“The meme is the gene’s cultural analogue. It is a replicator and a propagator. An idea, a fashion, a chain letter, a conspiracy theory… They are not to be thought of as elementary particles, but as organisms. Dawkins would say we are their vehicles and their enablers. For most of our biological history, their main mode of transmission was through word of mouth… Now they propagate via broadcast towers and digital networks. They are self-replicating patterns of information.”
James Gleick author of The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
Gleick, who penned one of the most interesting books I read last year, speaking at the Berkman Centre for Internet & Society at Harvard University in a lecture moderated by another brilliant author, Jonathan Zittrain, gives a fascinating ontology of information, and how today, what we create and produce is very deeply shaping how we think, perceive and react. The hour-long discussion, available online, neatly dovetails with the growth of web-based memes in Sri Lanka. What the f*** is a meme, and its pronunciation as ‘mey-mey’ were two responses by friends when I used the term. Gleick’s simple yet comprehensive attempt at defining a word first coined by Richard Dawkins aside, many of you may not have heard of it. Some, though, may have seen and even appreciated a meme, without fully realising it’s power to subvert, critique, virally spread and inspire.
The growth of the Sri Lankan meme on the web is a relatively recent phenomenon. It now has its own Facebook presence, with more fans than the Daily Mirror page (19,000+ vs. 16,000). There are historical antecedents. “Me kawuda? Monawada karanne?” (Who is he? What is he doing?) posters during Premedasa’s government was a meme – two sentences plastered on public spaces creating a questioning so subversive that it led to violent ends for producer and playwright. Zuckerberg was 6 when Richard was killed. At 24 today, his web based social networking is giving talented producers of memes what in the late 80’s could not be achieved without a lot of manpower, cheap glue and posters – virality. Posted once on Facebook, the memes are shared on individual profiles, which are then ‘liked’ by others, downloaded, emailed, embedded on websites and flagged on Twitter. It reaches, quite literally, hundreds of thousands effortlessly.
I have three favourites so far. One, released during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year shows Obama attempting to get out of Mahinda Rajapaksa the name of traditional sweetmeat. The other, and perhaps the most subversive, ostensibly shows Mahinda Rajapaksa joining Facebook, and responses to this historic feat by his wife, brothers and sons. The final and most recent one shows Obama, again, asking for Sarath Fonseka’s release, at first refused by Mahinda Rajapaksa, but finally convinced to do so with the offer of two Maliban chocolate biscuits.
Every time I have featured a Sri Lankan meme on the Facebook page of a citizen journalism site I curate, the number of ‘likes’ is around 3 – 4 times more than average. Thousands more engage with these memes from its official Facebook page. Authorship is unknown. Perhaps it is one person though most likely it is a group of likeminded individuals sans any real organisational structure or geographic proximity. The memes are genuinely funny, extremely creatively mixing photography, different languages, advertising, news and cartoons with original graphics to communicate what really are incisive, and on occasion, scathing critiques of, inter alia, governance and the Rajapaksa regime.
Why are memes powerful? Facebook and Twitter are often dismissed as platforms for banal gossip. Yet a careful study of the nature of this ‘gossip’ can reveal discontent with governance and government long before, and perhaps even more accurately than social polling. Furthermore, the government simply has no technical ability – short of pulling the plug on the Internet like Mubarak did during his final days – to block, contain, control or censor the spread of memes. Producers cannot be silenced through torture and murder.
Obviously, memes aren’t just against the incumbent regime. They are irreverent cultural constructs that once created generate a life of their own, poking fun at stereotypes, individuals, brands, institutions, political parties, fashion and even the sacred terrain of Sri Lankan cricket. Most are as funny as they are incisive. This is not infantile graffiti – it is considered design. We laugh, ‘like’ and, importantly, share. Some who laugh, go on to create their own memes. Political memes target an audience who are impatient with and likely even opposed to the usual NGO outputs and international censure. Memes in general appeal across partisan divisions. Many of those who ‘liked’ any one or all three of the memes noted above, and went on to share them across their own networks, could have voted in the incumbent President and government.
The banal blocking of websites only encourages virtual virality of memes. From the bread helmet man of Yemen to the policeman who pepper sprayed Occupy Wall Street protestors, memes essentially critique the mainstream and change the story. In changing the story, memes can contribute to changing the status quo. Something for governments, including our own, to keep in mind the more censorious they get, and want to be.
Published in the print edition of The Nation, 27 May 2012