All Internet is Local: Digital Folklore in China

Gabriele de Seta is a PhD student at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, currently researching digital folklore and media practices in mainland China. I met de Seta a few times in Hong Kong to discuss his research after following his research archives and reports on Tumblr and NewHive. While much has been written about the Chinese internet in terms of governance, censorship and contention, de Seta focuses instead on the complexity and nuance of the forms of vernacular creativity which characterize Chinese internet culture. This interview was conducted over email.

Ben Valentine: In your most recent NewHive post, you explore Chinese Internet culture (网络文化 or wangluo wenhua) through the visual vocabulary produced by image search results from Baidu, China's largest search engine. Could you share some indicative images and briefly describe their value for Chinese net culture?

Gabriele de Seta: I put together that short essay precisely to question certain assumptions that are almost automatic when talking about China and the internet. My hypothesis was that "internet culture" as a concept is itself part of a very specific Euro-American discourse around digital media—when I talk about internet culture, you know perfectly well that I am referring to multiple platform-specific repertoires of genres of interaction and user-generated content: you know I am talking about internet memes and YouTube celebrities, rickrolling and LOLcats, animated .GIFs and greentext stories. The idea of an internet culture, so to say, is itself part of our own internet culture—an idea rooted in the early communities of garage geeks and programmers, the aesthetics of the home computing era and the hacker ethics of the '90s. But is this the case everywhere?

Opening ceremony of "The first exhibition of Hubei network culture," photo retrieved via Baidu Image search from the Yantai Internet Culture Festival website

In Mandarin Chinese, the direct translation of internet culture (网络文化 wangluo wenhua, literally "network culture") can indeed refer to a similar domain of trending topics, popular neologisms, and online phenomena, but it also means other things. For example, as I show with the book covers that pop up in the first pages of Baidu image search results, the term has been used in Chinese academic writing since the late '90s to indicate broadly the intersection of the web and culture at large. But it has also been used by the national and local authorities to promote the informatization of the country and the popularization of internet connections; in this case, wangluo wenhua means something closer to "internet acculturation." It is represented through polished stylizations of green urbanism (and floating IE icons); it carries undertones of governmentality ("create civilized websites"), and it animates promotional festivals complete with pin-ups and internet celebrities.

"Create civilized websites, establish civilized customs" banner retrieved via Baidu Image search from the Yantai Internet Culture Festival website

In legal terms, "internet culture" does also appear on a kind of official certificate that you need to obtain from the Chinese Ministry of Culture to run a website providing content—the quantity of these certificates popping up in Baidu image search results is explained by the fact that you are legally required to display them on your website. Conversely, in Chinese news media discourse, wangluo wenhua often carries risky and moralizing undertones, as exemplified by the wealth of comic vignettes accompanying news articles: internet culture implies dangerous rumors, personal attacks, false information, and illegal practices. With so many contextual appropriations of the term, one starts doubting about its usefulness in approaching digital media use in China, especially when it comes to the kinds of vernacular creativity I am interested in. This is why the "local knowledge" (as anthropologists call it) comes in handy.

Example of an "Internet Culture Business License" (网络文化经营许可证 wangluo wenhua jingying xukezheng), retrieved via Baidu Image search from

BV: What is the relationship between this "local knowledge" and the concept of digital folklore you adopt?

GdS: I take the term digital folklore as Olia Lialina & Dragan Espenschied define it in their Digital Folklore reader: the objects and practices emerging from the users' engagement with digital media platforms and computing applications. Olia and Dragan focus on the digital folklore of the early days of the internet and see the massification of Web 2.0 as the end of vernacular creativity; conversely, I think that as long as there are platforms and devices, users continue creating digital folklore—if anything, by now it might have become post-digital folklore. Local knowledge becomes the key to understanding (post)digital folklore: rather than asking "what is Chinese internet culture?", one tries to understand what neologisms such as egao (恶搞, "making fun of something in nasty ways") mean to the users who share this content; who calls whom a diaosi (屌丝, "luser") in which sociolinguistic context; how ACG communities (Anime, Comic & Games) mediate and translate Japanese otaku products on discussion boards and video streaming websites for a local zhainan (宅男, "nerd") audience, and so on. It is the typical anthropological move of trying to understand a context through the local practices and categories of commentary, only applied to digital media practices rather than, say, gift exchange in Papua New Guinea.

