Category Archives: Pop & Social Media Culture

Danger Brown’s Potato Salad and Social Justice

One thing that really excites me about the world that we live in is the ridiculousness of the internet. The creativity it inspires and makes possible is always one step ahead of what we can currently imagine. There is simply no way that anyone could have imagined that less than one month ago, some dude from Ohio would raise over $40,000 for a project involving only him and increasing amounts of potato salad. Yes, you read that correctly – over forty-thousand actual U.S. Dollars for making potato salad (for the first time). You may be saying to yourself, but hey, I have been making potato salad for years and have never earned even a cent! Or you could be wondering if there is a new potato famine you somehow have not heard about. Or, perhaps, this guy is going to create some innovative method of making potato salad. No, the project is as simple as you know it to be – making potato salad.

It all began with a simply stated goal:

I’m making potato salad.

Basically I’m just making potato salad. I haven’t decided what kind yet. 

Twenty-two days later, the Potato Salad Kickstarter project  had attracted nearly five and a half thousand backers and a series of updated goals. The most recent is a “Big Stretch Goal” for those willing to donate $3000 to the project:

My kitchen is too small! I will rent out a party hall and invite the whole internet to the potato salad party (only $10 and above will be allowed in the kitchen)! The internet loves potato salad! Let’s show them that potato salad loves the internet!!

Rather than simply dismissing this as the dumbest fucking thing I have ever heard of, I can’t help but pause for a critical moment. Don’t want to throw the potato-salad out with the Tupperware, now!
Danger Brown is some middle class white guy living in white bread middle America. This positionality gives him access to things like resources, and importantly, a knowledge (or even perhaps mastery) of internet communications and language. I actually found the project page to be hilarious, and has obviously created a sense of community amongst the backers, people who themselves are likely middle class people (I mean, they are willing to donate USD to this clearly satirical project and have the time and capacity to do so), and this is likely because of the comedic dexterity of Danger Brown. The backers essentially egg him on to create more crazy goals and potato-salad themed gifts for different levels of donation. So in this sense, of course, if any body on earth is going to create a kickstarter project for making potato salad and actually gain backers, you bet, its going to be a white and male body, that is probably also American.
The positionality of Danger Brown stands in stark relation to millions of people across the world who will not see that amount of money in a year, a decade, or even their working lives. And, the project is clearly not one of charity – Danger Brown will not be feeding potato salad to the homeless. And, we are living in a world where food scarcity is a real threat, yet where hipster “foodie” culture has developed in tandem with the iPhone Instagram app. “Passion for food” can only ever be a middle-class “hobby”. The Potato Salad Kickstarter Project speaks to the development of “food” pop culture, and the inequalities it highlights. Food is conceptualized as humorous, stylish, and photogenic, not an “essential need” for human life.
So, lets not dismiss Danger Brown’s Potato Salad as the dumbest fucking thing we have ever heard of. Let’s think about what this kind of phenomenon tells us about the state of our world. And, on the other hand, let it tell us something about the power of the internet to accomplish just about anything. As unfair and ridiculous the Potato Salad project is, it shows just how relatively simple it can be to gain support for one’s projects (at least on Kickstarter). It is unlikely that whatever you are thinking of right now is less mundane and ordinary than Danger Brown’s extra-ordinary Potato Salad.


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Internet Taco: Let’s talk about social media

Attempts to delineate or disentangle the “material” world from the so-called “virtual” one is an exercise in futility. Things that happen in the tangible world become the subjects of interest and debate in virtual social spaces, and vice versa. internet tacoAlthough we cannot draw a clear distinction between where the “material” ends and the “virtual” begins, we can say that the virtual social-media networks we participate in create new ways of creating, disseminating, validating, and gaining information.  For instance, virutal social-media “products” like memes, .gifs, “share” and “like” buttons, and blogs like this one allow us to engage with information and each other in new ways. Of course, social media also exposes one to high levels of disinformation through hoaxes an photoshopped images. But, false information are realities of the material world (and come from the material world too),  so we must forgive the internet and realise that it is not the source of the age-old problem of the manufacturing of “truth”.

What I have enjoyed about this blog is the space it creates for me to reflect on and more deeply engage some of the developments and events that have gone “viral” in social media networks. In doing so, it has become clear to me that there are major events which have more of a life on social media than in the material world. Usually, this is due to the simple the fact that the majority of the world will engage in a “material” event virtually, while only a relatively small minority can fit into one physical space such as a stadium, arena, or court room. To participate in these events virtually is also to participate in the discursive eruptions which accompany them. Discourse is the vehicle of social media communications, be it in the form of images, videos, or typed text. Sometimes, these events are even virtual themselves, and take the form of something that has gone viral through social media networks, like the nefarious Kony 2012 campaign. nomnomnom

This is why I find it hugely worthwhile to engage in social media during such events. There is actually something unique about following twitter during events that have international interest. Local examples include the internationally televised Nelson Mandela memorial at Soweto stadium, and the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing in 2013 which had the world gripped (and distracted from work) by the 140 character messages produced by  journalists tweeting from the courtroom.

