Tag Archives: weibo


The Free Lunch case for inefficient, redundant design

In her talk for The Conference 2012, Designing for Trust: How China’s Free Lunch avoided The Curse of Kelvin (embedded above), Tricia Wang makes the case that the inefficient data entry and publishing sequence pictured below is the culturally appropriate and only effective solution available.

The case study she gives is of journalist Deng Fei’s Free Lunch project, which takes micro-donations to sponsor free lunches at poor, rural schools in China.

The end of point of this process is a transparent budget report from each school about how the money has been used. The process takes nine steps because rural teachers in poor regions of China do not have access to a reliable smartphones and data connections – so it crosses through various intermediaries, many of which verify the data.

As Tricia states in her talk:

  • “Redundancy makes corruption more difficult.”
  • “Redundancy valorizes a culture of data keeping & monitoring.”

So in this case, despite the long game of telephone, redundancy is a feature, not a bug.

Towards the end of her talk, she uses this positive redundancy example to make a case against the prevailing cult of quantitative data and measurement.

Watch her full talk.

Hong Kong Citizens’ Online, Memetic Protest

China Meme Report banner

Like pretty much anyone else paying attention to the story, I was stunned to see the images of protests in Hong Kong, with people of all ages donning black to rail against Beijing’s plan to enact national education.  Hong Kongers deemed it brainwashing, a paternalistic move from Beijing to inculcate the special territory into its ways.  The sheer scale of the protests led to Beijing agreeing not to mandate national education.

But while citizens took to the streets, they also took to the web.  “Brainwash” may have been blocked on Sina Weibo, but “wear black” wasn’t, nor was “oppose national education.”  And if you searched for these terms and others, you’d find images like this:

These are pretty normal scenes of protest, but they have a strong online component too:

And in addition to crossing arms, the simple act of wearing black has become a visual strategy in itself, as protesters have encouraged each other to wear black to oppose national education.

The graphic refers specifically to “brainwashing”.

But like any good meme, this one also has more comic/cartoonish manifestations.  Here are a few favorites:

“Oppose brainwashing”

As soon as I heard it, I knew the “wear black” strategy made some sense: like wearing blue jeans to support gay rights, wearing black is a normally-apolitical gesture imbued with new meaning that forces dialogue (Hong Kong-based designer See-Ming Lee suggested to me that it might resemble Disney Gay Day more). This is particularly true in fashionable Hong Kong, where the smart set prefer chic black, just like New Yorkers.  But the symbol and imagery of black continued to grow till it was a sea of black shirts and black pants.  Add to that the gesture of crossing one’s arms, and you have the perfect political meme: a simple, personal gesture with easy-to-find materials.  It works as much in grand gatherings as it does in casual snaps posted onto Weibo.

Faux subway stickers that show the role of graphic design in both offline and online world contexts. The red image on the right takes subway design vernacular and says “Be careful of brainwashing”. The blue/white image on the left says: “Beware of pickpocketing”. The “thief” is stealing the word “freedom.” Photo by Jason Li.

Online and Offline

The big question is, why such an online flurry?  In mainland China, the memetic spread of images of discontent/dissent makes sense: lacking the freer speech and public assembly opportunities of more democratic nations, citizens take to the internet to express their concerns.  Since both mainlanders and Hong Kong citizens use Sina Weibo, the culture of memes in the Chinese-speaking internet hops across political/regional boundaries.  This explains why I’ve seen the crossing arms gesture amongst users in the mainland, and why sunflower seeds, the symbol originating from a Beijing artist, also has resonance in Hong Kong.  In other words, the Chinese-speaking internet loves its memes.

