Diaosi: Evolution of a Chinese Meme

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Social media encourages the rapid popularization of memes – cultural ideas or behaviors – and their accompanying terminology. “Diaosi,” a term that has risen in prominence via Weibo over the past few years, is one such example of a meme entering Chinese society. The term, which literally means “dick string,” refers to Chinese youth of a certain background – poor, geeky, girlfriendless – whose social condition reflects core problems in the Chinese development story. Thus, there is much invested in the narrative of the term’s popularization, which goes like this: an initially vulgar epithet becomes a self-ascribed identity in a classic example of an out group claiming a once derogatory term as their own. There are two premises embedded in this narrative: 1) that “diaosi” has come to have a more positive connotation in more recent usage, and 2) that more people are self-identifying with the term over time. In this article, we investigate both premises by mapping the usage of “diaosi” on Weibo, examining how its meaning and sentiment change over time.

Our results provided a telling window into how memes develop and change through spikes in usage that we call “micro-events.”  Our analysis showed that two key micro-events played an influential role in the popularization and evolution of the term, Valentine’s Day 2012, and the release of Titanic in 3D.

We used the Crimson Hexagon Forsight platform to perform text analysis on Weibo posts including the term 屌丝from 1/1/2011 to 7/15/2013.  We wanted to see whether “diaosi” has become more positively associated since its early days, so we trained the program to divide posts into positive, neutral, and negative categories. We also wanted to know what types of opinions drove the sentiments, so we trained the program to further divide posts into subcategories:

Positive:

  • Encouragement: posts treating “diaosi” as a group of young, not rich, but promising people
  • Pride: posts proudly self-identifying as “diaosi”
  • Success: posts recounting stories of former “diaosi” finding wealth or love, including in movies and urban legends

Neutral:

  • Nickname/Joke: posts where “diaosi” is used without judgment in online banter
  • Explanation: posts explaining the origin and different meanings of the term

Negative:

  • Poor, Foolish, Ugly: posts containing the popular shorthand矮穷丑 as a synonym for “diaosi”
  • Romantically Unlucky: posts self-identifying as “diaosi” because of romantic woe
  • Unattractive Characteristics: posts describing “diaosi” by their stereotypical attributes, like the cellphones they use, what they do for fun, etc
  • Contempt and Disapproval: posts expressing a bad attitude toward “diaosi” or the term itself
Opinion analysis from 2011-01-01 to 2013-07-15 (1)

Over the entire span of our time frame, people overall have more positive associations with “diaosi” than negative, though opinions are clearly split. But what about early usage of the term vs. more recent usage?

Volume trend from 2011-01-01 to 2013-07-15

Micro-events Drive Changing Sentiment

By looking at the volume of “diaosi” posts over time, we see the term was little known before early 2012, when it suddenly became very popular with a series of “spikes” in usage. Believing those spikes, or micro-events, to be responsible for changing the connotation of “diaosi,” we identified several trend periods around the micro-events and examined the sentiment during each period.

Period 1: 1/1/2011 to 12/31/2011: Origin of the Term

Weekly Opinion analysis trend from 2011-01-01 to 2011-12-31

In 2011, the term was relatively unknown and relevant posts didn’t appear until the end of the year. Overall, 47% of posts are positive and 43% negative. The positive “encouragement” posts were usually sexual, but we also found that the term “Diaosi” originated from the fans of the soccer player Li Yi, who called themselves “Diaosi” (“Diao” means penis as well as cool; “si” means fans). The term was mostly confined to this small group, which comprised of proud fans.

 Period 2: 1/1/2012-3/31/2012: Evolution: More Popular, More Negative

Daily Opinion analysis trend from 2012-01-01 to 2012-03-31

Over the next three months, sentiment took a turn for the negative. The peak day of this period as well as the whole time range examined is Feb. 14th, Valentine’s Day, when negative sentiments accounted for 84% of all posts, not surprisingly with the subcategory “Romantically Unlucky” capturing 81% of the total.

Example of romantically unlucky diaosi: 屌丝有三废,在吗 忙不 早点睡。 高帅富有三宝: iphone 跑车 和名表。 黑木耳有三宝: 美瞳 高跟 黑丝脚。宅男有三好:Dota 基友 破电脑。小清新有三宝:刘海 扶腰 45度角.

