This is the first essay Adroit will be publishing as part of our new CRITICAL ESSAYS feature on our blog.
When my former partner passed away, I mourned on Facebook through an account I have since deactivated, a corpse of my former self, quasi-embalmed. Prior to our knowledge of his death, he was missing and the search was organized and communicated publicly through shared posts, email, multi-user threads, and YouTube videos. The posters and news articles, and later, obituary, are all available through a simple Google search. They appear alongside the articles he wrote as the editor of our college’s arts and culture magazine, and alongside his SoundCloud account with audio-recorded interviews and notes, vocal melodies, and instrumentation produced through online software. We were left with his belongings, and perhaps more hauntingly, his old files. He is now archived, scintillating in cyberspace, a kind of afterlife.
As I write this, the world is in the midst of a global pandemic. I am quarantined in my apartment in Portland, Oregon. Businesses and schools have closed and the president has declared a state of emergency; but tonight, I will log into Instagram at exactly 9pm to listen to Stephen Steinbreink’s live stream bedroom concert. Yesterday, someone I have not personally met sent me PDFs of readings from Lauren Berlant, Garrett Hardin, Hito Steyerl, and Fred Moten; and I bought groceries for neighbors who approached me online even though they live less than a mile away. There are grants circulating for freelancers, virtual workshops, meetups through video conferencing platforms, remote learning pedagogy, voluntary donations to craftspeople, artists, and musicians, the appearance of robust mutual aid support groups, and a network of volunteer “messengers” across the United States to minimize the need for vulnerable populations or infected individuals to enter public spaces. Emergencies such as these demonstrate the potentials of social media to form and maintain vast-reaching, interdependent networks.
The necessity of web communication during the months my partner was missing radically altered my view of “going online.” Suddenly, the Internet was more than a beacon of pleasure and information, but a virtual trove with infinite potentialities for human interaction. As Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes, disability justice activists have long used web 1.0 for anti-capitalist politic, cross-movement solidarity, interdependence, collective access, and liberation. However, the Internet can likewise be an acquisitional and dispossessive enterprise. I wonder how we interact and organize mindfully when the transactional nature of cloud computing allows data to remain accessible in the public domain, how the steady accrual and dispersal of personal information into the hands of private-business is a threat to our subjective, cognitive, and political environments.
In Richard Prince’s “New Portrait” series, the renowned contemporary painter and photographer appropriated and reprinted Instagram posts in large format for a gallery. It is an act that Prince decries as “fake art,” yet the images he stole from various handles have spurred mixed reactions from both targeted and non-targeted viewers. The outrage in response to his exhibit is testament to the slipperiness of authorship, creative labor, and the performative nature of identity on social media. The Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit responded to the protests of Prince’s non-complying subjects and stated, “Where do our expectations and perceptions around privacy and consent lead us when using social media? What are you consenting to when posting?” (Or, what are you consenting to when logging on?) This redirect on behalf of the gallery echoes a question put forward by poet-scholar Jennifer Scappettone in her essay, “Aeolian Harping,” about presentism in the digital era: “What species of political and ethical complicity must we reckon with when participating in the global network, with its networks of data extraction, storage, and surveillance, and how can we respond critically?” Additionally, what tensions exist between a body and a virtual self, especially as they pertain to human ethics and allyship in our contemporary moment? (The Anti-Oppression Network, an online forum and coalition of individuals and grassroots organizations, define allyship as the following: “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group.” They emphasize that it is not an identity, but an active and intentional process of exercising responsibility.)
This is a three-part essay for those of us who feel not only exhausted by online discourse, but hoodwinked by its false promise to simplify lives and ease communication. It is for web designers who are seeking inspiration for new models, coders who are curious about structural oppression, political organizers dismantling the normative-discursive environment of social media, and the influencers and profiteers who are oblivious or apathetic to not only their privilege, but complicity, as well. It is for anyone who remains unsure that the Internet is a tool of the state. I am not a critical race, decolonial, or queer theorist, nor a scholar in disability justice, but throughout this essay I find valuable critiques through each of these lenses. In order to investigate subjectivity online, I want to frame social media as a spatial discipline by illuminating several examples, including––but not limited to––generative refusal of the white gaze in the social politics of activist Layla Saad, culturally specific configurations of the self demonstrated by performance and media artist Molly Soda, textual borderlands in the decolonial poetics of Layli Long Soldier, and cyborgian transgressions in the films of David Cronenberg. In consideration of these examples, I intend to discuss cybernetic identity as performative and a dangerous but necessary form of hybridity.
