Ayesha Siddiqi is a cultural critic and the editor-in-chief of the New Inquiry. Her commentary on race, gender, and pop culture has appeared in Vice, Spin, Al Jazeera, Dazed and Confused Magazine, and the New York Times, among others.
So when I was first asked to speak on the subject of community and connectivity, the broadness of those prompts reminded me of how much time we spend completely enmeshed in them and how much that living in it keeps us from really questioning exactly what our relationship to these subjects is, and when I thought about it a little bit, I realized that its implications captures everything from the tension between DYI and indie for content creators, publishers, as well as the tension between establishment media and what’s called new media, the tensions between corporations and the surveillance state, and how—what was described as shifts in power or empowerment for typically marginalized voices has really been just a masking of new vulnerabilities. So the first thing I wanted to talk about it is that DYI versus indie notion.
Over the past few years we’ve been living in this moment, that seems really optimistic. That seems to encourage everyone to do it yourself, because you can now, right? Anyone can start a blog, start a zine, start a publication. There seems to be a greater ease with which you can pursue creative pursuits, because the infrastructure that you typically needed to have is being provided for you whether through an app or website committed to that.
But what we have instead is the fact that DIY is no longer indie. Those two no longer mean the same thing because you’re absolutely foreclosing on your independence by pursuing DIY projects and by that I mean you don’t any more own that which enables your project.
So even for a publication like New Inquiry, for example, we’re just as vulnerable to the platforms that produce and host our content as we were hoping to avoid being vulnerable by trying to not be a corporately backed or a grant-based publication.
And while you no longer need to have, say, websites or offices that can host the infrastructure, what instead you’re giving up is the opportunity to own that which is enabling you and that’s not a problem that’s unique to independent publications, it’s something that anyone who uses social web is a part of. We are a all part of signing up for things that we’re generating value for, and a lot of the questions that the subject of community and connectivity raises is labor and its valuation and who ultimately ends up benefiting from the use of social web platforms.
So for platforms like Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, all of its users are the ones generating value for it, right? We’re essentially running their product for them for free. And in doing so, certainly there are some obvious benefits, so you know we’re in this moment that typically marginalized voices have greater access to the community and connectivity that we’re here to discuss today. They can reach each other, I mean there’s obvious gains to be had there, but we’re also increasingly mistaking visibility for power.
And for these typically marginalized voices—and it’s interesting, the people I’ve noticed at this point in time that have the most angst around the Internet or the social web, people who work in media and are like, oh, gosh, Internet is just the worst, right, Twitter is terrible, and of course all of these opinions are being voiced on the Internet and on Twitter. They’re typically people that the rest of the world has been pretty kind to and the people that have almost the greatest investment in these spaces and spend a great deal of time on this them are people that the rest of the world isn’t that friendly to and it was initially spaced to escape the daily hostilities and aggressions and of course for people of color, people who aren’t straight, queer, gay, LGBTQ communities.
These are really vital developments. Our ability to produce and establish community, our ability to connect, the way its been facilitated for the social web, has in fact changed many lives. And when in one category I spend a lot of time thinking about is students of color who struggle with mental illness issues and the ways in which that mental health resources are either completely designed not to serve them, but actively reproduce colonial violence in the way in which those administrators are trained to deal with people of color that they may encounter. And how so many young people had then turned to the social web to generate their own survival scripts to produce ways of coping with things like depression, anxiety, thoughts of self-harm, and that’s a form of quote-unquote life hacking that I’m way more interested in than cutting up an old takeout container to make a plate. It’s bizarre how what the word “life hacking” gets used to mean and its association with tech pros when there are people doing far more interesting and innovative work just for the pure pursuit of being able to move through the world with relative grips on their sanity and safety.
So while those communities are being developed and are being incredible resources and incredibly empowering which I want to distinguish from actual power I absolutely recognize those benefits and I’m happy for people who have access to these spaces and conversations and can more freely speak their truths and learn from each other.
This is relevant to, you know, anyone from young people connecting over shared experiences on mental health communities, on Tumblr or other blogging platforms, or the fact that the establishment media is no longer shielded from the necessary critiques that people outside of it can offer and how so much of what’s described as Twitter backlash is really the resistance to the historical and still currently ongoing erasure of voices and discourses and essentially colonial perspectives on culture writing so I’m absolutely optimistic about what it means for media and publishing that a lot of typically marginalized voices are able to speak out and speak to establishment media and to each other and there’s a great deal of power in the affirmations that that enables and allows.
