August 18, 2011 § 1 Comment
Ethan Zuckerman, “ROFLcon: From Weird to Wide” (2010)
I’m breaking with tradition here, since Zuckerman’s argument has followed me into a number of different projects & is a topic I still grapple with. A bit of backstory to the backstory: I was invited to help liveblog ROFLcon II, and spent the entire weekend scurrying around like a bat out of hades trying not to fuck up or seem too conspicuously out of place. Because I was, at least felt like I was — at the time I pretty much kept to my little corner of the internet, and didn’t know much about much in terms of internet history or culture or anything that might make me even remotely appealing (even tolerable) to this hugely smart group of digital natives, to use an annoying term. I felt like an outsider, and that in itself made me an outsider; from that vantage point I was probably more sensitive to the “we” that seemed to surround me. I wanted so badly to be part of it, but didn’t know where in the circle I stood — if I even belonged in the circle at all. The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote shortly after flying back to Eugene, and which I recently updated as part of a separate project. I’ll get to Zuckerman eventually, calm down grandma.
Per my duties as ROFLcon stenographer, I was to attend a series of assigned panels and record as much information as possible, from specific quotes to audience reactions to Q&A exchanges. One of my panels was called “And the Internet Swooped In,” and featured a number of Internet celebrities, including David Devore Jr. and Sr. of “David After Dentist” fame (in which 7 year-old David waxes narcotic after visiting his dentist, and which I’d link except those guys have monetized the shit out of anything having to do with David’s burgeoning drug addiction, no advertisement revenue for you), Charlie Schmidt, and Mahir Cagri. Though Mahir’s initial 15 minutes of internet fame had come and gone a decade earlier, he was easily the most well-known panelist—whether or not conference attendees realized who he was. After all, his online (and, as it turned out, real-life) persona, including his effusively-asserted heterosexuality, his painfully broken English, and his penchant for overly-revealing beachwear, not to mention his perceived “backwater” Eastern European origins and enthusiasm for Do-It-Yourself journalism, provided the template for Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat character. The Borat connection is immediately, and somewhat painfully, apparent on Mahir’s original istanbul.tc homepage (founded in 1999), which I summarized in an earlier version of this essay but with the magic of internet you can just read for yourselves.
Thus it was with some trepidation that I settled in for the liveblog. The moderator, Christian Sandvig of the Berkman Center, began by asking the panel to describe how their respective Internet celebrity had positively impacted their lives. The Davids gave their answer (money and vacations), then Charlie (optimism and a reincarnated cat). When it was Mahir’s turn to speak, he explained the layout of his website and listed a few of his celebrity fans, including Julia Roberts and David Bowie. When asked to recount a negative experience, Mahir was much more precise. He turned to his manager, who had accompanied him onstage, and threw his hands in the air. “Borat stole Mahir,” Mahir proclaimed. “Guardian, New York Times, USA Today said that Borat stole Mahir your clothes, your words. I leave all good things. People love me.” When asked if Cohen ever contacted Mahir, Mahir responded emphatically, no, and after whispering something to his manager, insisted that all the words and all the images on his site belonged to him, despite rumors that someone had hacked into his site and altered its content.
Later, Sandvig asked Mahir a question off the backchannel that hushed the crowd. “There’s a distinction between laughing with and laughing at,” Sandvig began. “Particularly Mahir, do you feel your fans are mocking you in their responses?” Mahir, who was wearing a baseball cap with the word “Mahir” stitched to the front, shrugged. “If people visit my site, if they smile, this is good every time. Because people need smile to be happy. This is a good thing. I am happy.” Sandvig followed this question by asking what Mahir had been up to for the last ten years, and Mahir provided a laundry-list of accomplishments, including several movie offers. Sandvig pushed on this response; I recorded their exchange as follows:
Christian: Could you tell us about your movie?
Mahir: There are many offers. Somebody want to see Mahir, Peter Sellers. I don’t know my acting capacity. I try to do nice things too because I am famous. I love music, sport, sex. I go to Africa to help kids, try to do good things because I am famous. Other problems, animal rights, orphans, homeless people.
Christian: Could you give me an example of the good things?
Mahir: I went to many countries in Africa, I see kids without arms…I like sex. I try to do good things.
Christian: There’s a lot of tittering in the audience. He is saying what you think he’s saying.
