Ouroboros Outtakes: The Circle Was Never Unbroken

This is the year that social media has really stepped into its power.

by Sydette Harry on December 8th, 2014

The biggest shift of 2014 is the acceptance of social media as a force. Whether or not that force is respected is a question up for serious debate. Since December 2013, when I was challenging people’s laments about the “stream” as the loss of something private and elite, that discussion has become laughably quaint. Hashtags have been called toxic, useless and lazy from the pages of The Nation to the halls of the Ivy League, but now everyone has them. Social media coordinators can make six figures targeting populations who can’t get jobs in the companies trying to reach them. When a timeline can get you killed, there is no argument: online IS a matter of life and death.

Recently, I spoke on a panel at Eyebeam about online abuser dynamics. I struggled with how to describe my view of what we need in social media and tech going forward. I kept saying we need a large-scale how. How did we get here? What systems? Erin Kissane was kind enough to provide me with “forensics”: Who are our friends? What does it mean to be a member of a community? What does it mean to be authentic, and what does authentic cost? 2014 has been a year of examining, extending and reevaluating our connections and our communities. As the social aspect of “social media” bleeds into all of our tech, and all our relationships, what it means to be a member of a community is the question we are asking again and again, even if we don’t know it. As everything goes out the window, can we come up with an answer that not only makes sense, but is something we can live with? And more importantly, can we be honest about how we got there?

Black Twitter and the Youth Market

From Taco Bell to Bounty to Hamburger Helper, the need to seem hip and part of the community was everywhere in 2014. IHOP was praised in AdWeek for growing its Twitter audience 18% with use of “young” “hip” slang. This slang — fleek, bae — are common instances of AAVE, but this goes unacknowledged by either AdWeek or IHOP itself. The youth voice of these brands is bluntly the black voice. While shared, it is also mocked. In 2014, black users pointed out that while corporate accounts use this lingo, very few of them have any black employees to speak of, and anyone who applied to a job speaking the way the account tweeted would not be hired. The tone has quickly shifted from pleasantly amused to mocking Corporate accounts and entities who are quick to appropriate the voice of a community but slow to support that community in any way.

Tweet from IHOP which reads 'When the whole squad looking fresh' and four identical photos of a pancake stack. It has been retweeted over 20,000 times.

Tweet via @IHOP

Across social media, that community is often the black one. Black Twitter has gone from small research interest, to eye-rolling nuisance, to massive research project and relevance reviver. Ahistorical appropriations of enslaved women’s public spectacle to revive failed publicity stunts and condescending grammar lessons have become common attempts to incite a reaction. If 2013 was the year people admitted black people online mattered, 2014 was the year media, business, and academia tried to harness its power… while maintaining dominance. Piers Morgan structured his horrific article not around interactions with black people, but web stats. You may be a force, but a force we can manipulate. While Black Twitter’s reactions have been swift, brilliant and decisive, the future brings concerns. If the “secret” of Black social media as a cultural force is out and accepted, will exploitation and abuse ever be far behind?

Gamergate, Abuser Logic And Tough Conversations

Abuse, its structure, its logic and structural underpinnings is a conversation that needs to be had, as it has begun to redefine communities and spaces in ways that we are only beginning to comprehend.

The myth of the Wild Wild West of tech and the “be yourself” freedom of microblogging platforms leads to belief that online harassment is the disconnected work of individuals, when really strategic organizing is taking place. That same mythology led to the attacks on women in Gamergate, viewed as infiltrating and co-opting space that did not belong to them. While the excuses from gamers has ranged from “ethics in journalism” to lack of employment, the underlying belief that women have a very specific role that had been transgressed is plainly recognizable.

Gamergate and its subsequent horrific abuse of women had its origins in #4chan, the same place that leaked nude photos of celebrities and the same place exposed by Black women in #yourslipisshowing, when black women called out plants and imposters who had been sent in hopes of creating friction in the online feminist community. When the campaign was exposed, those women were threatened. Many of the black women involved in exposure and activism against 4chan were and are continually called toxic, dismissed as angry, seen as disconnected from the “proper” feminist, journalist, tech and media communities. Consequently, violence and infiltration attempts against these black women were ignored or seen as mild nuisances. It was one the great missteps of the year, as the same processes, and possibly participants that were tested in #yourslipishowing would be repeated in #gamergate.

What hasn’t been as widely discussed, but is desperately important, is the role of evolution in these tactics. Just as corporate and academic interests have grown and modified their approaches to commodifying Black Twitter, 4chan and its affiliates have modified their approach to guarding the boundaries of what they feel is their territory. While clumsy, #notyourshield, a hashtag where women and POC Gamergate participants presented their “inclusion” as a response to charges of racism and misogyny, was based on a strong observation of inter-racial feminist dynamics. Though unsuccessful, it was enacted as a way of outflanking what was one the most powerful forces in marketing and media of 2014: hashtags concerning politically active people of color. At Eyebeam, Kissane made an excellent point: too often, in laughing off the inept attempts at online abuse, we forget that they are practicing, often on the people we are all too willing to ignore.

Dart board with three darts near the bullseye.

Photo CC-BY zaphodsotherhead, filtered.

