Polandball: Preserving Profane Squiggly Balls?

“Polandball is about wiggly mouse-drawn comics where balls represent different countries. They poke fun at national stereotypes and the “international drama” of their diplomatic relations. Polandball combines history, geography, Engrish, and an inferiority complex.” -https://www.reddit.com/r/polandball/wiki/index/about/why

 

Polandball is anything but refined and polite art.  With its crudely drawn lines and fractured English, the comic is a flurry of political incorrectness on an international level.  Reading through the insensitive dialog assigned to these bouncing balls representing classic stereotypes of various nationalities, one is reminded of South Park or Beavis and Butthead, cartoons which thrived in a similar manner.  Just as South Park has been derided throughout its run as a juvenile and thoroughly offensive cartoon, on the surface Polandball seems to appeal to an audience bent on the utilization of obscenity and low brow humor.  

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones by MisterWhizzo, 3/19/2016
Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones by MisterWhizzo

Created in 2009, Polandball began as a pointed jab following a disagreement between German users of the site Krautchan.net towards Poles in the same space.  One of the popular original cartoons mocked Poland’s absence in the international space coalition, a smack in the face for Poles emphasizing the nation’s greatness and proud history.  The joke carried forward until there were balls representing most nations interacting with one another in common stereotypes as they navigate current international relations as well as history.  There are many subreddits dedicated to individual nation balls now. Much to my delight, there is even a subreddit solely focused on the relationship between the states in the US (my Reddit logo is actually a Virginia ball).

http://t03.deviantart.net/VgxM6OjlkAZDc34mrC12Wccgrpo=/300x200/filters:fixed_height(100,100):origin()/pre01/95d4/th/pre/f/2016/033/0/9/virginiaball_by_propagandastamps-d9qa7d3.png

Polandball in no way veils its offensive quality.  The creators and users of the comics make no apologies for its deliberate racism and insensitive jokes ranging from Poles depicted as inferior in both language and intellect to the nuclear bombing of Japan to America as a megalomaniac sociopath.   Yet many within the Polandball community express an affinity for the comic that transcends the apparent foul mouthed simplicity of the cartoon.  For the 187,692 users, Polandball represents an opportunity to discuss international relations without the censorship of political correctness.  The comic substitutes laughter and levity for fear and anger.  To be sure, there is a measure of aggression beneath the jibes.  Yet as the comic expanded to include a plethora of nation balls, users also engage in regular national self-deprecation.  Though not a contributor or real member of the Polandball community, I can’t pretend as though the American comics aren’t my favorite in the series.  Why?  Because for so many, it’s a healthy release valve to laugh at oneself and the chaotic nature of national/international politics.  Additionally, because the community allows for active participation and creation, users can engage with these sensitive topics in a manner which is palatable, understandable, meaningful, and humorous way.  In other words, Polandball remains a personal expression of international angst using humor as the vehicle for uncertainty and helplessness.

You might think to yourself- Polandball must start uncontrolled fire fights within and without the community.  That’s what I thought as well.  Naturally, there is a fair measure of controversy regarding the foul little nation balls.  Initially, there was a fair number of Polish journalists such as Wojciech Oleksiak who found the comics to be a little bruising to the ego.

“Polandball is the story of one guy creating a worldwide phenomenon by making fun of another guy, creating a new format of expressing one’s views on nationality, race, language and recent history along the way. Why did it become so successful? Maybe because the basic rules that apply to Polandball offer every creator a good basis for developing a funny story, yet offering very few restrictions. The stories can be rude, impolite, racist, abusive, or just plain dumb. Their disrespectful stance towards political correctness makes much of their attractiveness. They are the embodiment of the Internet par excellence.”- Wojciech Oleksiak  

However, other media commentators enthusiastically took the side of the user community noting the cathartic nature of the comics.  Popular opinion outside the community has gone back and forth over the value and relevance of Polandball.  The users themselves seem to enjoy the humor of the comics instead of railing against the impolitic nature of its content.  It might surprise outsiders when they venture into the Reddit world of Polandball to view the comments on each comic.  Firstly, the variety of nations represented in the user base demonstrates the aforementioned catharsis of self deprecation.  Individuals from countries being portrayed frequently comment in positive tones on their country’s representation in a given comic.  Secondly, many users will contribute advice and praise to the creator of a given Polandball comic.  Ways to improve the representation of a nation or how to tweak dialogue are common lines of discussion.  

However, more meaningful conversations emerge from the silliness as well.  For example, in the popular trending comic “Surf Around the World,” the Japan ball is depicted unenthusiastically surfing past a radioactive sign while other nation balls gleefully hit the waves.  This reference to the 2011 Fukushima radiation leak which polluted much of the water surrounding Japan and its neighbors provoked a much more thoughtful thread of comments in the midst of wisecracks.  User ‘vanderZwan’ wrote “Apologies for going “actually”, because it’s a good joke, but it sincerely bothers me people still freak out over Fukushima, yet everyone forgets the part of the tsunami disaster that actually killed people” and linked to an article in the UK newspaper The Telegraph which talked about the apparent short sightedness of the world’s sympathies.  In too many posts to list, a submission will spawn a lengthy discussion amongst users on the historical precedence for a post opening up threads on everything from the fall of Rome to the evolution of world languages through time.  One need only peruse the comment threads for a short while before realizing that Polandball holds much more significance for its user community than a few short chuckles following racist quips.  

