Every language communicates with its memes. Brazil’s memes, Bia Granja says, “are a product of social difference.”

Bia Granja is talking to me on Skype about nipples and Brazilian Internet culture.

As the organizer for YouPix, an Internet culture festival, Granja spends her life chronicling the entertaining idiosyncrasies of Brazil’s Web culture. “Nipples,” she tells me, were the subject of one of Brazil’s biggest viral videos.

In the clip, a 16-year-old boy sits shirtless on what looks like his living room couch, his head enveloped between headphones at least two sizes too big. He wants to have a serious conversation, he tells the audience, about a controversial topic. Seconds later, he shoves his nipples into the camera.

“Mamilos!” he giggles, saying the Portuguese word for nipples.

“Mamilos,” he repeats. “Mamilos are very controversial.”

The video broke out into the mainstream and changed the language. Mamilos is now a synonym for controversy, an inside joke among Brazil’s Internet-savvy youth.

But what’s so special about this video? It’s funny, but to most outsiders it probably won’t scream intentional or (even unintentional) comedic genius. How did the video ever reach such runaway popularity?

Granja grew up in the Portuguese-speaking streets of Sao Paulo, but she speaks English almost effortlessly. In fact, at moments where her accent dips or hangs on certain vowels, she makes the language sound altogether better. She can talk tackle complex subjects, like the paradigm shift in Brazilian Internet culture over the last two years that’s happened thanks to the proliferation of social media. Translating individual words and sentences, it goes without saying, is easy for her.

But Granja can’t make you understand a meme.

“Even if I translate it to you,” she says, “it won’t make sense to you.”

It’s not her fault. Granja will be the first to tell you that memes, like humor, are a cultural language.

Granja is part of a four-person panel speaking at ROFLCon, the Internet culture conference, in Boston on Friday. Dubbed “Global Lulzes,” the panel will explore international manifestations of Internet culture—or, as ROFLCon says, the “wide world of internets beyond our anglophone border.”

The moderator for the discussion is Ethan Zuckerman, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media. Zuckerman is an obvious choice to lead the panel: At his keynote address to the 2010  ROFLCon, he predicted ”the next wave of Internet memes is going to come from the developing world.”

Creativity, Zuckerman argued, has an almost universal distribution. The only thing standing between the billions of people in the world’s developing countries and meme invention, proliferation, and popularization is Internet access.

One country Zuckerman picked for a meme revolution (among China, Russia, and India) was Brazil, where the economy has been booming, and whose citizens are finally logging online en masse, thanks largely to the proliferation of cell phones.

As the nipple kid shows and Granja can attest, Brazil has proved Zuckerman’s prediction right. The fifth-most populous country in the world now boasts the second largest population on Facebook and Twitter. Over the past two years that’s helped the country tap into its rich vein of creativity, resulting in an explosion of Web culture.

At ROFLcon, Granja will explain that culture (“There’s life out there,” she says. “I hope to take you on a safari.”)

Her organization, YouPix, started out as a digital culture magazine and has since transformed into a festival that meets at least two times a year. It’s pretty much the Brazilian ROFLCon. On its website, YouPix hosts what’s a basically a Brazilian version of Know Your Meme, called Memepedia. It’s also translated some of the most famous Brazilian memes into English. At least one, tenso, “the original Brazilian meme,” has reached international recognition. Even the quite anglophone-centric Know Your Meme wrote about it.

Many of the memes arise because the Web has torn down demographic and economic boundaries, Granja attests:

“We have a lot of people in Brazil that doesn’t have all the basic needs, like water, school … all that simple stuff. But they’re on the Internet.”

Many memes, she reasons, are jokes based on common misspellings, because so many poor and often illiterate people are suddenly plugging in to the Internet. They are, she says, the “kind of stuff you see when illiterate people come to the Internet.

“These memes are a product of social difference.”

Brazil’s rich Internet culture stands largely independent from the rage comics, Nyan cats, and All Your Bases of the English-speaking world. (Brazil, for instance, has its own Rule 34, thank you very much.) The boundaries of digital culture, in some ways, mimic those of the physical world: Memetic drift is limited by linguistic and cultural borders.

That’s creating rich islands of global digital memedom, which many of us will likely never see, much less comprehend.

“The Internet is there,” Granja says. “Reachable—and not really understandable.”

  • ROFLcon: Global Lulzes
  • Friday, 2 pm, Track A
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