My writing this was inspired prior to last week’s result by an article from May of this year, which proclaimed 2016 as the first “internet election.” The author, Andrew Keen, was less concerned with rigorously defining what an “internet election” might entail, and more interested in throwing a variety of questions at 2016 in order to rip it away from the course of standard electoral discourse. The barely-implicit question, of course, was to explain away what seemed––at the time and until last week––the outlier that was Donald J. Trump.
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.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally ran on November 9, 2016 and included a call to politics of affinity. On November 10th, I added to the essay by applying the framework to ongoing protests.
As the reality of the 2016 election results sunk in, my echo-chamber of a leftist newsfeed was full of two key things: heartbreak and I told you so’s. The heartbroken expressed disbelief that the U.S. would elect a person with an impressive record of bigotry coupled with an appalling record of incompetence. The I told you so’s said they already knew. Not knowing was a sign of privilege, naivety, foolish trust in big data. We should have nominated Bernie, they said. You should have voted, but not for Jill Stein.
Donna Haraway, so keen on blurring boundaries, promotes what she calls affinity politics, vis-à-vis identity politics. more...
It’s been a real struggle for me to talk about Donald Trump.
No, not because he’s an extremely unpleasant subject. I mean, that, sure. Though to be honest I’ve been talking about him a lot in various places. I wish I could ignore him – and the whole damn election – entirely, but this is not how I cope. Or my coping mechanism of choice isn’t altogether a healthy one, and it is to become totally and utterly obsessed.
Don’t ask me what my curated news feed largely consists of. Don’t ask me how many political podcasts I currently follow. Don’t ask me how frequently I check FiveThirtyEight, and how much emotional weight I attach to numbers which are, after all, not objective but instead mediated through and interpreted by human beings. The point is that I’m obsessed, which means that I’m immersed in the way you and I and we all talk about Donald J. Trump.
‘scuse me a sec.
A substantial part of my graduate research work focused on the vernacular creativity of Chinese digital media users. In practical terms, this meant participating in various local social media platforms and collecting content that my contacts shared through chat applications and posted on their personal social media feeds. Given that most of my friends and acquaintances knew I was doing research about 网络文化 wangluo wenhua [Internet culture], it wasn’t uncommon to receive proactive updates about newly-minted slang terms or hot-button funny images of the week, often accompanied by detailed explanations and personal interpretations of the content in question. Sometime in 2014, right at the beginning of my actual fieldwork, a friend from Shanghai sent me a stylized image of a frog with teary eyes and pouty lips on the popular chat application QQ. “What is this?” I asked. “It’s 伤心青蛙 shangxin qingwa [sad frog],” he replied. “I see… but do you know where it comes from?” I continued. “Hahaha, no, I don’t… it’s just funny, it’s really popular now on the Baidu Tieba forums, I got it there. There’s many versions of it.”
In fact, I knew that the vaguely humanoid frog was Pepe, a character originally appearing in Matt Furie’s Boy’s Club comic series that had by that time already become an archetypal figure of American digital folklore, circulating from relatively unknown bodybuilding forums to massive discussion boards like 4chan and Reddit, and mutating from his trademark “feels good man” comic panel into an endless series of self-referential variations and meta-ironic phenomena such as rare pepes. The fortuitous and unpredictable popularity of Pepe, rising from one among many characters of an independent comic to paragon “Internet meme”, has been amply chronicled as one of the most evident examples of how the creative practices of digital media users can near-instantly put anyone or anything under the spotlight of “Internet fame”. Matt Furie himself, reflecting on the unexpected rise to fame of one of his artistic creations, describes the cultural dynamics evidenced by the circulation of Pepe in terms of “post-capitalist” vernacular creativity: “It’s like a decentralized folk art, with people taking it, doing their own thing with it, and then capitalizing on it using bumper stickers or t-shirts.” more...