 

“Obviously the comics are hugely important, the characters, the jokes, the inside jokes that you have to ‘be part of the community’ to get, etc. However, a lot of people are really drawn in by the comment sections. They appreciate the international flavor and getting to joke about national stereotypes and politics without it being bigoted or hateful. Also, a lot of our “tropes” and jokes about countries arise in the comment threads and sometimes make it into actual comics later and some jokes from a specific comic become tropes in comment threads over and over.

We have a lot of very well known commenters that don’t submit comics and some very well known artists that don’t comment that much.” -Polandball Moderator ‘CupBeEmpty’ on preserving Polandball

So why preserve Polandball or the user community around it?  Since 2009, the world has seen the mass upheaval of governments in the middle east, the rise of ISIS, increased aggression from former superpowers such as Russia, a plethora of man made and natural disasters, and game changing elections across the western world.  The status quo which many took for granted has been at least questioned or wiped away entirely.  Polandball captures commentary on these moments outside of the cacophony of mass media reports and mainstream dialog.  The cartoons allow for comic relief on these subjects while the embedded discussion permits users from around the world to voice their opinions on what is happening on the world stage and what brought human history to this point.  The Polandball world is characterized by the juxtaposition of irreverent mockery and thoughtful inquiry.  It’s importance to the user community is immediately apparent as one explores the comments stretching across the 7 years of its existence.  This is one of the places where those who do not have a voice in the mainstream go to discuss the world’s most frightening and mind boggling events in a safe environment amongst their counterparts across the globe.  Furthermore, the importance of preserving this world for those beyond the community is evident as well for similar reasons.  In 100 years, historians searching for the “every person’s” take on the early years of the 21st century will not look to Politico or The Huffington Post.  Instead, they will comb the archives of social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit.  These are the forums of the world’s inhabitants.  It is where our voices are captured bit by bit.  What seems like poorly drawn lines with crude captions might be easily dismissed from afar, but for its users and for future historians, Polandball is an essential time capsule of the international human experience in the 21st century.

5 Replies to “Polandball: Preserving Profane Squiggly Balls?”

  1. Great post. I think you’ve made a solid case for why these are worth preserving for a variety of reasons. Along with that, I like how much of the perspectives of different creators and community members you have incorporated. Now with that in hand you have the challenge of pinning down what makes sense to save as a result of this.

    So, what potential stakeholders are going to need or want what kinds of records of this? Is it necessary to get a massive collection of these as a corpus? Does it make more sense to get the most significant ones over time? To what extent do you just need the images of them, and to what extent do you need the text and dialog around them? Beyond that, do you think you need to push the community to help explain what about these matters the most, or do you think that will be evident in the various contextual or collateral material you would get by hovering up a bunch of the images and discussion of them? So those are the kinds of things you are going to need to pin down to be able to get a really solid preservation intent statement together.

    Off the top of my head, it seems like this might be a situation where the like you approach the Museum of the Moving Image took with reaction GIFs could work (https://blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation/2014/06/exhibiting-gifs-an-interview-with-curator-jason-eppink/). Given that they were interested in what the most significant animated gifs were to the communities on Reddit, they just went and asked and then went ahead and saved copies of those. So you could very well go into the reddits and ask for folks to nominate what they see as the most significant of these and to explain their cases for them and then go ahead and save copies of all of what they share and the justifications and upload that to the Internet Archive or something.

  2. I think it is very important to capture as much of the context greatly described in this exposée, especially from very active sources like Krautchan. The comics do not stand on their own, but are part of an ongoing dialogue.

    Apart from obviously recommending using https://webrecorder.io I would think using an annotation service like http://genius.com/web-annotator or https://hypothes.is/

    Within communities like Polanball, lore about its very own inception is very important… for example, I wonder if for example sites like https://encyclopediadramatica.se/ carry information about it or would be a good place to publish the research.

    1. Thank you so much for your advice!

      Here’s a quick question for you as I’m still learning my way around much of the preservation tools: When using https://webrecorder.io, what are the limitations? It seems like it captures a huge swath of the site.

      Also, with your annotation suggestions- do you think it’d add value for the archivist to leave behind their opinion or directions? Should the comments and comics stand on their own for future users to decipher?

      1. If you need help with webrecorder, let’s discuss via email, support@webrecorder.io Any questions welcome.

        Regarding annotations: archiving is not a neutral process, already by making choices what to archive the activity of archiving is something to think about. At Rhizome we’re very reflective about the role of the person doing the conservation, so leaving behind annotations, especially about the why something was archived, is rather helpful. There is no neutral archive, so providing context about an archive’s creation is only helpful.

        Also, don’t assume that future users will be able to decipher anything. Digital culture is changing so fast, it is likely that a decade into the future the web of today with its conventions of usage will be illegible for the digital natives of that time. 🙂

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