Unfortunately, Mahir didn’t quite get the joke, nor did he seem to notice (or understand) that the audience was indeed laughing at him and not with him. Sandvig did, the other panelists did. Mahir’s manager may have known. But Mahir did not. At least, he gave no indication that his responses were meant to be comical. He was pleading his case; he was genuinely upset that Sasha Baron Cohen had stolen his likeness and turned it—and therefore him—into a clown. His manager even polled the audience, should Mahir sue? Only a handful of people in the packed auditorium raised their hands in assent, and many of those who did didn’t seem entirely sincere, their stifled laughter suggesting that what they really wanted to see was a drawn-out legal battle. Part of me felt embarrassed by this laughter and embarrassed by the crowd’s tittering incredulity (“lol did he really just say that?”). But part of me was similarly amused, and similarly incredulous. Ironically, I was having the same reaction to real-life Mahir as I’d had to fictional Borat. Though I did my best to resist the urge, my stifled laughter was a knee-jerk response to bizarre word choices, ungrammatical juxtapositions and cultural illiteracy. In other words I was laughing at difference. We were laughing at difference.
This was not the first time I’d been confronted by a laughing “us” at ROFLcon. Throughout the weekend, panelists and conference attendees alike would frequently cite “our” humor, “our” language, “our” culture. In the most basic sense, this “we” could be understood in terms of collective interest. This was, after all, a self-selective group of tech-savvy internet people. The fact that the demographic breakdown of this “we” was predominately white, predominately male and predominately middle-class (to the extent that the conference cost money to attend and was located in an expensive city), however, suggests that this “we” was more specific, and therefore more loaded, than might have been immediately apparent. As ROFLcon co-organizer Christina Xu writes in her very honest, very smart reflection of the notable lack of diversity at ROFLcon, “Out of the 160 people we’ve ever featured or asked to speak at ROFLCon, 26 have been women (16%), 19 have been people of color (12%), and 6 have been women of color (totally embarrassing %). The stats went up from ROFLCon I to II (+1% for women and +5% for people of color). Obviously this completely simplistic sociological inquiry via Google Docs leaves out a lot of other important factors, but overall it suggests a homogeneity that isn’t pretty.” So just invite more women and people of color, right? Well, not exactly. As she continues: “This is a controversial statement, but I want to make it clear: it’s hard to find women that fit the bill for the original ROFLCon agenda because there simply aren’t that many. Women, for the most part, do NOT make the memes that circulate on that particular corner of the internet; when they do, they usually don’t take ownership because it becomes uncomfortable very quickly” (2010). To put too fine a point on Xu’s insights, internet culture is a sausagefest, and a white sausagefest at that. There’s just no getting around it.
Of course, stateside demography is not the only context in which the “we” may or should be placed. In his ROFLcon keynote address, for example, which he subsequently posted online, Ethan Zuckerman examines the emergence of memes within the developing world, particularly Makmende, Kenya’s first documented online phenomenon. After tracing the development of Makmende, Zuckerman considers the possibility that there already is, or soon will be, a number of Internets, divided by language and culture and perhaps even protocol (referring specifically to the development of China’s highly censored “parallel internet”). This, he argues, is something we should fight against, since a unified Internet has far more transformative power than a number of geographically and culturally specific internets. He proposes that, to the extent that we can, we should “develop memes we can LOL at across cultures”—otherwise, we run the risk of widening the gap between our respective internets (or more appropriately described as spheres of virtual influence). Currently there is some crossover, but all-too-frequently the response to “outside” memes is to revel in the Otherness of others. Zuckerman cites Mahir by name, stating:
When we cross cultural borders in internet memespace, we’re usually laughing at someone else. Engrish, funny though it is, is basically the act of laughing at someone for failing to speak your (absurdly complex and irregular) mother tongue. I’m deeply impressed with people like Mahir Cagri who managed to turn the experience of being laughed at by the entire internet into laughing along with the joke. It takes an unusual personality to pull this off – I’m not sure that laughing at and inviting folks to laugh along is always the best way to go (2010).
In other words, we need to be careful about what exactly is making us laugh. As Zuckerman says in his conclusion, “It’s worth asking ourselves if we’re laughing at, or laughing with. And if we don’t like the answer, perhaps we need to change our behavior.”
Since attending Zuckerman’s talk, I find myself brushing up against this question almost everywhere I turn. I’m not quite sure what to think about it, and am not quite sure how to integrate these basic insights into the work I do with online cyberbullies, or whatever they’re called. Well that’s not true, I’m working on it. But it gives me pause, still. Because that we, it’s about as loaded as a pronoun can get.