The Emerging Popular Digital Culture of Bogota’s TransMilenio People

More than 2 million passengers move every day on TransMilenio, the bus-based public transportation system of Bogota. Operating since the year 2000, this Bus Rapid Transit system circulates through 776 kilometers of dedicated roadways covering most of the urban space. Although during the first decade of functioning Bogotanians received TransMilenio with enthusiasm as it allowed them to move faster and more efficiently through the city and overcome the “penny war” (“guerra del centavo“) of private bus owners, with the pass of time the perception of the system has become less positive. Not only the buses, public stations, and roadways got older very fast, but also the system capacity became insufficient to satisfy the demand of a growing population. As a result, today TransMilenio is at the center of many criticisms related to its environmental pollution, insecurity, health (a recent study found that Bogota is one of the cities around the world with more antibiotic resistance genes in their public transportation) , and impact on citizens life quality.

Today, the everyday users of the system, particularly during the peak hours, confront a toxic and overcrowded environment where informality rules. Stations and buses are over-packed with passengers, informal vendors, beggars, and pick-pocket thieves in explosive sardines cans where anything can happen. Moreover, a culture of gatecrashers (“colados“), of all ages, has developed with all sorts of dangerous tricks and hacks that create many hazardous situations. Jumping gateways, climbing walls at the stations, running against buses, for instance, are some of the perils included in the gatecrasher repertoire.

When using TransMilenio, it is common for users to feel trapped in the middle of a risky chaos that is particularly hostile to women, children and elders. Many citizens qualify the system as inhuman and blame it for impoverishing life quality. In 2018 according to the polls, only 13% of Bogota citizens reported to be satisfied with this massive transportation service.

However, despite confronting several crises, users of TransMilenio have developed cultural strategies to survive, resist, and sustain an ordered chaos. One of them, is the production of a unique popular culture that mixes humor, complains, testimonials, and audiovisual records of the everyday situations that happen in the buses, stations, and routes. Leveraging the availability of mobile phones with audiovisual capabilities, internet connectivity, and the infrastructure provided by social media platforms, many citizens have created in the past years a vibrant TransMilenio popular digital culture. From Facebook and WhatsApp groups to YouTube channels, to Twitter and Instagram profiles, citizens are actively talking about their adventures and battles in the transportation system. By documenting the situations they encounter with irony, satire, pessimism and, even sometimes, optimism and resignation, they have created a vibrant space for talking about TransMilenio. With thousand of text updates, hundreds of photographs and videos shared on different platforms, Bogotanians seem to have found a way to entertain and make fun of their precarious public transportation and the crises they confront.

TransMilenio popular digital culture is rich in images and characters. Given the network possibilities of content circulation at scale, these characters have rapidly become famous personalities. People such as “spider woman” (mujer araña), the Maluma/Thalia impersonator, Tusa’s choreographers, and “the guy with the face mask” (el tipo del tapabocas), for instance, became emerging celebrities as their images and videos circulated widely on social media platforms, inspiring thousands of commentaries and discussions.

Two weeks ago, one amateur photograph of TransMilenio people reached such kind of massive popularity. In the image, a group of 9 passengers appear crowded under an open station door (not functioning), waiting in different poses, for the arrival of a bus. The Twitter user @irms25 posted the picture at 5:22pm tagging the parody account @TransMiseria, with the message “Posa sexy para tu Transmilenio” (“pose sexy for your Transmilenio”).

@TransMiseria, that defines itself as “Fake del sistema de trasnporte mas sexy del mundo” (“fake of the most sexy transportation system of the world”) in its profile, reacted re-tweeting the post, and also commented it with humor, saying “This would be my new favorite photo of TransMilenio people.” Later, it added “The whole photo is a meme.”

Some minutes later, @TransMiseria created its own tweet of the photo with some little changes to the image. It cropped it, and applied some contrast and exposure filters to it removing the windows reflections that existed in the original image. That new tweet and version of the photo, quickly became a meme, a viral image with thousands of shares (more than 1K RTs) and likes (more than 7K shares) in Twitter, as well as in other platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

@TransMiseria’s tweet, furthermore, became a long thread with several zoom-ins images to the people that appeared in the photo. Who were those characters? Did these people know they were being exposed on social media? Did they know they would become TransMilenio people celebrities?

As a generative meme, the photograph was remixed and modified, and shared, liked and commented by many. Hundreds of those comments emphasized the aesthetic qualities of the image, its connection to several art traditions. Other comments, of course, also referred on the people that appeared in the image, highlighting its diversity, realism, and gestures, as well as making fun of their everyday situation in TransMilenio.

After participants of the conversation in Twitter started to identify the aesthetic qualities of the image, and published comments with text and images discussing its beauty, new remixes were rapidly created and shared on the @TransMiseria twitter thread.

In order to make the conversation and imagery funnier, participants quickly remixed references to elite European art traditions with the image of everyday TransMilenio people. Juxtaposing low and high art cultures functioned not only as a funny commentary, a visual joke, but also as a display of the cultural background and knowledge of art that the participants of the conversation had. However, the derivatives of the visual meme extended beyond the European art tradition, and went even to the world of comics and Gothic City.

The case of the TransMilenio people photograph and meme reveals the vibrancy of an emerging popular digital culture that many users of Bogota’s massive bus transportation system are actively producing, circulating, and consuming. In a couple of hours after the photograph was shared in Twitter, the image quickly became a visual meme reaching even the television and newspaper outlets. The network dynamics in which such agile cultural production and circulation happened also reveal the central role of the @TransMiseria account and its power to amplify and coordinate the active sharing, commenting, and remixing of content on Twitter and other social media platforms. To a certain extent, this parody account functioned as a hub of a collective hive that rapidly, and in a collaborative manner, was able to create a rich multimodal conversation around an amateur photograph taken by a random passenger.

Remix of the original image juxtaposing a golden ratio grid by @DivisiondeAriza

It is remarkable to notice how parody and humor, together with audio-visual documentation with mobile phones, are the main media practices that power this emerging popular digital culture. TransMilenio users are finding in these practices, creative and generative strategies to cope with their everyday frustrations with Bogota public transportation system. Despite confronting several crises related to the insecurity, incivility, and hostility, TransMilenio people is laughing. Hopefully, that laugh can transform into cultural and political actions that help to solve the crises.

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