Some time ago, I spoke with a reporter regarding the Internet virality of Michelle Dobyne of “ain’t nobody got time for that” fame. 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, I later transcribed my conversation with the reporter and wrote it up.
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: more...
On May 28th, 2016 a three-year-old black boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. As a result a 17-year-old gorilla inside the pen, Harambe, was shot, as the zoo argued, for the boy’s protection. Nearly three months later, on August 22nd the director of the zoo, Thane Maynard, issued a plea for an end to the ‘memeification’ of Harambe, stating, “We are not amused by the memes, petitions and signs about Harambe…Our zoo family is still healing, and the constant mention of Harambe makes moving forward more difficult for us.” By the end of October, however, despite turgid proclamations to the contrary, the use of Harambe seems to be waning.
The six-month interim marked a significant transition in the media presence of Harambe, from symbol of public uproar and cross-species sympathy to widely memed Internet joke. The death and affective trajectory of Harambe, therefore, represents a unique vector in analyzing intersections of animality, race, and the phenomenon of virality. Harambe, like Cecil the Lion before him, became a widely appropriated Internet cause, one with fraught ethical implications.
Pundits across the political spectrum have expressed outrage at Trump’s continued insistence that the presidential election is rigged, and seem quite scandalized at his stated unwillingness to agree, apriori, to accept the final results. Trump’s critics argue that his distrust of the election process threatens to destabilize U.S. democracy by undermining the ideology of citizen-driven governance. It is horrifying they say, and more than that, his claims are dangerous.
While a smooth transition of power is indeed a hallmark of democracy, there is a distinct disingenuousness about the breathless moralizing against Trump’s claims. It’s hard to ignore the sharp dissonance that emerges when broadcast journalists report on the economics of campaign finance, the political collusion and corruption revealed through an email leak, and then, without even the interruption of a commercial break, turn to Camera 2 and condemn Donald Trump for questioning the integrity of the democratic process. more...
[Caveat: The discourse around bodies with uteruses is most often framed in cis-sexist binaries of women and men. The essay below is an analysis of that discourse, and as such occasionally slips into this language to accurately present the arguments therein. Trans and non-binary people are notably missing from this discourse. I’ve tried to avoid cis-sexism where possible. Comments and criticisms are welcome whether in the comment section or by writing to me/messaging me on Twitter: @bsummitgil. I hope I have done this conversation justice.]
You may have seen the recent hubbub about 19 year old self-proclaimed meninist Ryan Williams, who recently declared that women should just hold their menstrual blood in. Specifically, they should just keep that nasty stuff in their bladder until they get to a toilet. The argument was primarily an economic one: women do not deserve free tampons (though his response was actually in regards to the movement to end taxes on tampons, not to make them free). If women are so weak that they cannot hold in, they should see a doctor to have a “procedure” that will give them the “self control” they need to stop using menstrual products, as any demand to reduce the cost of these products makes them “cheapskates.”
In March 2013, at Microsoft’s annual research and development event TechFest, a new project was introduced that aimed to let “users interactively explore the full chain of events whereby individual news stories, videos, images, and petitions spread from one user to the next over a social network.” The program, in effect, aims to understand how content spreads through a social network such as Twitter. By aggregating large amounts of data and tracking how users share things on their Twitter accounts, ViralSearch turns the transmission of content into a visually friendly genealogy of media, which Microsoft terms its “virality.” The more descendants a video has, for example, meaning those who have shared it (which is broken up into generations, or subsets of users that represent one wave of shares) the more viral it is according to ViralSearch’s virality percentage. More than this, it actively differentiates between virality and popularity, by looking precisely at how the information is shared. As researcher Jake Hofman says,
This is what people sort of typically have in their mind when they think about one of these viral videos, but nobody’s really been able to actually look at the structure of these things to date. And so what we’re able to do is going through these billions of events we reconstruct these trees by looking at all the followers of everyone who adopts the content and using a large cluster to reconstruct these things and then a novel scoring method to actually distinguish this tree as being viral from just being popular.