Hi friends. Sorry for the slight absence. As you may have seen if you’ve come here from my other social media, I’m recovering from gender-affirming surgery, and as such my brain is swamp from learning to navigate a body that is distinctly mine but very different from what it was a few weeks ago.
While in recovery I attempted to write a longform piece about my transition, and the scientific implications of trans origin theories in general, but gave up. I think the internet has been terrorized by the inanity of thinkpieces, and I firmly believe that the invocation of personal traumas to tell “worthwhile” stories is contributing to our polarized media wasteland. That, and putting so much personal information online seemed like an infosec issue. So, I’ve decided not to publish it, at least not in its current form.
Before I attempted any sort of physical transition, I was averse to stories that framed the trans experience as a “journey”, a before-and-after snapshot for the cis to gawk at. I may have just been smarting; without a linear visual narrative to bolster my trans identity, I was afraid of being seen as less-than by transmedicalists, whose opinions carry quite a bit of weight in mainstream circles. Now that I have physically altered myself, I’m in this sticky spot of having to reassess where I stand in the public narrative as well as in my own self-concept, while also being completely removed from real-life contexts because, until I heal more, I lack the independence to go out and test it. It feels like I’m in limbo, waiting to be discharged into a world where people can react to me. Until then, I can’t quite know what I am.
Anyway, I’m fine, I’m healing, and my mind and body are recohering into something more comfortable than before. I’ll be back here shortly, and hopefully better for it.
As a self-described Big Gay™, I occasionally seek out queer news media. I do not enjoy this. Every time I type Them.us or Autostraddle into a browser it fills me with a deep sense of shame, both in myself for feeling so separate from queer culture at large, and at queer culture for its piss-poor sense of what constitutes newsworthiness. Yet I do this every few weeks because it seems important, from an ethnographic standpoint, to keep abreast of the things the gay community deems important enough to write about.
Gay news is bad. Gay news and journalistic standards occupy nearly separate circles of the same Venn diagram. It’s an online ecosystem built on breathless praise of neoliberal politicians that sidesteps the issue of How To Have Politics entirely. It riffs endlessly on the usefulness of cancel culture while simultaneously calling out authors, actors and social media personalities for meaningless slights that have no long-term significance. It encourages parasocial relationships with public figures. It takes Trump’s offhand remarks at face value, shunting them into anxious screeds that encourage the reader to panic, but not to consider the probability of whether the man’s ravings have any likely consequences. It revels in the clapbacks, the sassy merch, the coupons for sex toys, and the most inconsequential tea you can find on the internet, all while having no sense of what constitutes actionable, helpful information.
So sure, the news is bad, and every time I see a friend link to a Pink News story in utter seriousness I cringe so hard I could implode. But what worries me more than the news itself is the state of unfettered emotional investment this style of discourse encourages. Gay news swings between two poles: hypervigilance and hypercompersion.
Hypervigilance is for the negative: threats of anti-gay legislation, upticks in hate crimes. These are justifiable fears, but there is a sense of scale involved that these stories omit. Just because a bill has been proposed, it doesn’t mean it will pass. Just because hate crimes happen, it doesn’t mean they will happen to me, a white person in an affluent liberal city. Though there is a contingent that is encouraged by these threats to the gay community, be it the Proud Boys or the Boogaloo or whatever the 4chan militants of the moment are, these groups’ actions are generally difficult to predict outside of the context of protest events, and as such are not something I would recommend the average person worry much about. Taking in enough of these stories encourages a manner of self-marginalization that I have noticed amongst people overexposed to them. They experience a generalized despair that precludes any marginally useful actions, like donating to aid funds or getting involved in ground-level politics (I do want to note that these actions don’t solve the problems of anti-gay legislation and hate crimes, but they do contribute to a sense of personal fulfillment that can keep the wolf from the door for a time, and may provide some measure of support to those in need). Poisoned on the idea that the whole world hates them, they are rendered unable to act.