Rapidly emerging and transforming discourses also have implications for social justice, in that they can confirm and promote, or subvert and challenge dominant stereotypes, prejudices, judgements, and inequalities. Of course, the existing digital divide mediates who is able to participate in this, but cellphone internet technologies are increasingly filling the void which once existed between those who could afford a PC and internet connection (predominantly those in the “developed” western world) and those who could not (the “developing” global south).

There is also a banality through which hate and violence occur, and forms of media can function in ways that are damaging and helpful. Consider, for instance, the role of the radio in the Rwandan genocide, or the effect of the May 2008 front page image that was printed in many South African newspapers depicting a Mozambican man on fire  (with a police officer looking on smugly in the background) – the day this image appeared in papers, the already simmering levels of hatred towards African nationals boiled over in townships across the country.

Despite the power of social media, I am surprised when people act as though it is irrelevant or not worth a second thought. unimpressedI know quite a few people who refuse to engage with, and entertain, social media at all. Sometimes, they claim that our fixation on social media is making us somehow less “authentic” as humans. This is a futile debate.The (virtual) reality is that the internet is here to stay, so we must take it seriously as a space where meaningful human communication occurs. What we really need to be concerned about is the pending infringements on our internet freedoms, like Angela Merkel’s recent proposal for a “Europeans Only” internet. While this proposal reflects Merkel’s glaring ignorance about how the internet actually works, it is a dangerous idea that would restrict flows of information and create segregated virtual spaces. The US government is also working to create restrictions that would severely censor information on the web. Bizarrely, protecting internet freedom may be an area of common interest between embattled conservatives and progressives.

I am grateful to have the space on this blog to write about things like this. A faster press than the slow turning wheel of academic knowledge production, and able to by-pass the usual time lags between events and their reporting in newspapers, social media allows us to get news out there in real time and discuss how we feel as we are feeling it. The wonders of human creativity are everywhere on the internet, and “social media events” allow us to collectively engage through one another.


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Towards a gynocentric understanding of learning & knowledge? : A brief response to that Business Insider PhD graphic

Have you seen that Business Insider PhD graphic that has recently gone a bit viral on the web? It was created by Matt Might (I don’t want to gender stereotype, but I would expect Matt is gendered as male) to show how he illustrates the significance of a PhD to his students. But, one does not even need a PhD to see how this is like, the most phallic graphic ever! I mean, LOOK at it!! And it even ends with the words, “Keep Pushing”!!! Or, am I just a “paranoid feminist”?

At least one doesn’t even need a PhD to tell you that this is one helluva penis shaped illustration!  If I were more talented as comic arts as Matt Might is, I would create my own gynocentric version of what the significance of a PhD is. Perhaps the birthing of an idea after the torture of labour following years of intellectual menstruation, shedding of old ideas, rebuilding of new ones. And while your idea, once born, is just one amongst many in the world, it is yours; the product of blood, sweat, and tears.

We must rethink how we conceptualise  and construct knowledge and learning…
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No revolution without horses

Hey guys – its year of the horse!

I know I am a bit late, but Happy New Year! I enjoy some Chinese astronomy every now and then, and according to this astronomer, year of the horse looks like its going to be wild: “The Wood Horse year is a time of fast victories, [and] unexpected adventure…Energy is high and production is rewarded. Decisive action, not procrastination, brings victory. But you have to act fast in a Horse year…Magical Horse has supernatural powers, is heroic, strong, and can even fly!”

No revolution without horses

No revolution without horses

Meme-orializing Madiba

Where were you during Nelson Mandela’s Memorial?

Umbrellas for MadibaIt was an unusually hideous summer day in Johannesburg on Tuesday December 10th, the day of Nelson Mandela’s memorial at the FNB Stadium in Soweto. Cold, wet, and grey, the weather certainly defeated any stereotypes or expectations of perpetually sunny “African skies” for the international media broadcasting. The weather was so terrible, in fact, that it became a theme that heads of state played on in their speeches. Master of Ceremonies, Cyril Ramaphosa, apologised for the weather, saying that they could unfortunately not make it stop, but then spoke of the significance of rain in the context of death – that it symbolizes a life well lived, and the opening of the heavens. But, the conditions did not prevent hundreds of thousands of people from attending the memorial in the open stadium. Some of those interviewed on the news said that they were proud to be there, suffering in the rain and cold to honour the former President and struggle hero who had suffered so much for their freedom. I only live about 45 minutes away from the Stadium, but I did not attend for various reasons. I preferred to rather watch from my apartment and try to get some work done as I watched the memorial. However, as the memorial coverage began, and the social media began to roll, I became completely engrossed in the social media commentary on the event. Work tossed aside – just for the day.