Diaosi have three useless things to say [when talking with a Goddess online]: are you here? Are you busy? Go to bed early. Gaofushuai [tall, handsome, rich] have three treasures: iPhone, sports car, and designer watch. Heimuer [sluts] have three treasures: cosmetic contact lenses, high heeled shoes and black tights. Otaku [geeks] have three hobbies: Dota, gamer buddies, and cheap computers. Xiaoqingxin [fresh-faced young women] have three treasures: fringe, a hand on the waist, and 45 degree angle [a reference to selfies]

One example on the positive side of people are encouraging Diaosi was a widely shared video about two Diaosi in Sichuan province driving a shabby motorcycle:

碉堡了,四川两个屌丝上电视,笑尿我了http://weibo.com/1681143041/y656Ccnbv

Awesome, two diaosi in Sichuan made it on TV, I’m peeing myself laughing 

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In this period, as the “Diaosi” topic spread widely online due to Valentine’s Day, people began using its vulgar literal meaning to pejoratively describe young men who are romantically unlucky. Even positive associations of Diaosi are often taken for a joke (see picture above).

 Period 3: 4/1/2012 to 8/1/2012: Rise of the Underdog

During this period, there were two major spikes, the second being much more positive.

Daily Opinion analysis trend from 2012-04-01 to 2012-08-01The first spike in April can largely be attributed to the release of the 3D version of Titanic on April 10th, which accounted for almost half of the posts under “success.” Many people explain Titanic’s love story as a good example of a “Diaosi” (Jack) successfully capturing the heart of a goddess (Rose) from the rich man (高富帅).

@微博搞笑排行榜:一个高富帅好不容易泡上一个妞,给人家买颗大钻石,带人家上世界上最豪华的邮轮旅行,结果人家在船上三天就被一个学画画的屌丝骗走了。什么高富帅都弱爆了,有一技之长才是牛X啊!泰塔尼克其实主要是告诉我们!要逆袭,学美术!!

A gaofushai [winner] tried very hard to get a girlfriend, bought a big diamond for her and took her traveling on the most luxurious ship in the world. However the girl was stolen by a painter diaosi in three days. However tall or rich or handsome you are, having talent is the most badass. The main lesson the Titanic taught us? If you want to fight back, learn how to paint! 

The next peak, in June, has 66% positive sentiments, owing largely to reblogs of a post encouraging a Diaosi “counterattack” (逆袭):

【每周新词:逆袭】出自日语“ぎゃくしゅう”,意为反击、还击,最初多用于网游,指游戏中一反常态的攻击行为或逆境中反击成功。在屌丝一词大热后,逆袭的含义发生了较大变化,现在特指屌丝得势,也即原先的“矮穷丑”经过涅、奋斗,最终完成翻盘,迈入成功殿堂,小人物变成了大明星。

“Weekly vocabulary: Nixi:” dating back to Japanese “ぎゃくしゅう”, it means counterattack. Firstly it’s used in gaming and refers to unusual offensive behavior or successful counterattack during adversity. Since the popularity of Diaosi, the meaning of Nixi has changed a lot. Now it refers to the success of Diaosi, which means people who are previously poor, ugly and foolish becoming the winners after fighting, like the nobody who becomes a somebody.

Another popular post describes a Diaosi man spending 100 thousand yuan on ads to show his ex-girlfriend that he became rich:

【屌丝的逆袭:在猫扑首页投10万广告呛女友!】“吴倩:你要的老子都有了!”男子花10万在猫扑做广告,只为向前女友证明自己现在有钱了,声称花掉10万元,还有20万我爱怎么花就怎么花。屌丝亦有出头日……这,算是励志片?!

“Counterattack of Diaosi: paying 100 thousand Yuan to advertise on the homepage of Maopu to show his ex-girlfriend:” “Wuqian, now I have what you wanted before!” The man spent 100 thousand Yuan in advertising on the homepage of Maopu website, just to show off his new riches to his ex-girlfriend. He said that he still had another 200 thousand. Losers have their day. Is this an encouraging story?

This period is characterized by movies and other stories about Diaosi fighting back successfully despite disadvantages, which slowly changed people’s perception of Diaosi from negative to positive. In particular, netizens seem to identify Titanic as an allegory for young Chinese men who are locked out of opportunities due to their birth status. By identifying Jack as a “diaosi,” the “diaosi” becomes a heroic figure.

Period 4:     8/1/2012-7/15/2013: Stabilizing

The volume of posts decreased more than 97% in this period, ending up with 43% positive, 28% neutral and 29% negative ones.

