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.