But the broader point to understand here is that the “meme’ing” of protest/dissent reflects just how intertwined internet life and offline life have become.  While public assembly on the streets of the city is often crucial–just look at the sheer scale of the crowd–, so is public assembly on the streets of our online city.  And in the Chinese-speaking internet, the city of cities is Sina Weibo, where netizens gather at every hour of the day to converse, share and debate in a national public forum. As I explored in my recent look at the Trayvon Martin and Chen Guangcheng memes, the particular form of public assembly on the internet is much more visual and reliant on basic art and design skills.  This is how you show scale in an online environment–text alone is rarely enough–, and it’s a trend we’ve seen now in Hong Kong (Anti-Brainwash), Moscow (Pussy Riot), New York (Travyon Martin), Beijing (Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng) and elsewhere.  As we see more protests involving the internet generation in the Chinese-speaking world and beyond, we should expect to see more and more of this.

Real Name Registration One Month Later

China Meme Report banner

Translation: (left) Real name registration (right) Weibo

Real name registration has come and gone.  The article Tricia and I penned for Wired noted some of the dangers behind the requirements to register one’s real name (it’s quite rigorous – you have to include your identification card):

In a move to exert greater control on citizen speech online, the government is requiring that Sina Weibo and China’s other microblogs register the real names and identification cards of users in several cities. Those who do not register this week in many major cities like Beijing will not be allowed to share or forward posts; after a period of testing, the policy will go into effect nationwide.

Indeed, many of our fears came true.  In a major crackdown a few weeks ago, the Chinese government flexed its muscles by shutting down comments posts.  Then they shut down web sites and conducted a number of arrests.  It’s quite clear the government wanted to send a signal in no uncertain terms that it’s serious about quelling internet commentary. (Whether or not that’s ultimately possible is another story.)

Today, the word “real name registration” (实名制) is blocked.  In its place is at least one code word, “315”, which is short for March 15, the day real name registration kicked in across microblogs, as well as a few code words that are puns off of the original Chinese.

One friend told me that real name registration has turned Sina Weibo into LinkedIn, meaning it’s solely for professional purposes. I’m already seeing evidence that users are toning down their language and saving more critical commentary for other channels.  In China, you have to learn to read between the silent moments, and the silence here is deafening..

One month later, I thought I would share some of the memes I found online as users vented their fears of the coming “shimingzhi”–real name registration–a few weeks before it officially kicked in. The most common image? That of being silenced by a face mask, an already loaded image in a post-SARS China. But you can talk behind a face mask, and I have no doubt netizens will find a way to keep the conversation going.

Rough translation: "Bloggers aren't yet required to register their real name but are already sealed."

A photo of an actual identification card in front of a web site that references the coming real name registration highlights the anxieties of this requirement: your name *and* your official identity are tied in with what you're saying.

"Everyday 315 real name registration is more solid. / 3.15 We demand rights!" The image of a shield references the Great Firewall's official name, The Golden Shield Project.

"Everyday 315 real name registration is more solid. / 3.15 We demand rights!" The image of a shield references the Great Firewall's official name, The Golden Shield Project.

"Real name registraiton... fuck you!"

"Weibo. We will not be silenced."

The two smileys show what you can and can't do with real name registration. The one up top is registered, the one below is not.

There were a few posters repurposed to reflect anxieties about being silenced.

The Gem of all the Linsanity Articles: Adam Minter’s article shares views from Weibo Users

Linsanity has calmed down and everyone should be  finished reading through their bookmarked articles on Jeremy Lin. The one article that stands out and pretty much summarizes what Chinese people think of Jeremy Lin, is Adam Minter‘s Bloomberg piece. Adam gives us a view from Weibo, then contexualizes it within Chinese politics and media, and then ends addresses race discussions without putting the reader to sleep.

“The Yao comparisons have a particular resonance for state media, in no small part because Yao -– and not Lin -– came out of China’s massive state-run sports system.

As Chinese state media goes, none is more influential than People’s Daily, the official voice of the Communist Party, and its take on “Linsanity” is both interesting and important.

The People’s Daily isn’t going to debate whether or not Chinese are capable of playing point guard; nor can it blame China’s state-sponsored athletic training establishment for the failure of Chinese nationals to ascend to the NBA. Instead, in “Will Jeremy Lin Replace Yao Ming,” published Feb. 12, it cleverly shifted the blame for the lack of Chinese NBA players onto the NBA and its racial biases. Leading U.S. sports media, like ESPN, have also explored racism in the NBA, but the People’s Daily took it further:

[Lin’s] success not only proves that “the yellow race can be outstanding defenders on the basketball court,” but also poses questions to American basketball: Why is the appearance of America’s first “Jeremy Lin” so overdue? Why is it that black figures dominate the NBA?

Few Chinese microbloggers or newspaper columnists are going to bother answering that question. As Linsanity has spread in China, others are asking another question: Why do we care?

“Jeremy Lin is just an American,” complained Lu Yang Bin, a Sina Weibo microblogger inGuangdong Province . “He doesn’t even mention China, yet China’s editors have blown him up into a god, this native-born American …””

A Curated History of the Grass Mud Horse Song

China Meme Report banner

As I thought about how to kick off the China Meme Report, I was overwhelmed.  The Chinese internet is huge–some 500 million people are logging on each day, and nearly half of those are using microblogs. As in Twitter, Chinese microblogs like Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo are feeding grounds of some amazing memes.

Fortunately, my interests in memes are pretty focused.  I love the silly, funny memes of both the English-speaking and Chinese-speaking internets, but I’m particularly drawn to memes that effect social and political change.  An internet meme that effects change?  You mean a political meme?

Think about the Casually Pepper Spraying Everything Cop meme that popped up in response to #occupy UC Davis.  Everyone in the West remembers that meme because it was so unique–it was a crazy, silly explosion of internet remix culture targeted at a very gross violation of human rights.  As Xeni Jardin wrote, it was “Photoshop justice”, as the lulz culture of the internet struck back against the perceived incongruity of the officer’s actions.

Political memes can have real effects: the police officer and his chief were placed on administrative leave, and at least one U.S. Representative called for an investigation. (Of course, the memes existed within a broader discourse, but they certainly provided fuel.)

China’s Politically-Minded LOLCat

I’ve been fascinated by Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory ever since I read about it.  You should read the full post, but the gist of it is this: social media that are effective for sharing pictures of cute cats are also effective for spreading political messages.  He cites the “brave and noble LOLCat” as the cute cat par excellence, which has spread and continues to be funny for years.

In a recent post on my blog, I made a suggested addition to Zuckerman’s theory.  On the heavily censored world of the Chinese internet, memes are often the only way to get a message out there.  The very nature of a meme–absurd, obscure humor; frequently remixed; stickiness–makes it almost impossible to censor by both human beings and computers (both of which Chinese social media sites leverage frequently).  So while the Cute Cat Theory suggests a distinction between cute cats and activist messages, what I often see China’s internet is that the meme is the message.  In other words, the cute cat is a form of activism.

The creme de la creme (meme de la meme?) of political memes in the Chinese internet is, paws down, the noble Grass Mud Horse.  Pronounced “cao ni ma” in Mandarin (草泥马), it sounds an awful lot like another “cao ni ma” (操你妈), a an extremely vulgar slur against one’s mother and a popular insult hurled by Beijing cab drivers.  Modeled after an alpaca lama, the Grass Mud Horse is the most noble of the Chinese internet’s ten mythical creatutes, and it engages in constant battle with the evil river crab.  For “river crab”, pronounced he xie (河蟹) sounds an awful lot like another he xie, meaning “harmony” (和谐), as in the “harmonious” censored internet that exists behind the Great Firewall.

Like the LOLCat, the Grass Mud Horse has amazing staying power.  Its song was profiled by Rebecca MacKinnon and mainstream media like the New York Times and CNN as long ago as 2009, but it is alive and well with breathtaking variety.  Oiwan Lam for Global Voices looked at the amazing discourse within China.  Three years later, in China today, I’ve seen them on tattoos and cars, in stores, and of course online, where even casual pictures of llamas are referred to as Grass Mud Horses.  If not ubiquitous, it certainly feels like it.

