In 2009, I decided I could wait out the post-graduation-poor-job-market by spending the summer working an unpaid editorial internship in China. My job was to monitor the Western press and give suggestions as to what our opinion section should be covering in response. The problem was that everything I needed to monitor over the internet lay behind the Great Firewall of China, known officially as the “Golden Shield.”
The Golden Shield is a system the Chinese government has set up to block sites they consider obscene or “against the National Interest.” If you go to China and try Googling the Dalai Lama or Falun Gong, you won’t find a thing (you can find out if a site is available in China using this nifty little tool.)
The easiest way over the wall was to use proxy servers, which essentially redirect you through servers in other countries. I felt slightly guilty for using this technology to sin in the darkness of my hotel bathroom, and to tweet videos of pandas wrestling with the caption, “IT’S PANDAMONIUM!” while activists in Urumqi and Tibet were using the same technology to leak pictures and videos of atrocities out to the rest of the world.
But this seems to be the norm in the West. What is a tool for the liberation of the individual from the grinding machinery of the state in places like, say, China or Iran, we use for cat videos, porn, or identifying / complaining about #FirstWorldProblems.
You can see what people are tweeting about or searching for across the world using apps like Trendsmap. In Beijing, at the time of this writing, the main hashtag was #Snowden. In Washington DC, it was #Sharknado.
I have a theory: The more vapid the trends, the more freedom a country has. In Iran, where Twitter is often credited for driving the Green Revolution (and has since been virtually shut down), the only trending topic was, literally, just the word “Iran,” with a very low concentration. As in two activists managed to break through the Iranian firewall and send out, “HOLY SHIT, I’M ACTUALLY TWEETING FROM IRAN,” and that was the closest Iran could get to a “trend.” Other countries with low internet freedom, like Cuba, have consistent trends as well: “Fidel,” “Raul,” and “Cuba,” without much variation.
At the same time, in London, the trend was #BringOnTheNoms. In San Francisco, the main trend was “Instagram,” because we’ve reached a point where we use one social network to talk about another. I wonder if there are any tweets of Instagrams of a Facebook screen. It would be like Inception, but with layers of narcissism instead of dreams.
This isn’t to say people in other countries don’t use the internet for less-than-noble purposes: I can’t read the Cyrillic alphabet, so as far as I know, #ShirtlessPutin is an eternal trend in Moscow. Nor is it to say we should feel guilty about the fact that our most innovative use of technology was the creation of the pug selfie, while for the youth in Egypt, it was using motherfucking lasers to light up nighttime surveillance helicopters. Nor am I suggesting that the youth in other countries are not narcissistic: At the time of this writing, #NameYourPenisAfterAMovie was trending in Johannesburg, South Africa, and if publicly naming your penis isn’t narcissistic, then I don’t know what is.
A Good Day to Die Hard, by the way.
No, what I’m saying is that we, the youth born into countries with unrestricted internet, should appreciate our right to access pug selfies, Sharknado parodies, and nasty-ass hardcore pornography. Because that’s what Iran, China, and Egypt are fighting for. We don’t need to be liberated. We’re already free. But we should imagine — every time we open up a new window or start a new tweet or close our blinds for a quick visit to Pornhub — Tom Hanks dying on the edge of that French bridge in Saving Private Ryan, saying “Earn this.”
You’re tweeting for America. You’re fapping for freedom. Because not everyone is so lucky.