While all of that is happening, all of the, you know, the visibility that follows those critiques or the types of thinkers and writers that gain attention aren’t—don’t have then the access to actual capital versus the social capital that their visibility on social web may accrue for them, and it’s also important to distinguish visibility from, you know, the fact that what it can oftentimes really produce is the same social—same vulnerabilities that their social position, the rest of the world had for them. So a lot of the writers of color, young thinkers, black women, trans individuals who are creating content for these corporations, they don’t own what they’re putting out there. They’re entirely subject to the corporate ownership of those platforms, and they’re also vulnerable to what that—to all of the harms that that visibility can bring them, whether it’s routine harassment, a lot of, you know, what’s called—what’s attributed to Twitter or something unique to these individual platforms is really just the misogyny and racism that exists elsewhere anyway, and the way that those patterns of oppression replicate themselves, it’s the same sense of entitlements to the ideas and labor and bodies and images of people of color and of women only now it’s on these platforms instead.
And so there’s the micro-level of you know, individuals who are then subject to something that’s as unfortunately routine as harassment to being stalked online, from online to their real-world lives, having their addresses revealed and released, having their pictures taken and circulated without their consent. These patterns then also—and those vulnerabilities are also present for anyone trying to produce independent alternative projects, and what I’m seeing with the rise of a different form of digital DIY culture is the foreclosure of indie culture and that means that sure, it may seem exciting to have a website that you describe as a magazine, or to kick start a project or to, you know, connect potential audiences or consumers to the thing that you want to put out into the world, you don’t—no longer need the same skillset, you don’t need to be a coder, you don’t need to be a manufacturer, you can just use the apps and websites that are now designed to do that for you, to fill those gaps, right?
But that, I mean for New Inquiry, that’s not that. We when we first started didn’t need our own payment processing system, Amazon payments existed and that meant complete vulnerability to the whims of Amazon and the potential that the minute that they decide to no longer offer the service that our project is built on, we would be dead in the water, and it was only narrowly that we escaped that reality recently because when I became editor in chief one of the first things I wanted to do was get away from Amazon and it just so happened that they did in fact decide to end the service that we were using and we just barely in the nick of time were able to transition to something else.
But there is no real solution to that vulnerability because as anticorporate as you may want to be, you may be forced to engage in the corporations that are now the intermediators between your production, your creation, and your audiences and you can see that across social web and so as much as social web has motivated, propelled real shifts in media and publishing, it’s producing new kinds of cooptions and oppressions. So one of the things you may be familiar of is the way Facebook treats its users and when I talk about community I think about what it means for people to get together online the most basic sense of the word and what community means to the people that own the platforms that everyone is getting together at, right?
So capital-c Community means something very different are than Twitter, Facebook, publications like BuzzFeed or means something very different to them than it does to the people getting to know each other on these platforms. And the behavior that that—that’s encouraged the ideology that gets subsequently produced, there’s a very friction-full exchange there. It’s not as—I mean people who are on Facebook aren’t there with the assumption that they’re you know passive participants in the maze that this corporation, the lab rats in this corporation’s maze but increasingly the way Facebook talks about its users is just that, it’s a sense that these people can fit into the algorithms we produce as much as the numbers Facebook uses to produce its algorithms.
And the fact that what you see on your timelines is something that Facebook designs, so for a publication that’s sharing articles, Facebook at its own whims decides what gets promoted, what gets seen in people’s newsfeed, what doesn’t based on the words that they’re into that day and the number of likes and shares on Facebook have less to do with perhaps that piece of content than the way that Facebook has decided it’s going to be presented to you.
There’s slightly different pattern of that same social control that happens on platforms like Twitter and Tumblr. These spaces were increasingly just shortening the gap between, you know, the cultural production of cool by the alternative and its cooptation by corporations, and essentially at ever-increasing rates, teaching corporations to be more efficient at advertising to us, because we’re with our communities being so public, inviting them to take even more detailed essentially, you know, snapshots of the ways in which people are making their community and mimic those patterns in order to better advertise to us.
So you see on Tumblr promoted posts being designed to look like any other Tumblr post but they inevitably stand out quite starkly because the language and image style that they’re relying on is one that was produced and people are familiar with because they made it themselves with references that are relevant to their own community and it’s very, very obvious when someone who’s not part of your community tries to do that, thinking of all the slang generated by you know, black teens on Vine that way way later will eventually move to white and nonblack communities and then a Denny’s Twitter account telling you that their pancakes are on fleek.