For a while, people were talking about a supposed Grass Mud Horse toy coming with McDonald's Happy Meals.

For a while, people were talking about a supposed Grass Mud Horse toy coming with McDonald's Happy Meals.

The Grass Mud Horse Song: Remixed and Remixed and Remixed

The Grass Mud Horse has many manifestations, but my absolute favorite is the Grass Mud Horse Song, which makes a fabulous introduction to the world of China’s internet memes.   It’s an asburd children’s song (adapted from the Chinese Smurfs theme song) that tells the tale of these beasts in the mythical desert of Ma Le Desert.  (The Ma Le Desert, naturally, is a play on words referring to your mother’s most delicate bits.)  And then along come the river crabs, whom the horses must do battle with for freedom.

Recently, Ai Weiwei  posted a video of himself singing along, bringing the song  to prominence once more in the West.  He sang in response to his followers’ request, after so many people turned up to donate money to support his tax case.  But it was only the latest in the remixed, participatory world of China’s political memes, which have a unique character.

On Ethan’s suggestion, I plan to blog weekly on issues around China’s memes, and some of the amazing catches I’ve made while exploring social media sites (though I focus most on Sina Weibo, where most memes amplify).   I’ve created a system, which I’ve dubbed the “meme net”, for catching the most interesting ones before they disappear into the ether, a real risk in an internet where posts and videos mysteriously vanish in a matter of minutes if they’re deemed too sensitive or become too popular and incendiary.

But there’s time for more theorizing and explaining later.  Without further ado, I present to you a small sample of the breathaking variety of manifestations of the Grass Mud Horse Song.  Keep in mind that while I’m often embedding YouTube videos for convenience for Western readers, these videos also exist wthin the Chinese Internet.  In fact, if you starting typing in “Grass Mud Horse” on Youku, China’s YouTube-like service, the first suggested search is for this song.  And no wonder: it’s been played and forwarded tens of thousands of times.

This, as far as I’ve been able to glean, is the original Grass Mud Horse Song.  YouTube user skippybentley has done a fine job of adding translations and explanations of what you’re hearing.  The  subtitles are a common convention in China, where different people speak different dialects but read the same common language, but they also help show Mandarin speakers the different puns going on.  Plus, it’s easier to sing along, karaoke-style (this is important–it makes the song catchier and easier to remix later).

But wait, there’s more.  This is the rap/R&B version, which paints the tale of the Grass Mud Horse and Ma Le Gebi in epic fashion, where milk flows and beautiful women skillfully sing and dance of the Grass Mud Horse tribe.  Once again, skippybentley has provided helpful translation of the song’s wordplay and meaning.

In London, activists fighting for a free Tibet played on the smurf theme by advocating for “Serf Emancipation”.  They dressed up as smurfs while dancing to the song of the Grass Mud Horse.  It’s important and characteristic of many of China’s political memes–these memes leap off the internet and into the offline world, whether as Grass Mud Horse plush dolls or, in this case, as an absurdist protest outside the Chinese Embassy.

While not a song, this “documentary” on the Grass Mud Horse tells the story of the Grass Mud Horse Song in a more narrative format–complete with an epic O Fortuna soundtrack as the Grass Mud Horses attempt to access more information on censored material like the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Here’s a high school student singing the song.

Tom the Cat.

A CGI version.

A more choral, “soybean” version.

A Western college student’s reinterpretation of the tale, told in the form of a Grass Mud Horse attempting to enter a library for information.

And, of course, Ai Weiwei’s version, sung along with his iPad for good measure and then, oddly enough, censored.

So what’s the point?  Why does the Grass Mud Horse matter?  The meme is prototypical of the dark humor in China’s best political memes: subversive, punny, catchy, remixed to death, making them virtually impossible to censor.  It’s just one of many memes, but it’s the most iconic, and it’s still going strong.  Knowing how the Grass Mud Horse works helps us understand how other political memes work in China.