Algorithmic and Affective Mapping
I would like to frame social media as a map, because mapping is a convenient metaphor to understand how we move through or along a network of relations via SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages), or by tracking networks of individuals and how they convene. SERPs can be organic (generated by algorithm) or sponsored (generated by advertisement). Results are ranked by relevance, often determined largely by keywords and browsing history. Competition between search engines has led to contextualized searching––the refinement of results based on their value specific to an individual user. Developers are perfecting the automatically inferred context of a search; e.g., Google’s ability to determine results by tracking a user’s previous queries and their selected result suggestions. Furthermore, voice searches (as opposed to type searches) allow SERPs to dictate results based on intonation, ethnicity, accent, and even background noise. Therefore, the leap between search and result is intentional, crafted, and based on pattern and influence; this is where the users must be concerned, because the progression from point A to point B involves a variety of usurpations, censoring, rerouting, preferential shuffling, and other highly personalized interventions on behalf of advertisers, data miners, and corporate and/or government influencers. This interruption and capture is especially the case as SERPs further personalize results to enhance user satisfaction. In Algorithms Of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble researches the cause and effect of data discrimination for the private interest of Internet search engines. Early on in the book, Noble argues against cyberian John Perry Barlow’s utopic ideals outlined in his renowned “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” She says that the web is not just an intangible space:
[The world wide web is] also a physical space made of brick, mortar, metal trailers, electronics containing magnetic and optical media, and fiber infrastructure. It is wholly material in all of its qualities and our experiences with it are as real as any other aspect of life. Access to it is predicated on telecommunications companies, broadband providers, and Internet service providers (ISPs). It’s users live on Earth in a myriad of human conditions that make them anything but immune from privilege and prejudice, and human participation in the web is mediated by a host of social, political, and economic access points– both locally in the United States and globally.
Noble addresses Silicon Valley’s denial of racialized data discrimination. This power differential is evidenced through search engine results of keyword searches. The racial and sexual tropes that appear as “relevant” search outcomes reinforce profoundly problematic constructs of group identities. As Noble so aptly states, “[Data discrimination evidenced in search engine results] underscores how much engineers have control over the mechanics of sense making on the web about complex phenomena.” Parallel to the operations of SERPs, there is a textural surface generated through the multiplicity of engagements that develop between users. I argue that, due to this algorithmic oppression as evidenced by Noble, our online engagements in fact do not take place in a democratic landscape.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick writes of a Deleuzian interest in planar relations and “the irreducibly spatial positionality of beside,” to be beside is non-dualistic, spacious, and agnostic compared to the hierarchical implications of beneath or beyond. “Its interest does not, however, depend on a fantasy of metonymically egalitarian or even pacific relations, as any child knows who’s shared a bed with siblings.” Social media, as a spatial discipline, offers generous opportunities to be beside one another. This can be a gift. It is neither egalitarian, nor pacific, per se, despite Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s note, titled “Bringing the World Closer Together” (c. 2017). Here, Zuckerberg says that the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century can be solved through social media communication and distribution of knowledge as an alternative for the top-down decision making of government policy. Social media allows users to access a wider audience––and therefore mutual aid and decentralized news sources are possible. Yet, it hardly resembles the proto-utopic vision put forth by Zuckerberg, that hierarchical dimensions remain at play on social media.
I do not include conservative ideals in my personal utopia, but I think it is important to observe how seemingly unbiased sources represent information for the public. Facebook has proven to exhibit and perpetuate an anti-conservative bias on its platform, and this has been proven through commissioned studies that surveyed, per Kerry Flynn, “content distribution and algorithms, content policies, content enforcement, ad policies, ad enforcement, workforce viewpoint diversity.” However, the website (and social media at large) does allow an opportunity for “desiring, identifying, resenting, repelling, paralleling” one another more acutely, I argue, than if the human population lived without it (Sedgewick, again).
