Neuland or Nowhere Land? Reflecting on Evanescence, Immortality, and Internet Memes

In a joint press conference with President Obama last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the Internet as “Neuland”—literally, an “uncharted territory”—in response to a question about initial reports of the US National Security Agency’s PRISM program. Specifically, she said the Internet was “new or uncharted territory for all of us.” Merkel’s words immediately became the target of a widespread meme. According to Der Spiegel, #Neuland began trending on Twitter within minutes, and images and gifs that poke fun at Merkel from different angles began circulating shortly thereafter. Some images cast Merkel as a luddite or “Internet granny,” while others depicted her as a futuristic imperialist with designs on the new world.

(Image source: Know Your Meme: Neuland)

When people hear the name Richard Dawkins, they might think of the Oxford educated evolutionary biologist, or perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, which he is. But according to Dawkins, he is also the “father of the meme.” In Dawkins’ recent Just for Hits Talk, he reminds us that he is the man who gave the world the term “meme” and claims he would rather leave behind memes than genes. In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he used the term to explain the non-genetic transmission of meaning and social habits among human beings. Like genes, memes are replicators, but in the cultural rather than biological sense.  Dawkins claims they spread “blog to blog” rather than “brain to brain.”

In addition to being carriers of culture, memes have a social and political function; they galvanize and mobilize people. We’ve seen this globally over time and more recently in citizen-led protests in China and Turkey, the coup in Egypt, and civil war in Syria. The Neuland meme clearly conveys the frustration that people feel when government representatives and policy makers are out of touch with their needs and everyday experiences. Younger, tech savvy generations around the world are losing patience and respect for leaders with outdated mindsets who lack real-world knowledge and skills. The Neuland meme is an expression of the collective political disenchantment of our day. Its meaning transcends race, class, gender and state boundaries to resonate with citizens around the world, not just with Germans. Seeing Merkel as an Internet granny calls to mind other images that express citizens’ lack of faith in technologically challenged world leaders.

As the population of Internet users increases, questions about how ideas are generated and spread drive communication studies and information sciences forward. More than a decade ago, philosopher Daniel Dennett stated in TED talk that “people are surprisingly resistant to applying evolutionary thinking to thinking.” Today, however, the spread of ideas online is often described in biological terms—“going viral” being one of the most prominent—and the Internet’s ecosystem is undeniably lively. Ideas meet and mix and reproduce. They spread across online landscapes remarkably like wildflowers and behave at times like wildfire. There is life on the Internet, but what influences the birth and lifespan of a single meme is still uncertain.

In his Just for Hits Talk, Dawkins argued that a meme one creates “may live on long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool.” We know the Twittersphere had a good laugh at the chancellor’s gaff last month, but it remains to be seen how long the effects of #Neuland will last. Angela Merkel is up for reelection in September, and we will find out if the Neuland meme is political terra firma or not. Chancellor Merkel is probably hoping this particular meme will not be her legacy, but that is for German citizens and global netizens to decide.

Syrian Citizens Launch Memes and Throw Shoes in Viral Internet Campaign

Syria’s tech-savvy and socially engaged citizens are resisting the state in creative ways. Conflict is never black and white, and in today’s ever-more-connected world, attempts to address conflict are often quite colorful. This was evident earlier this month when Chinese bloggers morphed a classic photo of citizen resistance from Tiananmen Square, changing a line of government tanks into a parade of big yellow ducks. The image was powerful and provocative; thus the role of the meme in Chinese social media. 

Syrian citizens’ imaginations are also playing out colorfully on the Internet. Taking a closer look at the nuances of Syria’s resistance movement can help us complicate the oversimplified and often exoticized picture of people and events in the Middle East that is presented in popular media. In a recent article for Jadaliyya, Berkman fellow and researcher Donatella Della Ratta suggests, “As much as images of violence, civil war, and sectarian strife become prominent in the media narrative of the Syrian uprising, little gems of innovative cultural production, artistic resistance, and creative disobedience continue to sprout across the virtual alleys of the Internet.”

So what does a civil society movement on the Internet look like in a time of civil war?  In the case of the “I am with Syria” campaign, it looks much like a volley of artistic images with subtle political messages. The back and forth that started on the streets continues to play out on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

Eye-catching posters began to show up in Syria around the time the uprising began in March 2011. The first round of images was published by the al-Bashar regime and featured the phrase, “I am with the law.” Iterations included, “whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law,” “whether boy or girl, …” and “whether young or old, ….” Citizens were insulted by the campaign’s assumption that the law was the exclusive domain of the state and that anyone opposed to the regime was outside the law. They responded initially by vandalizing the posters, but soon developed a less aggressive form of resistance. They designed their own posters with their own slogans, riffing on both “I am with the law” and on an updated version of the government campaign that used “I am with Syria, my demands are your demands” as the primary text.  These user-generated designs—ranging from “I am with Syria, my demands are freedom,” to increasingly humorous and satirical statements—appealed to Syrians’ sense of humor, beauty, and creativity rather than instigating division and bloodshed.

“I am with the law” government billboard campaign in Damascus Photo credit: Donatella Della Ratta. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license

Citizen-generated versions of the posters showed up on the streets and were widely disseminated online, particularly on Facebook. In May 2011, the “I am with Syria” Facebook page was launched; it continues to post images and host comments. One of the resistance posters states, “I am with Syria, I lost my shoes,” which is a cultural reference suggesting that people have thrown their shoes at al-Bashar as an expression of their disrespect. When a man threw his shoes at George Bush in 2008, it made global headlines. Throwing your shoe at someone is a serious insult in the Arab world. “I lost my shoes” is just one of the culturally rich jokes, parodies, and satirical slogans that went viral as part of the “I am with Syria” Internet campaign..