Weekly Opinion analysis trend from 2012-08-01 to 2013-07-15In September, the last spike, positive posts came from people encouraging diaosi to donate sperm:

【北京捐精208次可付首付房款!居各大城市第二】各地精子库告急,屌丝逆袭时机到!捐精付首付,卖肾还贷款!男人,精打细算一下,iphone5根本就不是个事。以北京目前房子均价计算,男人捐精208次即可获得100㎡住房的首付款约62万元!原来买房对男人来说也不是很难…

“In Beijing, donating sperm 208 times can make enough money for the down payment of a new house in the second most expensive city in the nation.” Sperm banks in all the cities report an emergency, the time for Diaosi to counterattack! Sperm donation for down payment, Selling kidney for loan payment! Men, an iPhone 5 is not a big deal if you pinch pennies. If a man donates sperm 208 times he can get 620 thousand Yuan, which is enough for the down payment of a 100 square meter house of average price in Beijing! In such situation buying a house is not that difficult for a man…

Negative sentiment was mostly generated by one response to a pop star who asked “what is diaosi,” explaining that diaosi are losers in love:

@兰菲杰:他们没钱,没背景,没未来;他们来到陌生的城市为生活打拼,每日劳累,收入微薄。他们自称“屌丝”,也渴望得到爱情。他们鼓起勇气跟“女神”搭讪,换来的只有一句“呵呵”。@范范范瑋琪。转发微博@范范范瑋琪:有個問題很想問很久了,請問大家"屌絲"真正到底是什麼意思呀???

Fan Weiqi [a pop singer]: I have a question that I’ve been wondering for long time, can anyone tell me what Diaosi means? Lan Feijie: They have no money, no background and no future. They come to an unfamiliar city to fight for life, work hard with little income. They call themselves Diaosi and they long for love. They collect courage to chat with “Goddess” online, receiving only “uh huh” for a response

In the year 2013, the trend has been a decrease in post volume, with fewer spikes in different sentiments In contrast to Valentine’s Day of 2012, Valentine’s Day of 2013 was relatively quiet with some buzz coming from a movie describing an ugly man (Diaosi) finally marrying a beautiful girl (Goddess), another story of 逆袭.

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Though some micro-events may still cause spikes, it seems that the debate over “diaosi” has settled somewhat, and sentiment has begun to stabilize. Returning to our view of the entire time period, we see that overall, positive sentiment has increased by 30% since the beginning of our analytical period, while negative sentiments have decreased by 60%.

 

However, while it’s true that the term does appear to be growing more positive, most of those positive sentiments are driven by people who are either rooting for the underdog or sharing stories of “diaosi” victory – contrary to our initial expectations, very few people proudly self-identify as “diaosi.” In fact, the percentage of people who associate pride with “diaosi” has actually gone down by 3%.

In our previous piece on the Chinese Dream, we noted that inequality was the biggest social issue concerning netizens. It makes sense, then, that people are attracted to the idea of society’s losers finding success against the odds. According to a report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the monthly income of more than 90% Weibo users falls under 5000 yuan. Such users are eligible for the “diaosi” label, so even though most may not proclaim pride at being “diaosi,” they may nonetheless be signaling their self-identification.

Although “diaosi” is often translated as “loser” in English, our analysis points to a distinction between a Chinese “diaosi” and a “loser”: losers are responsible for their own lack of success, while diaosi are made by larger social conditions. No wonder then, that “loser” remains an indisputably negative term, personal in its injury, while “diaosi” is a true meme: dynamic, complex, and current, cultural rather than personal.

From our deep dive into Weibo micro-events, we’ve been able to construct a concrete narrative of how “diaosi” went from an obscure in-group identifier to a vernacular mainstay capturing the social condition of millions of Chinese youth. As “diaosi” went mainstream, it lost its vulgarity and gained complexity via specific events like holidays, movies, funny videos, and celebrity posts. These micro-events triggered discussions that subtly shifted the term’s connotation, causing the evolution of a Chinese meme.

 

Research and analysis contributed by Ring Lin

6 Responses to Diaosi: Evolution of a Chinese Meme

  1. Pingback: Tracking the Evolution of the Slang Word “Diaosi” | Sinosplice

  2. Pingback: "Diaosi": Hip, Young and Wired - China Digital Times (CDT)

  3. Cool analysis. I think the opposition or contrast between 高富帅 and 吊丝 is important. I think calling 高富帅 a “rich man” is an oversimplification; AFAIK 高富帅 is used for guys who are at least moderately handsome, and the archetype would be the wealthy, handsome male lead in a TV drama.

    Do you guys get a deal on the social media analytics through your institution or is it affordable for individuals to use?

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