While I view social media as a necessary groundwork for mediated awareness and dialogue surrounding contemporary politics, the hyper-visibility of a dense network that algorithmically deduces a user’s social relevance is (at the same time) discriminatory. As a result, shame is a commodifiable affect—whether through the shaming of other users based on a perceived lack of credibility, the shame of being overlooked and devalued based on crude interpretations of human value (such as “likes”), or the shame of a reinforced stereotype through preemptively biased search engine results. Even as a spectator scrolling posts, comments, or photos, I experience the complexity of being beside someone else, or complicit as a spectator. Social media is highly subjective, yet ironically imitive. In mainstream channels, a lack of aesthetic competence can debilitate a user and potentially negate their perspective, but this type of unconscious, critical assessment is a collective act.
However individualized a profile presents itself to be, an online persona is fragmented, ephemeral, coded, and is defined not only through and by its interactions, but the structures of oppression reinforced by advertisers. With this in mind, as Sedgewick explains while acknowledging a stigma or debility, while online I become suffused by an exterior perception, and “suffusiveness [itself] seems to delineate my precise, individual outlines in the most isolating way imaginable.” This happens, as Forbes reports, in the span of eight seconds (the average recorded attention span on a device), while the daily average of time spent online per day is around roughly two and a half hours. For those of us that are prone towards habitually checking for new posts, tweets, likes, mentions, snaps, stories, etc. we are actively re-presenting our moment-to-moment experiences, and in doing so, our mental states are partly constituted by the states of other users. This means that the maps that form online have implications for the non-virtual world as well as the virtual. This is apparent to me when I am contacted by my local mutual aid group, who I learned about through Instagram, and—after completing a Google Doc intake questionnaire—was asked to deliver food items from the food bank to the doorsteps of several houses in my neighborhood. This is also apparent to me while at the dog park: between throws, I am struck by the selfie of a friend who I have never met, and something about their caption lingers with me until my walk home. Meanwhile, I have become somewhat numb to any new posts that point out the lack of leadership exhibited by Trump during this unprecedented health crisis. The state of suffusion can prompt perilous predictions for communal experience; not to mention, suffusion calls into question the possibility of saturation. The point of saturation (I speculate) is the point at which a user, fatigued, performs the motions of being online, but they are desensitized to new inputs and information. Saturation is a precarious hypothetical because it implies vulnerability to intervention and a lack of control. In the metaphor of the map, saturation can lead to dispossession of users from their self-determination.
Vulnerability to intervention, and therefore saturation, is especially disastrous for historically marginalized populations. I would like to offer a comparison between SERPs and affective/interpersonal mapping online with Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Western knowledge systems implemented Traditional Ecological Knowledge in an effort to seek reparation with Native peoples. This is an ideal example of allyship operating during the peak of neoliberalism. I should remind the reader that I am a descendent of settlers and I am not a scholar in decolonial theory; however, I think decolonial theory is helpful in unpacking the power dynamics embedded in spatial disciplines, including social media.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Nishnaabewin activist and scholar, wrote in As We Have Always Done of her time working with professor Paul Driben, an anthropologist from Lakehead University. He had been hired to work with the Anishinaabeg reserve community of Long Lake #58 to create a land-use atlas. At the time, Traditional Ecological Knowledge was widely discussed among policymakers. The idea behind the atlas was that if Driben and his team, which included Simpson, “documented on paper the ways that [Indigenous people] use the land, policymakers would then use the information to minimize the impacts of development on [their] lands and ways of life.” The idea presumed that dispossession occurred due to lack of awareness, rather than systematic oppression, and this error was a product of racial blindness of 1990s white Canadian liberals. Regardless, the map became a process of recording—with permission and leadership of Nishnaabewin elders—sacred sites, stories, traditional names, and gathering spots, as well as sites of trauma. As Simpson wrote, “The overlays showed decade after decade of loss. They showed the why. Standing at the foot of a map of loss is clarity. […] Settlers wanted the land.” It is a realization that, for decades, ownership had been inscribed by an invading, exploitative authority. Even the efforts and intention behind Traditional Ecological Knowledge implemented by the policymakers may have been misdirected. The protection offered through Western institutions is based on a politics of recognition, a neo-colonial narrative that implies amicable participation with the state will retroactively heal centuries of abuse for Indigenous peoples. It is a fallacy. In the land-use atlas of Long Lake #48 and others like it, the agency remains in the hands of the state government. Policymakers are metonymic to the settler nation-state. Similarly, social media is a tool of the white gaze via its use of surveillance technology, investment in capital, and invasive preoccupation with public and private concerns. Since social media is a product of mainstream ethics and political philosophy, it is not compatible with critical development studies and racial justice. As Jamaican philosopher and social critic Charles W. Mills writes, white supremacy is at the heart of our racial contract—like Simpson’s map of loss—especially in instances where raceless notions (like Zuckerberg’s note, Bringing the World Closer Together) predominate:
The ‘Racial Contract’, then, is intended as a conceptual bridge between two areas now largely segregated from each other: on the one hand, the world of mainstream (for example, white) ethics and political philosophy, preoccupied with discussions of justice and rights in the abstract, on the other hand, the world of Native American, African American, and Third and Fourth World political thought, historically focused on issues of conquest, imperialism, colonialism, white settlement, land rights, race and racism, slavery, Jim Crow, reparations, apartheid.… All whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, though some whites are not signatories to it.