In a landscape so bleak, good news must provide a hefty counterpoint for the panic-stricken. This good news is often comparatively small – a TV show featuring gay characters, a personal essay about feeling affirmed (oh my god, there are so many thousands of personal essays) – so it winds up being an oversized section of these sites’ content, provided rapturously and, again, without scale, which encourages a hyperempathetic worldview. Clearly these stories are supposed to be personally illustrative or satisfying for the reader, despite the fact that they have no personal relevance beyond a desire to queue up Netflix, or the general human ability to empathize. To describe the feeling these stories are intended to evoke, I am borrowing the word ‘compersion’ from polyamory theory. Compersion is defined as a state opposite to jealousy, a fulfillment brought about by witnessing others have experiences that you desire. Compersion is beyond empathy; it is closer to emotional entanglement. In reading these soul-baring accounts of people I don’t know in relationships I can’t mimic, on trajectories I cannot follow, it feels like the ideal gay person is supposed to experience compersion for every strangers’ positive experience, and exist in state of sustained hyperempathy. Even minute exposure to this seems tiring to me, a person with robust boundaries between my self-concept and the media I consume. But to someone with a lower threshold, I imagine this sensation could be dangerous, and could easily result in emotional burnout or unrealistic expectations for personal relationships. The messaging behind so many of stories in this vein seems to be ‘love will save you from this bleak world’. That strikes me as a dangerous thing to promise, especially amongst demographics that statistically experience heightened rates of precarity.
I am currently counting down the clock on a large gender-affirming surgery, and these stories have taken on a new shade of offensiveness as a result. I see a great deal of messaging about how the ecstatic love of my communities will ferry me through my recovery. I have no caretakers; I have no lovers willing to spend weeks doing undignified things to assist me while I’m mostly incapacitated. I am not unusual in this way. I think most people would be met with a decent amount of skepticism if they reached out to their acquaintances to arrange this manner of intensive care for themselves. Yet if I am to believe the media I see, I should infer that my surgical results will be worse than average because I do not have the boundless support network made out by gay media to be the norm. I feel systematically alienated by this, and I’m someone with a decent amount of control over their emotions. Someone else could easily be driven to despair by this same idea. That’s an infohazard. It’s irresponsible to promote.
I would love to take the reins back on gay media and create an environment where nuance is encouraged, where facts matter, where celebrities are inconsequential, and where we don’t need to be spoon-fed optimism to feel secure about our place in the world. As an extended community, we have constructed very stupid idols that are due to be burnt. We shouldn’t need to construct this desperate folklore about how love will save us. Maybe we don’t need saving. Maybe we’re fine. Maybe the only sinking ship here is our skewed perception of our own vulnerability.
Here’s a new self-isolation low to add to the list: I recently exposed myself through an infohazard through the medium of my own dreams.
I dreamed that I had flown halfway across the world to see a friend, but once there, she only seemed interested in dragging me through whirlwind a tour of her material successes: the perfect partner, the perfect bathroom remodel, the perfect landlord, his perfect wife, the perfect plant-based dinners they all shared. I found myself to be an accessory to their worldbuilding. In the dream, standing outside some bustling Berlin thrift shop while waiting on her partner, I told her “I’m not interested in any of this. I came here to see you.” She responded: “maybe you should consider that you’re an NPC here.”
Cue waking in a cold sweat, texting friends in a panic, etc. Could it be, that despite all my self-importance, I don’t matter at all?
NPC theory is one of the few useful models that my not-shitty intellectual circles have adopted from 4chan’s especially shitty incel-adjacent corners. An NPC lives a life according to routine, with little variation. An NPC feels it goes against form to strive for positions above their station, and while they may be unsatisfied by their mediocrity, they feel they have little power to change their circumstances. An NPC is, above all, predictable.
An NPC also exists on the periphery, parallel to a narrative but not integral to it. As someone who considers themself to be a healthy opportunist, I have made a point, at various times in my life, of hitching myself to particular zeitgiests and riding them for a while. While I may contribute work with some value, I am not often crucial to the zeitgeist’s success. This is accompanied by a certain amount of handwaving and ‘this suits me fine’ rationalizations; it is in my nature to be more of a support player than a firebrand (after all, I play bass. How could I not know this?). It’s structurally safe, yet vital to an operation’s utility. Yet with it comes a desire to be the person with enough recognizable je ne sais quoi to be believable as a protagonist.