Local knowledge: Unknown author, "You are not alone, we are always with you - virgin, unemployed, suicidal, me, poor, fat nerd," Feels meme repurposed with Chinese categories of social solidarity (collected on dajiangyou).

BV: I want to talk about the mob element found in the Chinese internet. While in the West there is a growing conversation about the problems of internet trolls, this problem is taken to a new level online in China: from astroturfing to the 50 cent party, from spam to spam wars, and from doxxing to human flesh searches. Can you talk about that?

GdS: I think this issue has two components. The first is a standard assumption that in our good old Euro-American West, problems always arise from more or less deviant individuals (trolls, harassers, etc.), while in China things are stereotypically projected on the mass scale: gold farmers invading online gaming, armies of governmental censors, mobs of online ideological vigilantes, and so on. The second is the local predilection—in Chinese news media, propaganda work, and popular opinion—to hark back to the "angry mobs" of the Cultural Revolution (and many other tumultuous moments in Chinese history) when framing certain contemporary phenomena.

The situation, I think, is more nuanced: that the so-called 50-cent party(五毛党 or wumaodang) of propaganda workers supposedly paid half a RMB for each post does surely exist in some form (hopefully better remunerated), yet the term has by now become a common accusation hurled in online discussions at anyone expressing a vaguely reactionary or contrarian opinion. Another interesting thing is the way in which the public opinion guidance methods of the wumaodang have quickly been repurposed by private companies for commercial astroturfing. You don't have to be the Chinese government to benefit from personal spam teams—now pretty much anyone can hire a bespoke squad of paid posters (网络水军 or shuijun, "water army") to spread rumors about competitors, boost product reviews on e-commerce websites, or wage opinion-wars on bulletin boards and comment sections.

As for the so-called human flesh searches (an awkward translation: 人肉搜索 or renrou sousuo could be simply rendered as a much less intimidating "crowdsourced search engine"): the first cases of renrou sousuo were often hailed by commentators as promising birth pangs of Chinese citizen vigilantism. Then some cases started crossing the line between exposing and stalking or harassing, sometimes even violently, and the narrative about it has changed accordingly, both inside China and abroad. I guess that in the wake of GamerGate, there have also been interesting shifts in our discussions about trolling, harassment, and privacy.

Shuijun ("water army") comic, retrieved from Sina Games article "Retired 50-cent party member reveals: Online games water army makes a million per month"

BV: During my few months traveling around Asia, I've loved finding localized remixes of Western memes. How are Chinese netizens remixing and localizing western media?

GS: This is a very interesting question which I've been grappling with recently. The binary opposition of global and local—especially when applied to genres of vernacular creativity—seems a bit stiff. While backtracking through the collection of content I compiled during my research project, I ran into a substantial percentage of pieces of digital folklore that were impressive cases of translation, often showing the layered traces of passages between multiple languages, platforms and contexts: a series of Japanese textbook illustrations are screen capped and framed by a Chinese punchline, while still preserving the original Japanese marker of authorship as part of the joke; an American "Feels" meme is re-contextualized with Chinese slang terms in traditional characters in Taiwan and successively disseminated on mainland social media platforms; animated GIFs of Obama and Kim Jong-Un are shared as emoticons on instant messaging platforms like QQ and WeChat, ridiculing international relations and world news; rage comics, from a self-referential genre of humor created by 4chan users making themselves reaction faces with MSPaint, are re-appropriated by a company based in Xi'anand transformed in different genres of web comics and, more recently, even live-action videos. This kind of translation comes full circle as the famous "Bitch Please" stylized face of Yao Ming—first popularized on Reddit—travels back to China as one of Asia's biaoqing san jutou ("Big Three Emoticons") along with Korean actor Choi Sung Kook and Japanese voice actor Hanazawa Kana.

"Asia's Big Three Emoticons" as presented by Wangyi news portal, retrieved from

Are these digital objects local? Are they a global genre of humor? Is this the local accent in a global culture, or vice versa? Again, assuming the locality or globality of an internet culture would first require giving it boundaries, which is in itself a complicated task – content moves incredibly quickly between platforms, and the practice of translation itself is often used as a mediating strategy to make sense of oneself and the others. Maybe the right answer is that in circulation, vernacular creativity is relational – remixing, copy-pasting, taking screenshots, editing and captioning are ways of getting in touch with each other while having some fun.