Conversely, we are also practicing. Practicing not knowing what’s going on, practicing silencing marginalized voices, practicing taking moments of opportunity to build real structures of safety and reducing them to media bytes. When the National Review, admittedly a conservative bully pulpit, pointed out a really disturbing portion of Lena Dunham’s autobiography, it triggered an internet volley. Is it abuse? Don’t we all do it? Is it feminist? Why didn’t anyone who raved about it see this and say anything?

What gave me pause was the way “feminists” decided to address it. The outcry was reduced to problems or jealousy of Dunham, rather than what had become a wide-ranging web of responses that included survivors and child welfare experts talking about topics from legal issues to personal healing, to their own childhood trauma, and most importantly how we talk about abuse AS A WHOLE. More disturbing was the intimation that people needed to calm down, or that the “real issues” were elsewhere. These articles differ very little from the aims of anti-women agitators: controlling what women say and which women get to say it.

What Sally Kohn specifically misses in her response to the Dunham outcry is that Grace Dunham’s speaking her “own damn truth” is not the truth or the scope of the critiques made of Lena. Rather than actively looking at why survivors and supporters of all stripes were incensed, it became a dismissal. Rather than expand the conversation of abuse dynamics, this — and dozens of similar pieces — flattened it. Rebecca Traister writes an excellent article about Cosby and the connection his unchecked abuse has to his playing on racial stereotypes, but is tired of how questions continue to come up around Dunham, saying just “create more of her”. Kohn incorrectly stating that the groups who criticize Dunham don’t criticize white men, and Traister’s assumption that everyone will root for Dunham because the “right wing” critiques her, reduces the real impact of racism, misogyny and racialized misogyny in getting actual critiques heard. “Create more” dismisses the danger and silencing marginalized groups face when voicing unpopular opinions and succeeding, even within the left. Marginalized people may start with critiques of one person, but they have used 2014 to build multi-layered discussions of society. By refusing to acknowledge that there are not only many truths, but a need to place them all in context, these calls to “create more” serve as silencers not unifiers. Places like #4chan mobilize and plan on these schisms, while the people they are mobilizing against hope they’ll go away if we just stop talking about them.

Online/Offline and My Cell Phone Bill

Stone ouroboros focused on where the mouth meets the tail.

Photo CC-BY Michele M. F., filtered.

Except it never goes away, what happens online doesn’t stay there, and vice versa. Online and offline feeding each other in an horrific Ouroboros of abuse construction. While pleas to believe survivors come by the truckload and are necessary, analysis of the dynamics of abuse are being parceled out not by the necessity of protecting ALL victims, but by our feelings of venom or confusion towards the perpetrator’s actions. We understand how important it is to talk about misogyny as its own problem when the person who brings it to light is as easily onerous as a neo nazi… it’s harder when it’s a friend. We see online abuse as horrific when it’s a woman we identify with, when it’s women who always “cause problems,” we are slower. We take those attitudes offline… and bring them on.

It’s one thing to believe certain charmed, connected individuals deserve chances, it’s another thing to avoid talking about when those chances stop and how they get decided. What does it mean when Berkman fellow Amanda Palmer takes to Salon to criticize “radical violent” Twitter about her disturbingly self-centered focus on whether to feature Jian Ghomeshi in her stage show after multiple accounts of sexual assault come through? It’s more disturbing when multiple articles reveal that while many in the leftist community knew about him, the assaults were ignored because his victims weren’t the “right”, connected kind of woman (like Palmer). It becomes even more distressing when these same circles wonder why Cosby happened, why victims feel uncomfortable, why this keeps happening. Kohn and Palmer may quote “sisters eating sisters for sympathy” but if some sisters’ sensibilities keep getting in the way of other sisters’ safety… maybe some sisters need to get eaten.

This is the year that social media has really stepped into its power. It’s also the time when people have begun to recognize that that power is real and can be used. When Justine Tunney moves from far left to far right based on her unfailing, righteous belief in her own correctness, it seems like a tremendous shift. If we look at the structure of tech, of how we treat social media and its use, it’s just a tilt. Tunney believes there is an in-group, and that in-group gets everything. When Traister adroitly looks at how power is expressed, the focus is on how those who have power wield it, not on how those who don’t are preyed upon by it. Cosby is ripe target, who deserves every bit of our ire and more, but how does that analysis get more complicated when it is a Ghomeshi, in the right circles, liked by the right people? How is it shifted over when the targets are raving amazons? Paraphrasing Twitter user @bad_dominicana: We love analysis that critiques folks OUT there but what about folks in here? Now more than ever, who is defined as “in” is treated as more important than what exactly we are in or in for.

Social media use in 2014 to showed that this is a moral relativism we may not be able to get away with for much longer on a macro OR micro level. Protests have been born and covered on Twitter timelines, and when mainstream media played fast and loose with facts, social media played quick and forceful with the accountability. In a world where the Attorney General of St. Louis is more concerned that social media has held him accountable for his conduct in the death of an unarmed child, than with actually giving peace to the people assembled to listen to him, there is something important happening. When his horrific conduct is linked to protests in Hong Kong in a matter of hours, it is life-changing.

2014 was a year I cringed in horror, gaped in awe and swore to quit with every other breath. It is also a year where I doubled my phonebook, made glorious friends and found deeper questions than I ever dreamed of. I laid to rest one of my greatest mentors who always had questions, one of which is still unanswered:

When do we get better?