The issue of whether or not NPC-dom resonates with you comes down to how you construct meaning. Ideally, meaning is highly subjective, with each individual constructing their own internal and self-sustaining support networks. Meaning should be able to survive without external influence, and should provide solace consistently and without significant sunk costs. It would seem that in a much healthier world, we’d all have our own proprietary meaning-software; in this model, everyone would be their own protagonist. Yet the issue with meaning is that when enough people share their internal models and find commonalities between them, you wind up with societal meaning-making that often foists its demands on people incompatible with them, I.E. when everyone tells you it’s time to get married and have children, when you don’t see yourself as being fundamentally cut out for that type of life. In the societal model of meaning-making, meaning is primarily sourced from others. It relies on reciprocal networks. If I matter to my someone, having meaning assigned to me has then willed me into a personally meaningful existence. I invest my resources into cultivating these links, and in return, I exist.
I tried to live according to the second model around 2017-2018, and it was an unmitigated disaster. It turns you into a performer. You have to be constantly trafficking in your own emotional availability or else you lose the plot. You’re basically yelling ‘MAKE ME A PROTAGONIST’ at everyone around you. ‘I’VE APPORTIONED MYSELF ACCORDINGLY, SO PLEASE, MAY I HAVE A CRUMB OF MUTUALLY-CONSTRUCTED SIGNIFICANCE.’ It was draining. Someone recently uncovered a candid photo of me from this time and I look like a POW: dead eyes, slumped posture, my ribcage dangerously visible. Yet every now and then, this method of meaning-construction comes back to haunt me, because unfortunately operating as a meaning-unit with other people is highly fulfilling, and also means you won at society. It is dangerously appealing, but I don’t find that I can sustain it without neglecting my capital-S Self.
So yes, the ideal method of meaning-construction is to assume you’re responsible for your own narrative. You were the protagonist all along. In admitting this I find myself to be a bit of an antihero, poisoning the well of what we typically assume to be the correct mode of fulfillment. Yet I think I’ll sleep better with that knowledge, that it’s ultimately more sustainable to leave mire of expectation in favor of personal fulfillment.
As one does after most of a year in insolation with serotonin is in short supply, my roommate has gotten into Korean boy band, extreme GDP producer and probable psyop BTS. While waiting for their new album to drop on a livestream last night, she noted that people were posting to the chat at such a rapid pace that it made the entire screen flicker, threatening to crash YouTube’s infrastructure under the weight of thousands of rapid-fire “come to brazils“.
BTS’ official fan club, known as BTS Army, numbers some 40 million individuals. This means there are more officially registered fans of BTS than there are people in Saudi Arabia. It is an absolutely massive conglomeration that outstrips a number of key demographics in sheer size. So yes, BTS fans could easily band together and crash YouTube; they were certainly able to crash Trump’s online infrastructure earlier this year. The more I thought about it, the more it struck me: when it comes to groups united around a common cause or fandom, I can’t think of any other groups of this scale that aren’t registered political parties. For a fan club, Army has a massive amount of power. And after their forays into political activism surrounding the US presidential election, they’re starting to relish it.
So really, who needs to launch a DDoS attack or depose a wannabe dictator when you can just send Army to deal with it?
A few weeks ago, California burned and noxious smoke consumed the West Coast. Hunkered down in my weather-sealed apartment, I was assigned to write about the fires for work. After a rather prosaic analysis of the conditions that lead to such reliably huge annual blazes (surprise! It’s capitalism!), I came to think that I was really onto something with the following idea, which I would use for the paper’s conclusion: since fire reduction efforts are 20-30 years behind and are unlikely to stop on what is now an exceedingly lethal yearly occurrence, what we really need is a psychological framework for surviving, if not thriving, in the Pyrocene.
The coping mechanisms I had been seeing in my peers were not workable, amounting to suicidal environmental nihilism. The more imaginative harbored near-paraphilic fantasies about human extinction saving the earth, which presume that some cosmic, highly Catholic idea of penance will exist even once the Catholics die out, and the reward for mankind’s sacrifice would be a world that can live on in peace (unfortunately, the world after us will continue to be filled with our microplastics and our carbon dioxide, so we cannot assume it will be kind to whatever species remain optimized for the post-anthro Anthropocene). Those less inclined to fantasy resorted to social media doomsaying, declaring ‘DON’T YOU GET IT? IT WILL NEVER GET BETTER. NOTHING WILL EVER BE NORMAL AGAIN’, an act of ugly self-commiseration in the middle of the digital agora. It wasn’t mass hysteria but mass dysphoria, the inconsolability of knowing the destruction won’t end. No life, they proclaimed, is worth this.
These sentiments amount to an intellectual death: there is no desire to persist or even regain functional equilibrium in either one. Yet I could not find an alternative that seemed useful. Mere blanket optimism is unreliable against the scale of these fire events, as one can only suspend their disbelief so far. The only positive response to climate nihilism I came across posited that we should continue to practice our individual ecological stewardship efforts not because they will have payoffs in the future, but because we can convince ourselves that they provide us with an inner sense of purpose. It sounds nice, until we consider that recycling does nothing and we console ourselves with our purchases because holistic care isn’t accessible or viable, so this individual stewardship method reads like just another failed avenue for American individualism.
What, then, is left to do? Pivot to absurdism? We need new paradigms to not only live but live well in these conditions, outside of pinning worths to lives vs. lifestyles vs. products and playing ecological calculus with all of them. We need a radical means of staying whole that isn’t rooted in existing philosophies, because people have never lived like this before, and existing philosophies won’t apply.
I thought I was truly on a roll with this. I made a big Facebook post, breathless about my new idea. I sent strings of excitable texts to my coworkers. What I failed to realize was that I had been breathing the same air for a week in my sealed apartment, and the poor oxygenation was making me loopy. This line of thinking had no place in a nonpartisan paper and I wound up cutting all but a sentence or two. Yet unwittingly, this meant I had stumbled onto something more trenchant. The psychology of surviving the Pyrocene isn’t about maintaining worth and dignity, at least not at first. At its most useful it will only teach you how to maintain baseline functionality when you can’t physically breathe the air.
A philosopher’s mistake: surviving isn’t about self-respect, at least not in the immediate sense. First, it has to be about filling your lungs with the correct molecules to sustain the electric goo in your skull, and how to avoid total derangement when those molecules aren’t readily available.
I don’t know what this would look like in practice. Some kind of death-positivist zen, most likely. This might be my project for the next fire season so I don’t fully embarrass myself before I realize what’s happening.
I’ve become a bit fascinated with GPT-3’s predictive text abilities. Beyond the potential to replace an entire wage tier of freelance journalists (dare I say good riddance?), GPT-3’s ability to unintentionally create art is probably the most successful thing about it. The ever-reliable Gwern tested this to great effect, with the AI returning the following poem when trained on acrostics:
…H A M M E R H ands | Hands you must hold the hammer with to pound the nail A rm | Arm you must raise to strike the nail to make it fall M ind | Mind you must think with to know when to strike the nail M achine | Machine you can make a hammer from a rock E ngineer | Engineer you can be to make a better machine
H A M M E R H uman | Human life is the most important thing we have A ction | Action we must take to preserve life for all M oment | Moment of time is what life is all about E nd | End is something we all must face one day R eason | Reason is why we should preserve life on Earth
This poem immediately reminded me of Russian poet and socialist organizer Aleksei Kapitonovich Gastev. A metalworker by trade, Gastev codified Soviet technology fetishism into the school of machinist poetry in the 1920s. Notable for its observationalist style and severe restriction of vocabulary and form, machinism repackaged poetry as technical instructions for life in an industrial age. In Gastev’s view, human cognition and anatomy could be honed through repetition to become ever more precise, with the ultimate goal of biomechanical perfection: man-as-machine in transcendent symbiosis with his tools, able to swing a hammer with profound, replicable accuracy or operate a typewriter with divine aplomb.
Per Gastev, poems were to be recited in “uniform batches…as if one were operating a machine”, that the listeners should perceive them as “a libretto of crucial processes.” Machinism provided instructions for technical mastery. See below, excerpted from Gastev’s 1921 publication A Packet of Orders:
To the machines. Stand. Pause. Charge of attention. Feed. Switch on. Auto. Stop. Half-minute interval. Switch over. Operation B. Method two, method four. Seven. Series twenty, begin work.
English translation via Flesh to Metal: Soviet Literature and the Alchemy of Revolution by Rolf Hellebust
Gastev is notable for predicting the datafication of the body at work about a century early: the optimized, measured, and surveilled body of Gastev’s mechanized laborers has a parallel in the modern employee subject to productivity tracking. Yet farther afield, the training of an AI such as GPT-3 represents a human-machine interface that Gastev could hardly have predicted. Gastev’s machines were tactile, iron and steel, blood and muscle. An AI, especially one tucked behind a proprietary API like GPT-3, is a black box. The user and the AI communicate in a sort of disjointed language, acting in tandem but without full knowledge of the mechanism that drives their mutual work. In this sense, AI is incompatible with Gastev’s vision, lacking in physicality and explicable processes. Yet if the goal of machinist art is to render the human more mechanical, is there not also potential for making the machine more humanlike? GPT-3, with its accidental artworks, might be an inverse machinist: a machine that aspires to reciprocally humanize its behavior.
I wasn’t interested in playing Randonautica until it led two teens to a suitcase with a corpse inside, on a beach in my city. They put it on TikTok. Flash forward a few months, and a suspect is in custody.
Randonautica is approximately ten lines of buggy code in an ARG trench coat. All it does is generate coordinates, but does so with a modicum of style. The mystique of the app dwarfs the app itself. Enough users have reported confluences, strange occurrences while playing, that the app is now “haunted”, in Buzzfeed and HuffPost parlance. In my experience, the app is broken but serviceable. The user provides the haunting.
Here’s how it works: in a simulated chat screen, you select whether you want your coordinates to be an attractor (a place other users have visited, almost always a public park in my experience), a void (a place other users have not visited; typically inaccessible, or in the middle of a body of water), or an anomaly (some statistical middle ground between attractors and voids – I always select this option because it sounds the coolest, and has the potential to be the most interesting). You make your choice; a compass appears. The app tells you to focus on your intent. Once it spits up your coordinates, which takes an awfully long time, it redirects you to Google Maps, and you redirect yourself to your destination. You take a long walk. Going by car defeats the purpose; it’s about the journey, the chance encounters, the assemblages of geography laying themselves out underfoot. Ideally, you tell the app when you get to your destination and upload photos of the trip, but mine always crashes by the time I arrive, erasing any breadcrumbs I might have left it. You walk home.
Hungry for some excitement in the doldrums of quarantine, I thought to myself: sure. Let’s make my statistical likelihood of finding a dead body incrementally higher. The more places I visit on my walks, the more interesting things I am likely to find. Instead of bouncing between the same few familiar parks day in and day out, I’ll let myself be directed by chance. Along the way there will be trees, coffee opportunities, houses with no appeal other than being able to say that I have seen them, and possibly intrigue.
When you’re looking for anomalies, it follows that everything becomes an anomaly. Every pumphouse is an occult shrine and every side street is a crime scene when you want them to be. I have not found any bodies. More often than not, my destination is a mildly interesting car, which leads me to think that the “magnetism” of Randonautica’s coordinates has something to do with GPS data sourced from a mapping app. However, I have found some things I wouldn’t have found otherwise, which have brought me some wonderment, or at least amusement. They are:
a hidden park on the lakefront, with a dock just large enough for two people to sit and soak their feet in the water
two black cats (one would not let me pet it; one was too far away to pet), one orange cat (screamed in my face and then left fur all over my black pants)
two wooden footbridges with fantastic forest views
a church that looks like a Disney version of a medieval castle, complete with those parapets like gapped teeth, you know the ones
a grave, belonging to no one of importance (I checked)
a beautiful Victorian home, burnt mostly to the ground
many Little Free Libraries (take a book, leave a book), with a few books worth taking, on occasion. For some reason, I find Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick in these most often. Everyone apparently read this book and decided it was not worth saving; so I too now have a copy, and I will decide whether it’s worth saving.
a 1940s pickup truck, lovingly restored
a purple Mustang
many wild rabbits, each one small and round and precious
Maybe someday I’ll find that corpse, me and all of the TikTok teenagers hoping for some excitement in a world that has been mostly compacted down to our immediate neighborhoods. In the meantime, while bodies generally do not abound, novelty does, if you know not where to look but how to look.
For a few days I’ve been trying to track down images of a well-known and sufficiently public place, but the images will not be found.
It is a high school, one that has existed for decades and has accrued some decent accolades. I went to art camp there as a teenager, and found that their summer programming had an anarchic approach to time management, so I spent many hours roaming the shopworn, alarmingly dim hallways just taking in the atmosphere. It is an ugly place to be sure – brutalist in all the worst ways, made more punishing by lysergic student murals and a general lack of upkeep. But it was an evocative place, and I loved it the way one has to love brutalism: for the sheer disrespectful nature of it.
Nearly all the photos that exist of the campus are from the back. Overlooking a track and field course, the building is arranged along a shallow hillside in three graduated layers, long and flat, a continuous covered staircase bisecting them in the manner of a knife through cake. It has factory-style pane glass windows, and these are pockmarked by canvases, butcher paper, and other art school detritus turning them into very many blind eyes. To its left there is another building, a satellite campus on its own hillock, and straddling the valley between them there is a covered portico, its thick, octagonal roofing a maladroit yellow. A drab garden spills down the hillside beneath this vector point before terminating in a tall fence.
I’m looking for photos of the portico, as it is the only area that connects pedestrian traffic to the street and functions as the heart of the architectural organism. The yellow siding, which appears to be an octagon when viewed from the track but is really a wedge, conceals thick, angled support beams that make the corrugated roofing appear papery by comparison. Inset skylights that have never been cleaned make standing under the portico feel like being in a sewer. In rain it oppressively dark underneath, and incredibly loud. It is held many stories aloft by fat concrete columns, and kiosks of dated vending machines appear to cower beneath – far too many vending machines, arranged in occultic groups of three. Each one contains slightly different items, but only just, requiring a dreamlike dance to find the machine that has the particular soda you want even though you’re pretty sure you’ve already checked all of them twice. A theater building almost butts up against the west end of the portico, a close talker, and a cafeteria annex is slung low under the north end. To the right of this cafeteria, a set of shallow, widening steps allows access to the bare, open-air courtyards stacked behind the main campus. But this is dwarfed by thick vertical blocks of additional stairways which allow arterial access up to the main building at all levels, and tunnel down through the poured concrete flooring into subbasements – music warrens, which I was always too frightened to access because the lights were always off. These stair blocks are covered in motion-sick murals lacking in scale and symmetry, and where they aren’t, are the same sickly yellow as the portico siding. The lighting inside them is parking-garage orange, and hums. The space encourages a thunderous echo of voices and footfalls, and stepping into the cafeteria feels like putting on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. It was part school, part asylum, tricking your sense of scale and directionality always. It was easy to get lost, even with the portico as lodestar.
I can find one clear photo of this central space pulled from a local news article published in 2015. It is shot from the wide steps next to the cafeteria, and focuses mainly on the block of stairs, with a sliver of the central courtyard beyond. Others, providing tantalizing glimpses only, can be found by deep-stalking the school’s social media accounts going back years, but the campus is shown only incidentally in the background. Tiny black and white photos pulled from a digitized 1970s yearbook show the school from the street, and finally provide a full view of the central artery of the portico from above. Other than these, I can only find photos of the back of the campus, its least offensive part. The track is manicured, and the building itself is hulking, but distant enough to shut off any imaginative impulse. It is impossible to imagine oneself inside, figuring out how it would be navigated, because one simply cannot see enough of it. You can tell that there are things going on outside of the frame. Its three layers are suggestions of form more than form itself. The totality of the campus, in this imagining, is three stacked hallways.
I can understand the desire to conceal; a place with a good reputation could stand to be less of an eyesore. But in this concealment the very architectural concept is rewritten, eliminating key passageways and reimagining the building to be something it never was. Concrete and steel are made mutable by omission; the parts undocumented become unavailable to the public, and might as well not exist except for those who have physically been there to witness them. By providing a selective account, the character of the place can be retooled to be more welcoming, or on the other hand entirely secretive. The internet has created a form of selective architecture, paring away the undesirable bits: a facade of a facade.
I made some significant edits to my previous post because I was self-censoring to pacify hypothetical critics. I ignored my own advice: I did want to prove that I was one of “the good ones” because I was afraid of a faceless audience condemning me as a bad leftist. The post has been edited to remove any attempts at virtue signaling. It is harsher than it was before, but far more substantive. Please reread it, and I hope you’ll find that the opinions therein actually know what they want to be this time.
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.