sites and social media throughout the Election season.

Continue reading From Subversive Frivolity to Normativity: A lineage of Trump memes

Eyewitness virality, Racism, and Journalistic responsibility

Last week, I spoke with a reporter regarding the Internet virality of Michelle Dobyne. They intended to run a ‘where are they now’ follow-up piece on Dobyne’s life post ’15 minutes of fame’. In the end, the TV clip and its companion article condensed our 8-minute interview into these anonymous soundbites:

“We asked a noted social media expert what makes a video viral worthy. She said catch phrases and exoticism, something that takes us away from our routine lives.”

“Our expert said what Dobyne and other viral video stars are able to do long term with their 15 minutes of fame is anyone’s guess.”

Since much of what I had to say about eyewitness virality, racism, and journalistic responsibility did not make the final cut, this morning I transcribed my conversation with the reporter and wrote it up for this blogpost.

Eyewitness virality

In January 2016, Michelle Dobyne gave an eyewitness account after her apartment complex caught fire. In the original interview, her catchphrase “Nuh-uh, we ain’t gon be in no fire. Not today.” and her overall decorum caught the attention of the television crew, who then put the clip up on Facebook. And well, you know the formula. The clip went viral. Dobyne became a meme. Romantic and commercial offers were rumoured. Semi-officious merchandise became available.

Three months later, the news network decided to run a follow-up piece on Dobyne. As it turns out, not much of her material circumstances have changed despite her transient internet fame. Rinse and repeat. The saving grace? Kind strangers started a gofundme page for Dobyne. The backlash? Her neighbours feel “overshadowed” by her fame and are still struggling post-fire.

I am going to call this phenomenon “eyewitness virality”: The proliferation of television news interviewees, many of whom are themselves victims of the unfortunate event being covered, who attain overnight but transient fame through the news networks who curate and disseminate their eyewitness accounts on social media as humour and clickbait.

But Dobyne is just the latest addition to a string of eyewitness viral stars:

July 2010: Antoine “hide yo kids” Dodson, who gave an eyewitness account after his home was invaded and his sister avoided an attempted rape. (Official Facebook page here, merchandise here, music here).

April 2012: Kimberly “ain’t nobody got time for that” Wilkins aka Sweet Brown, who gave an eyewitness account after her building complex caught fire. (Dental care advertorial here, movie cameo here).

May 2013: Charles “dead giveaway” Ramsey, who gave an eyewitness account after aiding in the rescue of the Ariel Castro kidnap victims. (Official Facebook page here, autobiography here).

June 2015: Courtney “like a tornado girl” Barnes, who gave an eyewitness account of a car crash.

These eyewitness viral stars are all Black. However, I also recall this eyewitness account from a Portland woman who went off tangent and told reporters a “vacuum cleaner guy” has “seen my tits”. Unfortunately, the original video has been taken down and I was unable to locate any news reports from official sources.

The reporter I spoke to asked about the ‘formula’ for internet virality.

“Tell me a bit about the whole viral video and social media.. what is it in a video that makes it go viral? What does society want to see that makes it get all these clicks?”

1) Unexpected responses. Viewers usually do not expect these eyewitness accounts to be so casual, light-hearted, humorous, or to some extent, flippant. Their body language, tone, and vocabulary may seem peculiar when juxtaposed against the severity of the situation, because viewers may not feel the interviewees are expressing grief in “normative” ways (i.e. crying). But this is not to say we should discount their grief.

2) Catchphrases. With eyewitness virality, catchphrases that gain traction and circulate as memes have been those based on stereotypes of how we perceive people who look a certain way to say certain things (i.e. race and parlance, class and street talk, sexuality and flamboyance).

3) Exoticism. Viewers tend to exercising a sense of distance from the eyewitnesses they see on screen. Perhaps we do not share in their plight, their poverty, their general precarity, or their demographic and associated identity markers (i.e. vocabulary, accents, posture). It is easy to meme the exotic when we project our partial understandings/misconceptions onto caricatures.

Racism

The follow-up clip/article for which I was interviewed seemed to pitch a feel-good tone that highlighted four things:

1) The reporters did not expect the clip to go viral.

2) Dobyne’s reactions in the original news clip were authentic.

3) Dobyne and her family have experienced positive (fun, merchandising, marriage proposals, potential career in comedy) and negative (failed managerial relationship) consequences as a result of her viral fame.

4) Nevertheless, Dobyne wishes to use her fame for positive ends (raise awareness for domestic violence and homelessness).

This is despite the racist overtones of such virality. A handful of op-eds have alluded to this:

The Guardian calls such incidents “lowbrow entertainment trenches” that “trade on stereotypes”, that cost some “dignity” in the vein of “Poor People Say the Darndest Things”.

