by: Harry Febrian
this article was first published on Asian Correspondent
IT’s been weeks since the controversial Jakarta regional election ended with the victory of Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno over the incumbent Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama and Djarot Saiful Hidayat.
While the contestation left a bitter scar to the fabric of Indonesian society—that probably won’t be healed easily (remember the incoming presidential election in 2019!)—it also shows another side of Indonesian traits: humor.
Or to be more specific, digital humor.
Over the course of the election, which spanned more than six months, Indonesians witnessed various events so absurd they decided to turn to digital media and laugh at it.
They create memes.
Take for example the one about Fitsa Hats, the term made popular by Ahok himself. According to reports, Ahok, at a press conference after his blasphemy hearing, said in the police report on his case, it was stated that Islam Defenders Front (FPI) Jakarta chapter secretary Novel Bamukmin used to work for Fitsa Hats instead of Pizza Hut.
The moment Ahok highlighted this (assuming that Novel was too ashamed to admit he once worked for an American restaurant chain), a new meme was born. Less than 24 hours later, it went viral and topped the local trending topic on Twitter. In perhaps the smartest move in this absurd trial saga, someone even bought the Fitsahats.id, promoting and directing visitors to their original product, Pizza Hut.
Let’s look at another example: ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) who is famously known for his habit to “curhat” or complain. SBY found himself trolled by Indonesia netizens when he complained on Twitter after his house was stormed by a group of protesting students.
His original tweet: “I’m asking the president and police chief—don’t I have the right to live in peace in my own country.” The moment SBY finished his series of tweets, a new meme was born. Again, less than 24 hours, various memes with the #sayabertanya (I’m asking) hashtag went gone viral and topped the local trending topic on Twitter. Citizen, artists, even Yenny Wahid, daughter of Gus Dur, also participate.
The virality of both memes should come at no surprise.
For a long time, Indonesia has been widely known for its hospitality and, of course, its sense of humor.
And the Indonesian humor seems to know no boundaries. Anything, or anyone, can be a target. Take for example in Sukarno’s Guided Democracry regime in 1959-1966. ‘Berdikari,’ an acronym that stands for ‘berdiri diatas kaki sendiri’ (standing on one’s own feet) which is meant to symbolise independence, was turned into ‘berdiri atas kaki kiri’ (standing on the left foot).
Academic and popular observer of Indonesian politics David Reeve, when dissecting the matter, mentions how this counterjoke was actually closer to real politics in 1964-1965, targeting the political left and showing how imbalanced and unstable Indonesian politics was at that time.
“It was a great deal to pack into just one word, which is why it was so clever and successful,” he once wrote in 2007.
In the Suharto era, the joke was directed at the powerful presidential family and their cronies. One of the famous ones was Madame Tien Soeharto who was mocked as ‘Madame Ten Percent,’ suggesting the cut she took from government projects. Another smart one, as David says, because Tien also means ‘ten’ in Dutch.
As technologies advance, so too do the the ways Indonesians express humor. Nowadays, armed with smartphones, apps, and basic editing skills, Indonesian humor finds its form in digital ways: memes.
But apart from the value of humor, what does the virality of these memes mean for the society? Do memes even have a meaning or purpose?
As Adel Iskandar, media scholar from Simon Fraser University, noted in his examination of the meme phenomenon in Egypt, people often dismiss memes as inconsequential fabrications, frivolous online humor, and mere interventions with little to no utility.
If we trace memes back to their origins, we will find that it was English evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who first coined the term “meme” (based on the Ancient Greek word mimema, or something imitated’). The term was proposed to denote all non-genetic behavior and cultural ideas that are passed from person to person, spanning from language to the conventions of football. With the rise of Internet, however, the term was applied to describe content that spread from user to user online.
In his essay, The Language of Internet Memes, Patrick Davison defines the “meme” as a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmissions. Furthermore, in their typology of meme media, Knobel and Lankshear differentiated between high fidelity static memes and remixed memes, which are “replicated via evolution, adaptation, or transformation of the original meme vehicle.” These key aspects: changing and evolving the the content while distributing it, are the characteristic that make memes unique and more than just a viral content.
Although it might look trivial, Iskandar argues that it is wrong to just dismiss memes. Understanding memes are important because they serve as an exploratory arena where cultural histories meet with extemporaneous reactions.
And these memes often come with intention to offer alternative and dissenting critiques with the hope of shifting public opinion – as witnessed in the case of Fitsa Hats and #sayabertanya.
The virality of these various memes also make sense when they are put in the context of the Jakarta election. People who’ve had enough of the unrelenting attacks on incumbent Ahok (and also President Joko Widodo), found the memes a good way to laugh at this nonsense.
Whether we like it or not, memes will remain a well-received form of shared humour in the digital era. And more than that, memes also fuel political action. They won’t and shouldn’t of course be seen as an alternative to the actual political engagement, but by examining memes, stakeholders will have in their hands a crucial tool to understanding societal and cultural changes.
Whether it is a revolution in Egypt, the absurd process of Ahok’s blasphemy trial, or even a historically defining regional election in Indonesia, surely there will always be a time for humor.