The ethical morass of remixing viral content

By Jason Li

2016 October 17

Me in the gooey swamp of remixing illustration

Add Oil Comics explores social issues through comics. We do so by taking writing that reflects the often underrepresented perspectives of ordinary people and then transforming them into internet-friendly webcomics. Our previous policy around what types of writing we choose to illustrate was that it a) should not have have already gone viral on the internet, and b) should not be penned by a Famous Person. This rule was based on the formula behind our very first comic, which remains, two years later, one of our most popular comics.

But there was another reason for this rule: I was worried about being a free rider. My internal logic was, if I illustrated an already-viral or Famous Person essay, then I would just be profiting off of its success rather than adding to it. I would, I feared, only be siphoning off attention to myself in the process. In contrast, choosing to illustrate undiscovered writing was much more straightforward. There, I would be shining a light on overlooked pieces of writing and could do no wrong.

But when our recent comic about the legislative council elections in Hong Kong went viral, I was forced to rethink our policy.

Revising a longstanding policy

A video posted by Jason Li (@hongkonggong) on

Our comic above was based on a teen’s heart-wrenching letter about the September elections in Hong Kong. In it, he laments his inability to vote as a minor, decries the decline of the city in the hands of its pro-establishment (loosely speaking: conservative, pro-China) parties, and urges his fellow citizens to go out and vote for the pro-democratic opposition. By the time I saw it, a photographed copy of the letter had already gone viral on Facebook (19,198 shares) and Instagram, and even received mainstream media coverage.

Screenshot of the original letter on Facebook

In this case, I broke my own rule around illustrating an already-viral essay by justifying it as an act of translation. I had found no mention of the letter in the English-language press or even on social media. So by translating it, I would be bringing it to a new audience (a value add). As my friend Tricia reminded me, getting that message across to the English-speaking audience in Hong Kong was definitely a worthy cause. After some thought, I begrudgingly agreed. I figured the comic would do well within English-speaking circles at least, while being ignored by the Chinese speakers because they had all seen it already.

I was wrong.

My bilingual, comic version of the letter amassed 7,616 shares and 7,400 likes on Facebook, eventually reaching 1,058,393 people there. (It was published on the Inmedia, the home for all of my Hong Kong-based Add Oil Comics.) While it did not surpass the audience numbers of the original latter, I was still astounded by how far and wide it spread. Furthermore, Chinese-speaking commenters were not complaining about having seen it already, they were (for the most part) supportive of its message.

Not only was I shocked by its success, I was also pleasantly surprised that the comic was adding to the conversation, and that the letter was reaching new audiences. More importantly, I did not feel like a free rider. So I took a long, hard look in the mirror to reconsider my rule around already-viral essays. In doing so, I noticed that I had already broken my own rule at one key moment in the past.

That time I broke my own rule and swept it under the rug

My comic about transgender experiences

The above comic, my first on transgender experiences, was based on a Tumblr post that had already garnered 416,822 notes. This comic, which I decided to draw on a whim, became the founding pillar of our third topic at Add Oil Comics. Its sudden success (2,558 notes) enabled me to connect to the trans community on Tumblr, and prompted me to start a series of comics about transgender experiences, a practice that I continue to this day. Somewhere along the way though, I’d forgotten that I drew from such a popular and widely-shared source of material.

Having ignored my own rule on these two key instances is reason enough to overturn it. Points in favor of continuing to remix writing that’s already gone viral include:

While the only point against remixing already-viral writing is:

But there’s been little evidence of that within our work at Add Oil Comics, particularly because we usually publish a comic 1-2 weeks after the release of the original. So in effect, the rule boils down to my own personal anxiety around being a free rider.

Ultimately, Add Oil Comics’ goal is to raise awareness around social issues and movements by amplifying the often under-represented voices of ordinary people. Working with writing that’s already gone viral does not detract from this goal, and has, based on our experiences, added to the conversation and original message. This is why I am revising our previously-unspoken policy about illustrating already-viral writing. We will be pursuing it as a legitimate source of content moving forward.

This article was also cross-published on Medium.

By Jason Li.

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