Editor’s Note: Memes means, “unit of cultural transmission,” and that’s what designer and artist An Xiao Mina @anxiaostudio does in the Story to Action edition of Ethnography Matters. She moves from Ugandan chickens to Western Lolcat, from meme to meaning, deconstructing each meme with cultural analysis. The “action” in this case is a new model for internet culture analysis and a new project that An Xiao is launching in the coming months, the Civic Beat. Her analysis and project compliment the recent publication of Henry Jenkin’s, Sam Ford’s, and Joshua Green’s Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.
In my first week in Uganda, I was scheduled to give a lecture at a local university, discussing memes and civic life in China. I used a modified version of a talk I’d given previously, tailored slightly for what little I knew about Uganda at the time. The talk and venue themselves were quite familiar—smart people sitting in a row, an air-conditioned room, a shiny projector. It looked like any lecture hall I’d spoken in.
But the story of getting there was another matter entirely. I decided to take a long route, which had me walking past some chickens in coops. The road was mostly paved, but sometimes I had to walk on a dirt road. And that particular day I didn’t see any goats, but every now and then they’d cross my path.
As I’ve spent more time in Uganda and explored both Kampala and the upcountry regions, I saw more and more of them: chickens, goats, cows, a few pigs, the occasional duck. In the urban areas of the US and China, I’d grown used to a different menagerie, consisting mainly of cats, dogs and squirrels. But as a majority agricultural society, Uganda and its capital are filled with livestock, and the animals waddle, meh, oink and cluck away like a scene from the Farmer in the Dell.
I hadn’t realized it at the time, but my physical journey to talk about social and political memes from China helped gave me some insight into Uganda’s meme culture, and global internet culture in general.