Collage of remixed versions of the original posters. one reads “My was is your way but the tank is in the way” and another “I am with the law, but where is it?” Image courtesy of Ammar Alani via Donatella Della Ratta.

“I am with Syria” is a playing out across the Internet like a conversation in the language of memes that gets a clear message of political resistance across, without inciting further violence in a country already ravaged by civil war. The central image of the campaign has always been an upward reaching human arm that represents an alif- the first of 28 characters in the Arabic alphabet. Atop the alif is a hamza, (an Arabic marker equivalent to a vowel sound in English). A human hand stands in for the hamza. The hand is open in both government and citizen- inspired posters. That the counter campaign kept the open hand speaks to its central spirit and purpose. The hand could have been a fist- a classic symbol of resistance- fight the power so to speak- but this hand is extended and open, waiting for another hand to grab on and link up.  One of the strategies of war is to divide and fracture communities; in the case of Syria, the Internet is helping people in battle-weary communities stay connected.

“Whether Anti or Pro-Regime, You Are Still My Brother..” Photo credit:

Culture Memes as Creative Resistance on Tiananmen Square Anniversary

This is a guest post.

Ahead of last week’s anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese government engaged in what has now become an expected annual crackdown on Internet freedom. This year, however, the government adopted more advanced and subtle means of censorship. Rather than blocking all search results for sensitive terms, websites such as Weibo are instead displaying carefully curated results that have little to do with the 1989 protests.

Although Chinese censorship is ever-more sophisticated, Internet users in China are finding creative ways to express themselves and commemorate the tragedy. Memes – spontaneous, humorous, grass-roots-style online satirical works – are a significant feature of the Chinese Internet, ranging from 2009’s Grass Mud Horse to memes involving sunflower seeds and self-portraits of people wearing sunglasses, both inspired by arrested Chinese dissidents. These memes take the form of photos, videos, animations, and texts that defy and ridicule Chinese authorities.

This year, Chinese Internet users created multiple variations of an iconic photograph from the 1989 protests, incorporating images ranging from yellow ducks to Legos. These images began to circulate through social media in China days before the June 4th anniversary as a way to bypass censorship, and gained momentum largely for their humor and brevity.

The famous photograph – known as “Tank Man” – of the 1989 protest has long been banned in Chinese cyberspace. The photo, featuring a man blocking a series of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protest on June 4, 1989, directly points to the dictatorship of Chinese government and has startled people worldwide.

Days before this year’s Tiananmen Square Anniversary, someone wittily replaced the four tanks in the original photograph with giant yellow ducks. The meme is based on a 54-foot-tall duck sculpture, created by a Dutch artist, that currently floats in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor.

The “tank man” picture is also photoshopped into a Lego man facing down three green Lego tanks. By embedding these images in posts instead of using banned keywords, Internet users can often escape automatic deletion.

Another picture showing a cow in front of a line of bulldozers is also getting past Weibo’s censors. While Weibo has blocked the words “big yellow duck” in response to the memes, the word “cow” appears to be uncensored.

While censors continue to add new words to the blocklist, Internet users continue to create new images, making it impossible for the government to shut down conversation about the Tiananmen Square protests entirely.

Tiananmen Square Anniversary: China Experiments with Subtle Censorship and Netizens Fight Back with Images

To ensure its country’s Internet remains in good working order, the Chinese government has used June 4 as an unofficial “Internet maintenance” day. In 2009, more than 300 sites went down. In 2010, a slew of blocked sites (many pornographic) became accessible. Last year, the Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index dropped 64.89 points, leading the popular Chinese microblogging service Sina Weibo to ban searches of related terms. Why such erratic behavior? June 4 also marks the day when, in 1989, tanks entered Tiananmen Square to violently quash pro-democracy protests.

Days before this year’s 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Weibo experimented with a much subtler form of censorship, but Chinese netizens used creative images to signal their acknowledgement of what Chinese government wishes the country would forget.

Typically, users who search for sensitive terms such as “June 4th incident” receive the message, “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for [keyword] cannot be displayed.” Beginning on May 31, searches for “Tiananmen incident,” “24th anniversary,” “June 4th,” “64 incident” returned a sanitized list, for example, referencing a 1976 protest that occurred in Tiananmen Square, or a seemingly innocuous message that the search yielded no results, according to analysis from the Chinese Internet transparency organization

By the evening of June 3, Weibo reverted to displaying its original censorship announcement in response to searches of sensitive terms. Citizen Lab posted a list of 71 terms blocked on Weibo, many variations on the numbers six, four, and 1989. China Digital Times mentioned additional terms including names of people and places.

The seemingly benign terms “today,” “tonight,” “big yellow duck,” and “black shirt” also faced restriction on Weibo. The latter two reference an online meme and calls for Chinese to wear black shirts to observe the anniversary.

While Weibo’s text filters grow ever more sophisticated, the network seems less able to police images. Chinese netizens exploited this fact, posting variations of the iconic “Tank Man” image. One replaced the tanks with yellow rubber ducks (hence the blockage of “big yellow duck”); one showed a cow in front of a line of bulldozers; another showed a praying mantis pushing against a wheel, referencing a popular idiom about the futility of trying to stop the future.

On May 31, the Chinese government also cut off access to the encrypted (https) version of Wikipedia, which Chinese Internet users could use to see articles banned on the unencrypted (http) version.