The Huffington Post asks if viewers are laughing with Dobyne, or at Dobyne as “a separate, autonomous entity or as a stereotype — the archetypal loud, ratchet, uneducated black woman”.

This Blogher writer appeals to readers with her own demographic (she is a White woman married to a Black man) and tells them Dobyne “does not represent the Black people I know”. She also seems to think Dobyne was intentionally capitalizing on racial stereotypes for fame, and expresses her disdain.

Salon calls these formulaic routines the “memeification and autotuning of news interviews with poor and working-class people”, and denounces “society’s collective urge to gawk at the poor and working class”.

The reporter I spoke to asked about the ‘authenticity’ of Dobyne’s reactions.

“What do you think it was about Michelle exactly that caught so many peoples’ attention? A lot of people thought she was faking it, but I met her afterwards and she’s just got a personality like that. Within the first fifteen minutes it was already blowing up on our Facebook page.”

Dobyne was obviously responding to a moment of grief in a manner that was very lighthearted, but we also know that people tend to deal with grief in different ways. A lot of times, for the people who are steeped in poverty or who are used to living a life of precarity where unfortunate incidents happen often, humour is a coping mechanism to cope with their circumstances. We viewers who are safe behind the screens, who are not experiencing poverty or troubles firsthand, may not understand that. We may not understand humour as a coping mechanism or as daily parlance.

Worst still, some of us may mistake this humour as an intentional act to play up one’s ‘five seconds of fame’ on TV. I saw this a lot on the YouTube comments on several incarnations of Dobyne’s interview. Almost every video had dozens of people commenting to the effect of “She’s obviously copying from Sweet Brown”, “She’s following a trope”, “She’s playing up herself to gain some type of fandom or celebrity”. This is quite worrying. Just because we are familiar with one eyewitness viral star being memoralized in a particular light (i.e. Sweet Brown), we assess all other Black people or Black women who are in the same predicament, and make judgements on whether they can or cannot express themselves in a similar manner. And then we attach this to moral values of authenticity.

Journalistic responsibility

Dobyne’s interview clip was originally shared on Facebook by a reporter on 11 January 2016, with the caption (as of 5 April 2016):

“You never know who you will run into covering the news of the day. News On 6 photojournalist Ethan Pierce met a lady named Michelle Dobyne this morning. Her description of a fire at the Casa Linda Apartments…is incredible.”

The clip was than reposted on another reporter’s Facebook page on the same day, with the caption (as of 5 April 2016, emphasis mine):

“Everyone, meet Michelle Dobyne, who is my new favorite person in the entire world. She and her family have to find a place to live for the next few days after an apartment fire hit their complex, but she still found humor in the situation and she is SO FUNNY. Charlie Hannema News On 6 and I can’t stop laughing at her interview with News On 6 Photojournalist Ethan Pierce. Thanks Michelle, you are an awesome woman!”

I find these initial Facebook shares and captions to be a contradiction to the follow-up clip/article’s claim that the reporters did not expect the clip to go viral, since:

1) The caption clearly framed the clip as humour bait, and Dobyne as a larger-than-life personality.

2) The reporters decided to share the clip on Facebook because the newsroom found it funny.

3) Other news networks have previously pioneered such known formulaic curations of eyewitness virality.

The first reporter’s follow-up Facebook post on 12 January 2016 was perhaps the saving grace, informing viewers than Dobyne was “sleeping in her car” and calling for “cards, clothes for the kids or cash/checks” donations for Dobyne and her family. He ends off: “Hopefully, Michelle’s spirit during the struggles can be a message to people around the world.”

The reporter I spoke to asked about the backlash to such instant virality.

“Michelle says that this ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, if you will… some people came out of the woodwork good and bad. So what comes with this quick rise to fame for somebody who may not be ready for it or who may not expect it?”

The eyewitness viral stars themselves might have ideas about how they want to manage this sudden fame and commerce, and the opportunity to perhaps better their life standing. Many op-eds I’ve read suggest we are giving these viral stars a ‘lifeline’ by helping them to cash in on their fame.

But once the glitz and glamour wears out, once all these press interviews die down, once Dobyne stops being a meme, once she’s no longer the star of a viral news item, what’s there to make of her livelihood and state after this? We seldom know how such viral stars are doing once you’ve capitalized on their instant fame for clicks on your news articles or for internet laughs.

“Very interesting. Well anything else stood out to you about Michelle? She does say that she wants us to use it as a platform to talk about things she’s gone through, such as domestic violence and homelessness, but is there anything else the public should take away from this ‘becoming famous with just one Facebook post’ trend? What else do you want to say?”

