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#PDF14 Speaker Preview: An Interview With An Xiao Mina

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, March 27 2014

Starting today, we're going to be running short interviews of many of the great speakers coming to Personal Democracy Forum 2014, conducted by our terrific new conference coordinator Sonia Roubini. First up, An Xiao Mina, who first appeared at PDF 2012 and who will will be giving a main hall talk. She is also helping us curate a breakout panel focused on how organizers make the move from political memes to movements.

1. How did you come to be interested in tech and its impact on society?

I’ve long been passionate about the role of communications technologies in helping marginalized individuals find voice and community. It was in China, however, when I truly started to see technology’s potential. While working for Ai Weiwei on the Gwangju Design Biennale, I began seeing the many creative ways that people found to speak out about the issues that matter most to them, even on such a heavily-surveilled and censored network. That was when I began understanding more deeply the truly transformative effects of the internet and social media for communities that have been silenced by a government or ignored by mass media. The forms of memes, and their ability to easily be remixed and changed, ensured that they could spread despite heavy usage of keyword search algorithms and human censors. However, the bigger point is that they helped break the self-imposed silence. The addictive power of memes--it’s hard not to click on and share something funny on the internet, right?--can become a first step toward civic expression about important issues.

2. What's the most satisfying part of your work?

As an internet researcher, I’m always thrilled to see how the communities I work and speak with are finding new ways to amplify their voice using creative forms of expression online. The humor and creativity that netizens have used to draw attention to issues they care about is nothing short of amazing And as a culture writer and speaker, I’m equally thrilled to help share those stories with others and help them understand why these seemingly small acts are in fact incredibly powerful.

3. What are your impressions of past PDF conferences?

My first time at PDF was an incredible mix of inspiring speakers and challenging discussions. It opened me up to a world of people passionate about technology per se but more importantly about how technology can help--or hurt--society. My particular area of interest--the impact and possibilities of social change memes--is admittedly quite unusual, but I was thrilled to see the PDF community response so positively. The conversations I had there and the community that I was welcomed into have had a tremendous impact on my own research, giving me confidence to pursue the topics I’m interested in exploring and a network to help make these projects become a reality.

4. Two years ago when you spoke at PDF, you described how people in China were using social media almost like virtual graffiti, evolving memes to quickly stay ahead of censors. This year, you're planning to talk about how some activists are figuring out how to turn momentary memes into more solid movements. Can you give us an example of what you mean?

In the two years since that talk, I’ve been able to take a longer view on the social impact of memes and other forms of online creative expression. I spoke about the sunglasses meme that rose up in support of Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer activist. But not long after his escape from brutal house arrest conditions, China legalized the practice of secret detention. In a situation like this, what role did the sunglasses meme play? How can we understand it as an effective social/political gesture? Crazy Crab, the organizer of that meme, told me in an interview that he hoped the meme would spur people on to greater action. However, even Crazy Crab continues to be anonymous, to protect his safety.

One point I want to emphasize and explore is that online creative actions don’t necessarily have a long-term political impact, because building movements requires a lot more work and favorable political conditions. However, as I advocate in a recent essay in the Journal of Visual Culture and which I’ll be exploring more deeply in a new book I’m working on, we need to expand our notion of effective online political action to include these small forms of cultural remixing and sharing. Especially in a censored or marginalized context, they can be quite transformative and powerful for the individuals and small communities who participate--they help people feel less alone, and as Zeynep Tufekci has written, these gestures break pluralistic ignorance. They often represent the difference between no voice and some voice, which is a transformative change.

On the other hand, there are some powerful emergent examples of how memes and creative actions are forming the foundation for longer-term work. One that I want to touch on is the Kuchu Anthem, which was written by Brayo Bryans, one of the few out queer artists in Uganda (“kuchu” means “queer” in Luganda, one of Uganda’s local languages). For years, the Ugandan government had been contemplating a law that would enact serious punishments for homosexual activity, and this year, the bill was signed into law by President Museveni. He uploaded it to YouTube and Soundcloud, which provided an alternative media environment for his music (it’s safe to assume no radio station would air it), and the song was officially adopted as the Kuchu Anthem.

Bryans later founded Talented Ugandan Kuchus, an arts and theater company that staged a music release at the National Theater that was shut down abruptly by police, and he has directed Icebreakers Uganda, an advocacy and support group. As Bryans told me, “In every movement that has been successful, music has played a big part.” Before the bill passed, he and others gathered together to sing the Kuchu Anthem and post about it on Twitter. In the face of such challenging circumstances--hundreds of people have been outed in Red Pepper, a local paper--music, art and technology have a vital role to play in helping people find community and reclaim their media environments.

5. What are the key issues tech and politics/society to pay attention to at the moment?

I think we need to understand technology’s impact on human rights issues, and embedded within that understanding, we need to understand that technology and the social context in which it is applied are deeply intertwined. I want to understand how the creative vernacular of the internet--memes, selfies, YouTube videos and the like--is teaching average people how to create media environments that reflect their issues and concerns. It might start with a cat video, but those tools and practices are the building blocks for creating advocate media, too.

They may seem insignificant, but the particularities of memes and other forms of online creative expression satisfy our need as human beings for media that represent our concerns and issues through media, and through acts of media that we create. This is especially impactful when those media wouldn’t exist otherwise, due to censorship or other forms of media silencing. The humor definitely helps, too. Human rights work is incredibly draining, and we need these joyful, creative, communal acts to fuel our hearts and minds as we envision a possible future through media. Hopefully, if the conditions are right and the communities are strong, this possible future and can be transformed into an actual future.

We’re starting to see some evidence of this. To go back to the example from Uganda, LGBT activists like Richard Lusimbo, Jacqueline Kasha and Frank Mugisha have been working hard to raise international awareness about the law and hopefully overturn it. Their work and the work of Bryans to create powerful music that is shared online and offline are deeply intertwined. I think we should pay attention to these creative actions, whether that’s #StandingMan in Turkey, #TweetLikeAForeignJournalist in Kenya, or #NotYourTonto here in the US, and understand what role they play in the broader social movements they exist in.