On the surface, the stories of a young man killed in Florida and a blind Chinese activist couldn't be more different. And yet.
From the outset, the stories of Trayvon Martin and Chen Guangcheng couldn't have seemed more different. One, a young black man shot to death in central Florida while carrying a bag of Skittles. The other, a blind lawyer activist in rural Shandong held under illegal detention in his own home.
But in recent months, both men became sensations on their respective Internets, which are largely divided by linguistic and technical barriers. In the United States this past March, it was impossible to ignore the name of Trayvon Martin, or forget the hoodie he was wearing. And in China this past year, although Chen Guangcheng's name was officially censored from search queries, his name and face were on the fingertips of web activists as they found ways to advocate for his release. In both cases, sustained internet activity kept the conversations about these two men in public discourse.
The Internet hubbub wasn't simply thousands of people clicking or Facebook-liking, though those actions were certainly involved. Rather, activists of the internet generation deployed the creativity of memes. Yes, those memes. Usually associated with LOLCats and dancing babies, memes go viral swiftly and encourage user participation. People mix and remix them along the way, helping them morph and adapt like biological viruses.
Trayvon Martin's story, though well-known now, didn't immediately claim attention and in fact received scant coverage in news media shortly after his death. That began to change with the help of social media. Seeing a note on a Howard University mailing list, a concerned outsider started a Change.org petition demanding an investigation. It would become the largest petition in the web site's history.
The petition initially had a slow start. A few days later, Daniel Maree, a digital strategist based in New York, issued a YouTube video calling for people to wear hoodies in support of Trayvon Martin's case. Dubbing it the Million Hoodie March, he sparked a nationwide meme. Social-media feeds soon filled with supporters of all races and backgrounds donning hoodies on their profile pictures and photo posts. The once apolitical act of slipping on a hoodie transformed into a powerful collective statement of solidarity with the Martin family.
"With this idea of anonymity and the inability to verify, a signature doesn't mean as much online," Kenyatta Cheese noted to me. Cheese co-founded Know Your Meme, a popular meme archival and research site, and he contributed research on the hoodie meme. He told me that the act of signing petitions is an excellent way to show mass in physical public space. Different techniques, like image memes, are often more effective for getting attention online.
"What does mean as much online," he continued, "are the reblogs, the retweets, the likes, the favorites. When you're in a social environment, the more that you can create content that lends itself toward that sort of endorsement, the faster it spreads."
What helped was that the meme spread not just amongst average social media users but also with what he called "supernodes," i.e., celebrities, who magnified the meme when they themselves put on hoodies. And per Maree's original call to action, the meme leapt into the offline world when citizens around the nation led hoodie marches and posted pictures. Weeks later, Martin's alleged murderer was arrested.
"I kind of just began from a personal anecdote of walking down the streets of New York and sometimes feeling that I'm being judged as suspicious for wearing a hoodie," explained Maree in a phone interview. "The idea of transforming that image of a young African American man in a hoodie as a symbol of unity and focusing on other than what it's judged as -- I thought that felt pretty powerful."
Certainly, memes do not a movement make. Maree credits the early responders who helped magnify his initial call to action, and the hoodie meme became part of a larger push that included the Occupy movement, celebrities, broadcast media, Change.org, and physical-world protests, among others. But the meme charged the movement with personal urgency and added symbolism and visual power to the discussions.
Remarkably, just a few months prior, China's internet had experienced a similar explosion of activity. In November 2011, net activists began posting photos of themselves wearing sunglasses on Sina Weibo, China's most popular Twitter-like microblog service. It started as a trickle but soon grew into dozens and dozens of photos and comics. Wearing sunglasses, like wearing a hoodie, is by itself apolitical. The power lay in the collective action, distributed across a network of supporters.
Netizens were posting photos of themselves as part of a project called Dark Glasses.Portrait, kicked off by an anonymous comic and social-media artist named Crazy Crab. Inspired by JR's Inside Out Project, he called for a simple action: wear sunglasses or blindfolds in support of the blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng.
Crazy Crab began collecting and organizing photos and responses on his web site. He told me they first streamed in from mainland China and Hong Kong, and within a week he was collecting foreigners' submissions. After his site was blocked in China, users simply posted the images directly onto Sina Weibo, where they slipped past keyword search algorithms and human censors. How could a censor differentiate between a sunglasses photo in support of Chen Guangcheng, or a self portrait on a sunny day?
And it wasn't limited to online action. As the meme's popularity grew, users printed out posters and t-shirts consisting of a mosaic of supporters made to look like Chen's face. His distinctive face was placed onto "Free CGC" car stickers made to look like "Free KFC" ads, and netizens regularly posted pictures of him, either by himself or juxtaposed alongside imagery like the Statue of Liberty and the Berlin Wall. A small group organized a sunglass-wearing flash mob in Linyi, a town close to where Chen was being held.
In China, where online speech and public assembly are highly limited, the role of internet memes is quite clear. Posting frequent demands to release Chen Guangcheng could get your posts, if not your entire account, deleted. But posting images of yourself and your friends in sunglasses looks innocuous to the uninformed.
Internet authorities, of course, are not oblivious to this power, and once they catch on to a growing meme, they often block it. But as quickly as one word or image is blocked, a new, remixed version springs up. After Chen Guangcheng's dramatic escape from illegal detention, censors shifted into high gear. Words such as "blind man", "sunglasses" and even the name of A Bing, a popular blind musician, were blocked from searches as netizens rapidly tried to disseminate and discuss the news within the Chinese web. Even then, messages slipped out in the form of veiled references to Shawshank Redemption. The relentlessness of meme culture found cracks in the relentlessness of China's censorship regime.