I see a lot of commentary about how we have discomfort speaking about Dobyne and racism – is it alright to laugh at her, is it not? – but when I first saw her video I was immediately reminded of a clip in ‘Dude, Where’s My Car‘, where two hungover, high (?) White men were speaking to each other and repeatedly saying “Dude”, “Sweet”, “Dude”, “Sweet”. But when viewers see this caricature on cinema screens, we probably don’t believe there are actually people ‘in real life’ who speak like this, like what my students would call ‘White girl trash talk’. We don’t see ‘real life examples’ of these folks on screen.

I was also concerned about how this video was made public. In the news interviews, it was stated that the TV crew themselves had a really good laugh and then decided to put the clip on the internet. Here, we need to consider journalistic responsibility. These eyewitness viral stars, they don’t become memes all by themselves. A lot of the gatekeeping happens in your press room, and I think the journalists have the responsibility to help such viral stars negotiate their instant visibility and celebrity, and manage things such as consent.

“Huh, good point.”

Thoughts?

#PorteOuverte, Instagram algorithms, and Emergent tropes.

I got up this morning, did my routine check of feeds, and learnt about the Paris attacks/shootings/explosions/blasts.

My Twitter feed was crowded with several hashtags and a mixbag of Tweets:

1) A few Tweets were sharing snippets and updates from news agencies.

2) More were calling out news agencies for irresponsible reporting and for stirring moral panic with half-formed, speculative, clickbaity, and contradictory reports.

3) Most were encouraging fellow Tweeters not to crowd the hashtags with peripheral information, prayers and opinions, and plain old spammy advertising.

Such is the nature of one’s feed when I only follow 164 Tweeters, most of whom are academics and media scholars.

I took to Instagram to watch vernacular visuals emerge, as I did with #OccupyCentral, #CharieHedbo, and #JeSuisAhmed.

Unlike these earlier case studies, there has not yet been an iconic symbol, an iconic scene, tributes to the dead, or live images of happenings on the ground.

However, Instagram’s interface update that now offers related hashtags, “Top Posts”, and “Most Recent” posts has changed the ways in which I received information. Screenshots taken from public Instagram hashtag streams on 14 November 2015, 1100hrs, GMT+10.

#ParisShooting was the first hashtag I saw on Twitter. This is what Instagram suggested when I searched the tag.

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#ParisShooting and #ParisShootings seemed to present tributes to the victims, with the Effiel Tower emerging as a generic symbol of sentiment (unlike the more specific pencil, rifle, or black ribbon from #CharlieHedbo)

However, #ShootingParis and #ShootingInParis seemed to present photo shoots in Paris.

#ParisAttack was the second hashtag I saw on Twitter. This is what Instagram suggested when I searched the tag.

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Here, we begin to see

1) vaguely related selfies + sentiment expressed in the captions

2) Screenshots of world leaders issuing press statements

3) Art of the French flag and French colours

4) And the emergence of a new meme – the peace sign modified to resemble the Effiel Tower.

#ParisMassacre was one of the “Related” hashtags Instagram suggested to me.

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However, clicking on these images revealed that the posts were published in January during the #CharlieHedbo shootings.

Also curious is that I have not come across a mainstream news publication/news report that has used the term “massacre” in their coverage.

Here are other hashtags suggested to me by Instagram.

The Top Posts for #Paris and #PrayForParis presented more tribute art and collages.

The Top Posts for #Bataclan (one of the sites of the shootings) and #EaglesOfDeathMetal (the band that was playing in the Bataclan, concert venue at which the shootings occurred) presented some images of tribute and others of concert-goers and the venue pre-shooting.

I cannot decipher the Top Posts for #ParisInFlames or how this is related to the incidents. #ParisOuverte is the least used, and is probably a misnomer for the primary hashtag, #PorteOuverte.

Now, the thing that really annoyed me is that #ISIS was one of the “Related” hashtags Instagram suggested. Well, according to mainstream news reports and chatter on Twitter and Facebook right now (1240hrs GMT+10), we don’t yet know who the attackers are or what their motivations may be. However, anti-Islamic and Islamophobic sentiment is already beginning to emerge by uninformed users on various social media. Instagram’s algorithms are obviously not helping with the situation here.

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The primary hashtag for this incident, #PorteOuverte, presents tribute posts. Here we see

1) The Eiffel Tower peace sign emerging as the main meme

2) Pray for Paris, with the Effiel Tower substituting the letter ‘A’

3) The French flag and French colours

4) Images of the Eiffel Tower and Paris city pre-incident

Text posts on #PorteOuverte were mostly screenshots from Twitter, presenting

1) Embassy hotlines

2) Signal boosting the #PorteOuverte hashtag

3) Users offering their homes as refuge

4) Users paying tribute

5) Screenshots of news reports

Over and out,
wishcrys