We should probably talk about Blackout Tuesday, a push on social media to drive engagement toward Black authors and creators. By silencing white content producers, the algorithmic biases (of course, programmed by systemic user bias) that would have pushed white-produced content to the top of the feeds would now be eliminated, allowing posts from Black content producers to gain traction they would otherwise not be afforded. Though similar social media movements have existed on and off for years, this one had perhaps the most global impact. Progressive social media users stayed silent for a day, or perhaps a week; others misinterpreted the campaign and took up more undue space than usual. But as the lights have flickered back on, there have been new questions of etiquette regarding how social media is supposed to be used going forward.
The prevailing line of discourse is that, in this moment in history, it is disrespectful to acknowledge normality. Your trip to the beach or your brunch is a cruel boast when people are being murdered senselessly in the streets; the evidence of an insulated, comfortable life is an insult to everyone who was never granted a choice about the injustices they are subject to, and the burdens of history they inherit. But privilege is too fraught a topic to properly address in a sphere as bombastic as social media. A conversation that academics could (and should!) spend decades picking apart is currently getting its short-run dues as a vindictive debate about who has a right to be seen. Polarized to the point of inertia, the discussion appears to demand either complete selflessness or complete silence from the virtuous social media user, both of which fail to interrogate and deprogram the racist inclination, fail to acknowledge the broad spectrum of experience, and instead allow the user to perform absolution through public displays of guilt.
How does this look in action? Very slick, and very empty. White, progressive social media circles are collectively neck-deep in shareable vector art and infographics, circulated chain letter-style. They denote the sharer as having partaken in the socially approved messaging, but they are all too often unactionable (flower-festooned graphics that say “arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor” don’t do anything to arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor; similarly, Change.org is almost entirely symbolic), and require little in the way of critical thought. They are also granular, pulling the messaging in too many directions by focusing too often on the minutiae of vernacular changes and historical precedents rather than the urgency of the present, which requires supply lines, funding and proper optics to prevent more deaths. The result is a virtue signaling echo chamber, spinning its wheels in a mire of vindication. Affirming allyship is capital, but that affirmation is disconnected from productive action.
Calls for white users to reduce their social media presences to amplify Black users also aren’t enough. They allow the white social media user to sit back and listen passively while the mythologized figureheads of Black community leaders take on the majority of the work. The user plays tourist in a Black milieu in what amounts to political fetishization. They allow their silence to act as a symbolic death, opting out of their present and future as a means of absolving their past. They abjure themselves of the necessity of the movement by declaring that they have nothing to contribute. They only exist to be told what to do.
Compulsory silence is its own issue. Freelancers who work online worry that by posting their own content, therefore “centering themselves in the conversation”, they risk reprisal. But without posting altogether they lose the means to support themselves in industries that had very little security to begin with. To walk the virtuous path, a freelancer is supposed to cow themselves into silence and risk housing and food insecurity. The class implications of this are hardly discussed, only that it’s appropriate to post one’s Venmo if one is desperate. “Mutual aid” is available to the user at their lowest, but they are not supposed to rely on that same biome of mutuality, of seeing and being seen, when they are relatively stable.
Additionally, now that COVID-19 has eliminated most in-person contact, mundane proof-of-life has new value. A photo of a hand wrapped around a coffee mug or petting a cat means more than it did in the previous era, when death wasn’t as close at hand. Social media is how we speak ourselves into existence now, and to expect that to cease, in favor of silently shouldering the burden of collective trauma, is unreasonable. If you want that for the average user, you don’t actually want justice. You want revenge.
I’d like to propose two ideas for how to address the question of privilege on social media. The first is respectful gamesmanship. What I mean by this is the acknowledgement that every social media user has their own life, which is largely irrelevant to you and should be treated as such. Social media is an iceberg: what you see is not what actually exists. A person who talks about social justice constantly may participate in none; a person who posts nothing about social justice may participate quite a bit, and any and all permutations therein, but what matters here is that this should not matter to you. If you are unable to control your emotional response to something mundane as a stranger’s posts, you probably shouldn’t be using social media as a space for transformational justice. At that point you have been poisoned by the medium. You have become convinced that effective social justice work means ruminating on a thousand granular tragedies. No one person can bear the burden of all of the funerals, all of the fundraisers, all of the petitions. Content that exists for the sake of enjoyment should be freely permitted so long as it causes no direct harm (‘its tone clashes with the zeitgeist’ does not count as harm), and it should not be interpreted as inherently detracting from the momentum of social justice movements. The multiplicity of experience is to be accepted as a constant, and it doesn’t actually matter who’s with you or who isn’t, because you’re not going to be able to convert anyone who isn’t either way. In sum, stay in your own lane, and don’t waste your anger.
Secondly, the redistribution of attention needs to be tactical. Before using their platform to distribute a message of social or political import, the user needs to interrogate it thoroughly. Is it timely? Is it actionable? Is it verifiable or is it conjecture? Does it come from a trustworthy source? Does it reinforce an echo chamber? Does it reach its intended audience? Is the motivation to post it self-serving or group-serving? Media literacy is critical.
The heart of the issue is that neoliberal-flavored idpol quibbling detracts from the potentiality of change. Revolution does not exist in such microcosms, and undermining the heuristics and institutions that perpetuate harm takes more than comfortable passivity. The revolution does not care you’re one of “the good ones”. It only requires that the ops succeed. So join, or don’t, but save your breath.