A  discursive explosion occurred when the death of Madiba was announced on December 5th, and predictably, it was one of sadness and loss, swathed in respect and honour, and completely focussed on Nelson Mandela. A few more critical memes did grace the scene, such as this one, which refers to Mandela’s neoliberal shift to GEAR (Growth Employment and Redistribution), and away from the more socialist RDP (Reconsturuction & Development Programme) after coming into office. RDP Madiba

The occasion of the internationally broadcasted memorial sprouted new discourses – the world was watching the memorial, and people from different parts of the world are participating in the building of these discourses together. Twitter, unsurprisingly, was an important cyber space where these discourses took shape with trends like #MadibaMemorial, and #FNBStadium. The world did not participate evenly of course, given that  an enormous percentage of the world does not have access to social media technologies. Nevertheless,  participatation in the discursive event of Nelson Mandela’s memorialisation took place at the international level. This post is dedicated to the creative social media that has blossomed out of the worlds mourning of Madiba, an individual who has in life and memory brought together people from opposing political views and different walks of life.

I feel like if you are reading this post, you have access to the internet and forms of media, meaning that I do not need to tell you what happened at the Soweto memorial. But, for posterity, and clarity, I will provide a selective re-telling of the events.

The “Rain-Boo-Nation”: Jacob Zuma on the big screen and the “boo” heard round the world

The  entrance of international heads of state, dignitaries, and occasional celebrity, into the stadium was broadcast on the big screen in the stadium. Sometimes, this image matched the one we were watching at home, and sometimes it did not. So, in telling what happened, I am also relying on accounts provided by people inside the stadium. Of course, Charlese Theron, Bono, and Thabo Mbeki received enormous applause as they entered the stadium. Then, as Jacob Zuma entered,  the began to  curdle and froth. Boos erupted and spread like a wave across the stadium, cameras showing members of the crowd making a rolling hands motion, indicating the need for change. Instantly, social media went wild. While some people thought that the booing was hilarious and/or well deserved, most others reacted with disapproval, saying that the booing was an embarrassment for the country, and simply not appropriate to the occasion. The crowd was later placated by the entrance of the Clintons and Barack and Michelle Obama, who were met with an outpouring of adoration. Bush was certainly able to benefit from their popularity as he walked in with them. Watch it all go down here:

This photo, supposedly taken while Zuma was being booed, is apt (Mbeki and Mugabe were both greeted with warm welcomes from the crowd):

LOLZ!And, not only did the crowd boo when Zuma entered the stadium, they booed every time his image appeared on the big screen. Ramaphosa had to discipline the crowd before Zuma came to the podium to make his closing speech, ordering them to save their grievances for later, and to show to the world that they could be “disciplined”. I saw one tweet saying that Cyril would make a great kindergarden teacher with that look of his, spectacles in his waving hand. A praise singer came on afterwards to work up the crowd, and it seemed like he was trying to make everyone remember why they supposedly like Zuma, the dancing and singing president. After the praise singer, Zuma began to approach the podium. Again, the previous cheering from the crowd melted once again into a low booooooooo. Quickly, the Soweto Gospel Choir began to sing, and from where I was sitting, it seemed like a well crafted attempt to drown out the booos. While the crowd listened respectfully to Zuma’s speech, the long running satirical cartoon Southpark, re-created the scene in an elementary school classroom, infusing the scene with new meanings.

Whether the booing was “appropriate” or not is irrelevant now. The fact is that it happened, and it has now punctuated the world’s memory of the Madiba memorial.

The Crowd

While the crowd was the backdrop from the vantage point of a home television from where most of the world watched, it was obvious that the crowd played an enormous role in the memorial. The booing for Zuma, contrasted with the loud cheering for other public figures – even Robert Mugabe –  provides the soundscape to the memorial. Images of recognisable VIP members of the crowd, like heads of state, especially those from the US, became prominent characters in the discourse that proliferated during and the days following the memorial. This image, when I saw it on television, also struck me as a memorable one. It was taken during Obama’s speech, and shows the Clinton’s listening thoughtfully, while George W. sits back in his chair, red faced, and with a somewhat perplexed look on his face. I suspected he was thinking about his next cat painting. His wife, Laura, the political mouse she is, watches merrily:


Later, this image of Bush showing off his cat paintings on Air Force One was released. He really seems to be pleased with himself, and wanting the approval and praise from the fellow states-wo/men.

W shows off his cats

The coming together of otherwise oppositional world leaders at the memorial was remarkable. This image of Obama shaking the hand of Cuban President, Raul Castro was a huge deal in US and global media:

Obama and Castro

And Obama’s selfie with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron, has been dubbed the “Obama Selfie-Face-Gate“, with the expression on Michelle’s face being a major point of interest amongst social media commentators. The photographer who took the photo confirms that she caught Michelle’s debatably ‘mournful’, ‘angry’, and/or ‘irritated’ expression purely by chance.

