The Empire Tweets back? #HumanitarianStarWars and memetic self-critique in the aid industry

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In 2015, a series of memes appeared on Twitter under the hashtag #HumanitarianStarWars. Combining still images from the original Star Wars movies with ironic references to humanitarian/development jargon and institutions, the memes presented a humorous reflection on the modern aid industry. Whilst memetic content has become an increasingly scrutinised area in digital culture studies – particularly with regard to unbounded and anonymous online communities, and popular discursive contestation - this paper examines #HumanitarianStarWars to shed light on the possibilities and problematics of social media auto-critique undertaken by ‘insiders’ in a particular professional realm. Keeping in mind critiques of the racial and imperial connotations of the (Western) pop-culture mythology itself, the paper explores the use of the Star Wars franchise as a vehicle for commentary on an industry at work in the ‘Global South’. It highlights an ambiguous process of meaning-making that can be traced through the memes’ generation, circulation, and re-mediation. Although the memes provide a humorous and critical self-reflection on practitioners’ experiences and perspectives of power relations in the global development industry, certain tendencies emerge in their remixing of this Hollywood universe that may reinforce some of the dynamics that they ostensibly critique. The paper argues that examination of the ideological ambivalence of an institutional micro-meme can yield valuable insights into important tensions playing out in professional social media spaces where public/private boundaries are increasingly and irrevocably blurred.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-13
JournalSocial Media + Society
Issue number4
Early online date21 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - 21 Nov 2019


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