2020-08-07 13:41:10

A recent “article” on multipurpose app WeChat has gone viral — despite not having any text.

The author of the now-deleted piece, featuring rows of blurred boxes resembled the redacted lines of a classified government dossier, is Jiang Yulong, an undergraduate at the China Academy of Art in the eastern city of Hangzhou. The 20-year-old said he created the piece — which included headlines, paragraph breaks, photos, and annotations all rendered in meaningless squares and mosaics — to critique digital information overload.

“I felt bombarded by a deluge of fragmented information, especially content tailored by algorithms to meet (individual) interests,” he told Sixth Tone. Jiang specifically referred to earlier this year, when social media users shared an overwhelming quantity of information online, the bulk of it related to the country’s COVID-19 outbreak.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread globally, the news cycle, as well as people’s lives, have been consumed by virus-related news. This has led to what experts now call “doomscrolling” or “doomsurfing” — the habit of continuously scrolling through disconcerting news — resulting in anxiety and mental health issues.

“I want to make people think critically about what they consume online,” Jiang said. “Mundane reposts and daily sharing occupy too much space, without leaving any impression on readers or having any impact.”

The seemingly coded project was published on the WeChat public account Wenzhang Laiyuan — Chinese for “article source” — on Aug. 3 and has since garnered more than 100,000 views, the maximum number the platform displays.

Since then, social media users have imitated the style, either sharing their own similarly encrypted messages or commenting on Jiang’s original post using the author’s preferred choice of communication: black squares.

Reader interpretations of the project’s message sometimes differ from what Jiang had in mind, however. Jiang said he has received messages relating the squares and pixelated images to the country’s current online climate. To sanitize the web, authorities and social media platforms routinely scrub articles and content deemed “vulgar” or “illegal.”

Others meanwhile are treating the black boxes as a guessing game.

“Is this some coded message that needs to be interpreted in a certain way?” read one comment under a related post on microblogging platform Weibo. “What form of cult is this?” said another.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone)