Exploring the intersection between the sincere protest of social justice and the attention-hungry needs of social media.
What were you doing on #BlackoutTuesday?
If the answer is scrolling through your Instagram feed wondering firstly, what was wrong with it, and then noting that nearly everyone was deliberately posting a big black square with a set of hashtags, then you’re not quite alone – but we were definitely outnumbered. Social media across all platforms turned into a big old slab of nothing; content was replaced by a void. But why? Who asked for it? And what was it all for?
The original idea was neither designed to be so literal or intended to go viral in the way that it did. Originally the idea of two women working in the music business – Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang – the intention was for black people working in music to pause and reflect, and for those who profit from black artists to similarly pause, rather than rolling on and on in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, making cash without making changes. But of course, no sooner had the idea taken hold than it had been grabbed and changed by people entirely outside the music agency; and dissatisfied perhaps with the figurative idea of ‘doing nothing’, Blackout Tuesday had to turn into a physical post. After all, there’s no fun in reflecting if people can’t see evidence of you reflecting; there’s no point in muting yourself without immediately, in fact, doing something that is far from muting yourself, announcing loudly that you are, of course, doing the right thing, and muting yourself. No square, no glory. I could make a point here about the fact of how a bunch of – let’s face it – overwhelmingly white people picking up a black initiative they barely understand, co-opting it and then dominating it looks a little like the exact thing many people of colour are complaining about, but it’s a point that more or less makes itself.
And so, the black squares kept on coming… in one glorious moment of reinterpretation, the internet took an idea, changed it, and made it worse. Everyone was at it. Soon, it had bugger all to do with the music business, or even the arts: Instagram was a sea of black slabs, with interesting content from people of all ethnicities rendered null. Worse, as people had essentially rickrolled the whole thing, they had also started attaching the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag to their squares, before being asked by black people to please stop doing that, as it was preventing the hashtag from having any genuine use to those who needed it. A few people obliged – deleting their post, before adding it again! – but many weren’t even online after posting it seems, despite multiple requests appearing beneath their posts. Job done. Black square posted, social conscience clear.
For some, that wasn’t enough. “This is going to be a great week to find out who on your friends list is a racist”, someone suggested in a post. How this was going to occur was not broken down – Instagram isn’t big on nuance – but you can bet your life that not posting the designated square and/or questioning its merit would be big deciding factors, witch marks for the suspicious. I queried the purpose of the designated square in a post of my own: within fifteen minutes, I was asked if I also had a problem with people who supported racism. It’s funny that many of those who have a problem with President Trump’s inflammatory, simplistic beeping do quite a lot of simplistic thinking themselves. To be fair, some people (without omitting the square, naturally) also posted links to interesting content or helpful fundraising channels, which strikes me as far more sane; but in many cases, what we have is another indicator of what political thinking is boiling down to in the social media age. If you don’t display x, then you support y. Simple as that.
It’s the move towards performative righteousness, the idea beautifully ridiculed by an episode of Seinfeld when Kramer, on a fundraiser for AIDS patients, ends up being chased by the other fundraisers because he chooses not to wear a ribbon. Now we’re all about the measurable, visible indicator of being good; if you haven’t been thumping saucepans on your doorstep for the past couple of months, it looks suspiciously like you don’t support the NHS. Never mind paying tax, avoiding using the service unless you really need to and, during a pandemic, staying the fuck at home, because these things don’t make for a neat physical display. This sort of thing has been gearing up for years. A few years ago, back when Facebook was a usable format, a trend of changing your profile picture to a classic children’s TV character spread like wildfire on the grounds that it was all to raise funds for the NSPCC. The charity, of course, had never organised any such thing. On the other hand, the Ice Bucket Challenge was originally intended to raise money (which it did, thankfully, a significant amount) but many of the people who did the challenge had lost all notion of that by the time they came to do it – it was simply a fun dare, a chance to get themselves seen, a chance to fit in and conform, not to donate. In the current campaign, some individuals and organisations have been called out for their tone-deaf ways of making it all about them – the businesses that seek to profit from anger (“we absolutely support Black Lives Matter, now buy the product that we are selling on the back of it”) or the ‘influencers’ being rightly mocked for their narcissistic posturing (as in the video below) – but I fear that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the attention hunger of many people who had never previously expressed any concern about racial inequality – and in some cases, perhaps, had expressed quite the opposite – until this week.
Of course, everyone can use their social media as they see fit, but I remain to be convinced that an image-based app is a better space for political debate than the wealth of forums already out there. I mean, I get it. In difficult and upsetting times, people want to feel like they’re doing something. People want to feel like they’re helping. But I don’t see how suppressing actually useful, maybe vital content with your vanity post does anything other than exasperate other social media users and bury the message, especially when a highly visible blackout was never the aim in the first place. Still, undeterred, this is where we are now: I’m sure more demonstrative righteousness is on its way. What a shame people prioritise feckless spectacle over working out that the only real way forward, as ever, is political and legislative and through considered communication.