Selfie of the year

So scandalous, were the Raul Castro handshake and the Obama selfie-face gate, that they made the opening skit on Saturday Night Live on Saturday. You can decide if it is funny or not by watching it here:

Where were we again? Oh yes, a memorial for Nelson Mandela. The social media that has accompanied the memorial and continues to generate discourse about the event does seem to take our attention away from the task at hand at times… So yes, the crowd was full of energy, refusing to be tamed, despite the best efforts of the MC and former Arch Bishop, Desmond Tutu. Tutu’s demand that he wanted to hear “a pin drop” was a disaster, and he completely set himself up for failure. His cries, “YEAHHH!!”  at the crowd when they refused to cooperate with his orders made for another memorable, memeable, moment:

The moment on the left sparked the meme on the right…

South Africa Mandela Memorial.JPEG-03462


The “fake” Interpreter

In the days following the memorial, debate over the legitimacy of sign language interpreter, Thamsanqa Jangtjie Dyantyi, at the Soweto memorial has become a pretty big deal, and the dude is seriously getting ripped apart from all sides – there are even stories of him being a murderer coming out of the woodwork. International viewers and members of the South African public have complained publicly and vocally about Dyantyi’s interpretation, arguing that he was “a fake”. Subsequently, the interpreter has said that he is schitzophrenic and was suffering from the stress of interpreting for such a length of time and under such stressful circumstances. However, regardless of whether he is a “fake” or not, the interpreter has inspired a range of memes, some more clever and critical than others. This vine is a personal favourite that I can’t stop watching.

However, one of the most poignant memes about the interpreter is directed at Obama’s hypocritical speech. Before I show you that though, have a look at this meme which captures the contradictions so sincerely communicated by Obama with his infamously seductive rhetorical skills. While the crowd was oozing with love for Obama, it was easy to forget about what was being omitted from his eloquent speech:

But then, someone  made this brilliant intervention in the interpreter saga, because it is just plain ridiculous to hear Obama condemning intolerance for dissent and to NOT call it out….drones…Manning…Snowden…Guantanamo…the list of contradictions goes on…


And this .gif By Zapped, ZAnews makes a similar interpretation of what the interpreter was interpreting (click image to watch .gif).
Even Žižek weighed in on the interpreter, providing a prosaic version of the critique made by the two images above. Although, with words he is able to take the point to this radical conclusion:
“All the crocodile tears of the dignitaries were a self-congratulatory exercise, and Jangtjie translated them into what they effectively were: nonsense. What the world leaders were celebrating was the successful postponement of the true crisis which will explode when poor, black South Africans effectively become a collective political agent. They were the Absent One to whom Jantjie was signalling, and his message was: the dignitaries really don’t care about you. Through his fake translation, Jantjie rendered palpable the fake of the entire ceremony”.

What is the point of this?

The memorialization of Nelson Mandela is an international affair – so is the meme-orialization of his death because of social media. There are few such occasions where the world experiences something together in the way it has after the death of former President, Nelson Mandela. I have focused on the meme-orialization of Madiba’s death here to provide a more extensive discussion of social media on the topic – usually, we just consume memes as they come, clicking happily along from one image or website to the next, rarely discussing them as texts themselves.
On this blog, I have a page, “Memes: Fruits of the Internet” and that is exactly what I think memes are. They speak to the creative and spontaneous genius of people who are able to capture complex issues and ideas in a simple compilations of words and images. The circulation of the images, and the “viral” status they sometimes achieve, is the matter of memes as virtual texts. They give us something we can share across borders, freely on the interwebs. In approaching memes from a critical discourse perspective, it is important to recognise the dominance of Western, and male, figures in the memes which have gone most viral since the memorial. It is also important to consider the messages that are being communicated about Mandela and South Africa through these memes. Before December 5th, the day Madiba died, the biggest trending story about his death was the white racist fear mongering about some sort of black massacre of whites that would happen afterwards. If one Googled “What will happen when…” the first automated option was “…when Mandela dies”. It was a serious white fear, one which arguably grew out of the history of white fears of Mandela inspiring violence against whites in South Africa. There is now an opening in the discourse since that has obviously not happened and was never going to, and I wonder what the next white racist apocalyptic myth will be. I am sure that the FF+ and the rest of the conservative right is holding auditions as we speak. The meme-orialization of Madiba’s death and memorial in Soweto has shown the relevance of other, more complex issues, such as the  nations dissatisfaction with the current leadership, contestations over “legitimate voices”, and the role of imperialism in post-aparthied South Africa and our world.
Rest in Peace & Hamba Kahle, Madiba

Any memes I have forgotten? Share them in the comments!

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