So what is cool and not cool has become markedly accelerated and that cooption is not what’s interesting. Advertisers being corny because they’re a day late and a dollar short is only interesting because it’s good for a laugh. What is interesting is that within the surveillance state, that acceleration reveals the relationship that these platforms, which we always forget are just actually corporations, are you know, mistaken for these bastions of democracy.
When the social web was first blowing up and places that couldn’t really be described as digital natives, places like CNN and other media outlets were quickly trying to catch up investing so many resources and having, you know, robust online presence, and the subject of community engagement, you know, became an entire department that media outlets have, what is interesting about that is all of the voices that make these spaces vibrant and interesting and worth being on, because they’re offering commentary you won’t get elsewhere because they’re breaking news on the ground, that other outlets are slowly struggling to get at.
At the end of the day, they’re only more—they’re only producing for free all of the methods that places that have always had money and always had reach and resources are able to use and I think this is more insidious than simple cooption because the Internet is supposed to be a force that’s more democratic, supposed to be a force that produces more connectivity and community, who is it ultimately connecting?
And visibility in a surveillance state is not power, and all of the historical vulnerabilities that have existed for marginalized voices are simply migrating onto digital spaces and all of the exciting and vital work that people are doing to make their lives a little easier to bypass or life hack all of the deficiency in you know, their workplaces or classrooms or day to day experiences by connecting or communicating with each other exist in an ecosystem that’s primed for their continued exploitation, that remains in many ways hostile to them, the misogyny that a female academic might encounter at a publication or within our department at school is easily replicated by misogyny you encounter in your Twitter mentions or in the comments section of something you write.
The entitlement to the emotional intellectual labor of people of color that exists in establishment media and academia is easily replicated by the entitlement exercised over these people’s work online, and all of the places that we were meant to subvert by being online, by bypassing traditional, you know, paths that were barred from us by being able to avoid and then eventually make irrelevant gatekeepers to genres like cultural criticism, those gains have to be seen in light of the fact that all of this exciting interesting work, whether it’s done, you know, whether it falls within the category of cultural criticism, or as I was referencing earlier, communities dedicated to helping each other live a little bit more honestly in their public realms, or connect over subjects that would be taboo in their day to day, you know, they—in the—you know, in the long game, these are communities that I’m still really concerned about.
Because all of what can be seen as empowerment, people finally being able to speak and speak to each other and say what needs to be said, I think a lot of what’s called empowerment on the Internet is referring to stories, sharing stories of their own lives and of each other’s and being able to just simply speak. That has not, and I don’t see it under existing conditions, translate to actual power. These are still interactions mediated by corporations. Those corporations and who runs them is still fundamentally the same as—you know it looks just like power has always looked in this country, very white, very male, and very removed from all of the communities and people, people of color, LGTBQ individuals that participate on these platforms, so as much as I’ve appreciated the past few years of all of the rest of us getting to speak and getting to be heard, which is a relatively recent and exciting development, we haven’t reached power that is truly—that can truly compete with historical power structures.
And seeing the same patterns of erasure, violence, entitlement, that exist offline be easily adaptable and have evolved to online spaces and to see that these communities, whether it’s someone bullied by members outside their communities, whether it’s, you know, TCOT activists trying to search your address and circulating your pictures because you’re a Muslim that’s going to bring down America, which is something that any Muslim who tweets online will hear at some point in their life, that’s something that we haven’t yet found a way to evolve, and so all of the words that I found being used to describe this moment in time, and even use myself, things like this is empowering, this is exciting, or for movements like Arab spring or for movements like black lives matter, have to be understood within the fact that ultimately these quote-unquote content creators, whether it’s a makeup reviewer that you know has an audience of millions online or a Twitter user with thousands and thousand of followers and has huge reach, they don’t own what they put out there, because we’re all just running for free these platforms and these are at the end of the day corporations and I think the understanding of the social web as less an organic and natural digital space that we’re all getting together and sort of holding hands around the fire which is kind of the sense for typically marginalized communities, and the world that these communities have been able to generate, there’s no ownership, there’s only again, free labor, and for me, that’s not new, and that’s not encouraging.
And that’s what I hope conferences like this, and the conversations that have thus far been brought to the fore are able to effectively recognize and intervene in. Otherwise, everything that’s exciting about now is, you know, in a few years, going to seem like a lot of applause for very little gain, for the same old. Thank you.
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