Listening to a podcast about Black Twitter, it struck me how much trust we have placed on the democratizing effects of the internet. By we, I mean us as a society and, most surprisingly, those in the front lines of fighting society’s ills that are rooted in unequal access to opportunities for education, power, expression, freedom, anonymity, financial security, even life.
The ease of publication of our voices on the internet, the fact that having your own press of sorts is quasi free give us the illusion of equal access. Those fighting for net neutrality and communities of color advocating for regulating the net as a public utility are right on the merits. However, in my opinion, they are overconfident or overly optimistic as to the democratizing long-term effects of acquiescing to the corporate goals lying down, as that will, without a doubt, hamper any possibility of multiplicity of voices, innovation and spread out creative growth not coming from the usual loci of financial power.
However, I think those goals are rather limiting, not merely limited. I will use the fight for racial justice for this thought-experiment; but let us first explore what we thought about the internet and what it really is. We were convinced that dispensing with the need for costly TV equipment and printing presses would create an ample and free space for expression, a several times more open market of ideas, a place where there will be freedom of the press because everyone could have one. Nevertheless, the adaptability of the free market economy outpaced our hopes.
The biggest voices on the online media universe are the juggernaut of the pre-internet era and those who utilize corporate power structures whose tentacles reach well outside the internet to replicate the conditions of the economy of yore with an increasing techy zest. Think of where you go for news. Think of the greatest bloggers and podcasters and you will realize many come from the media of a previous era or have been propped up by the corporate marketing machines.
There are examples of some who, before the internet, would have never had the following they enjoy, and of media outlets, more aptly named new media outlets, which did not even exist. Yet, many airlines – I will dare to suggest all of them – did not exist before the Wright brothers, but that does not mean the airline industry has not been experiencing significant concentration, even monopolies, of late.
The problem is not with the technology, but with the system. We are replicating in the net the structures of power of the broader society and to the same effects. Those in the social justice movement trust that neo-liberal conceptions, policies and principles in the virtual world will work better and for the many, the way they do not in the real one.
The market has engulfed the voices on the web the way it has always subsumed products from the margins that promise to beget some success, the way it domesticates contestatarian hip-hop and whitewashes the painful rhythm of a strange fruit.
Black Lives Matter would not exist without the net, they say. No. Black Lives Matter would not exist without the killing of Michael Brown and without the people of Ferguson stumping the yard. No doubt, the net helps the protests, the organizing, but does it have the same broadening and multiplying effect on the discourse, even the political one? The topic barely makes it into the debates. We are perhaps more scattered into political silos on the internet than anywhere else. I follow many Black Lives Matter activists, etc. because of my professional malformation – reporter, that is – and take the time to be incensed daily by the nonsense of GOP candidates – and democratic ones, truly. However, we know that is a rarity because most people do not have time for that. Therefore, we do what we always did: look at life through the portrayals of the big media, and allow it to curate for us the important voices, even those on the margins. Usually, the import is accorded based on the outrageousness of opinions or actions.
I often discover amazingly thoughtful and developed pieces of writing about various issues from people with barely a couple of hundred followers and I wonder why people cannot hear these novel and unconventional voices. Well, now I have asked several of them. They submit op eds to papers and magazines, but are rarely accepted because they are No Name Nobodies with off the beaten path opinions. Their well-written and richly sourced musings have no marketing machinery behind them and their authors have day jobs, so, they cannot spend the countless hours needed to “develop your personal brand” and all that PR BS. A viral video would go a long way for raising their profile but those are rarely about the racial wealth differential created by FHA’s redlining or the Libertarian positions on reparations over time. Yeah, not a cute cat.
The more the internet advances, the more it reproduces the structure of society. New sites that exist as aggregators very seldom deviate from the usual, recognized voices and places. I love This., but it increasingly looks like my Facebook feed, where my very smart friends point to the same very nice stories from the same very well-known places.
This reproduction of power structures manifests itself, most injuriously, in the most unexpected places. We hear all the time the criticism of the old leadership of the black community. The anti-racism patriarchs whose voices were the only ones heard anytime there was a need for black explaining. The black youth seems to be rather fed up with them, their accommodating, their yoke on the microphones and the glacial pace of progress for black people during their many decades reign. The internet has seemingly open some space for a new crop of much younger leaders – it also has lent an immense credibility to their claims due to the viral videos of police brutality and murders – but that is where my excitement ends. The internet also serves as a place to corral the most ferocious dissent and the most radical proposals that would up end the system instead of readjust it on the edges. Then big media picks and chooses the voices it considers worthy of broader attention or more amenable to ridicule and serves those to the public. It attempts to buy those leaders with traditional exposure and, while doing so, builds up the profile of those leaders who become, supposedly, the voice of the new black. Knowledgeable and aware of this pitfall, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes often the point that he is not a leader nor the voice of or for the black experience.
However, it takes savvy not to fall on that trap and many of the young leaders do not yet have it. The Occupy Movement, with its insistence in leaderless-ness, direct democracy and the human microphone, spoke a bit to this budding problem, as they realized the temptation and quasi-fatalism of recreating the same structures and validating existing ones.
Exposure gives these young leaders power and a growing pulpit. They intend to use both of those for the good of the cause, but little by little, are engulfed in the same vices. They engage only with those in power, from whose power they will derive even more exposure, hence, more power. In that way, we create new power voices instead of give voice to the powerless. Yes, of course, those new leaders are there for the right reasons, but unless we problematize the way forward, they will ossify and become what the old guard is today. I think we are over relying on the internet, and social media in particular, to prevent that, without studying carefully how to turn them into truly democratizing forces. Examining the interactions of some of these young leaders in social media, you see the potential for snare. In a certain sense, they are using their burgeoning power to silence anew the voices of those who utter the slightest criticism; make differing proposals; or question strategy and tactics; and deny space to those not deemed of enough rank. “Get your own blog/podcast/etc. and stay out of my mentions” has become a common response. Yes, they can do that…but that is exactly what mainstream media does. The old leaders also spoke for and on behalf of their communities, or so they thought. Wouldn’t it be great if people in those communities could share in those spaces without filters; if those getting the exposure open their mics (blogs, social media spaces, etc.) to those who really should be speaking for themselves? That would be a revolution.
The internet has yet many promises to keep. I hope that new leaders learn to keep theirs.
DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and do not represent the opinions of my employer, or any other organization.