Therefore, as technological advancements improve automatically inferred contexts in SERPs, users ought to assume that they function through and within intrinsically racist algorithmic rhetoric. So, fatigue caused by saturation may render social media users less critical of content, and predisposed to the mainstream attitudes and beliefs that are complicit with white nationalism.
If the default mode of operation for computer technology is biased towards “raceless” and racist notions, then it is essential for users, and web developers, to actively consider what it means to be beside one another on multi-user platforms. Oppositional consciousness, coined by feminist theorist Chela Sandoval and defined here by Donna Haraway, is a term that “constructs a postmodernist identity out of otherness, difference, and specificity.” It is the conscious appropriation of erasure as a means of self-defining “negative identities,” or identities that are not historically affirmed within colonialism. (Recollect again the map of loss.)
A clear example of this form of resistant consciousness is a testimonial by writer Layla Saad, a Black feminist writer and speaker. In 2018, after posting about her experiences as a woman of color, she had eight posts reported by outside parties and removed by Facebook authorities. Her words even caused her to be placed in “Facebook jail” for twenty-four hours, which is a juvenile punishment that banned Saad from posting. Saad spoke out, live on Instagram, and later uploaded and shared the video on YouTube under the title “White feminism, white supremacy, and the silencing of black women.” As Saad explains, “I could not understand why me sharing my lived experiences, and me pointing out injustice, oppression, and racism was a violation of community standards.” This censorship is indicative of the cyber policing that occurs in response to the voices of women of color. Saad specifically requested that white people refrain from commenting on certain posts, because she stated that the post did not benefit from the white gaze. Yet, these comments continued despite the disclaimer. What I admire about Saad, in particular, is her agency in self-designating an audience. Saad delineates a boundary that forms and informs a decided contingent, and, in doing so, she undermines Facebook authorities.
Just as crucial to consider as these unwarranted comments are the implications of me sharing her video, especially in relation to Scappetone’s inquiry regarding the ethics of “passive coproduction of the spectacle of information itself afloat from any infrastructure of responsibility.” Coproduction serves as a counterpoint to consumption; however Scappetone’s use of the word “passive” implies that social media users’ frequently re-present experience(s) without praxis, critical examination, or self-reflection. Passive coproduction is made easy through reacting to posts (the use of one-click emojis to express liking, loving, disliking, being saddened/angered by, etc.), sharing (highlighting someone else’s post on your own profile), or following (subscribing to another user’s content and updates). None of these examples resolve contentious issues, but they do enhance their relevance on a public domain. How does passive coproduction counter, or influence, issues of oppositional consciousness?
Passive coproduction may further objectify marginalized identities by treating personal narratives of oppression as property, susceptible to the scrutiny of the white gaze, or susceptible to distortion, manipulation, or belittlement. Others may argue that it unifies a collective awareness around negative identities, and therefore supports efforts in abolition. For example, during the COVID pandemic, the circles I am a part of and follow online are actively self-examining and prioritizing support to BIPOC, trans, disabled, and immunocompromised individuals. One way this happens is through the promotion of Kickstarter campaigns and Venmo handles for those whose struggles are made worse by the current health and economic crisis. However, Saad’s experience, and others like it, conjure questions of reproducibility, censorship, ownership of information (or ownership of content, and therefore, particular voices), visibility without presence, the performativity of passive acquisition, and presupposes a kinship of “followers.” What is beneficial about social media is that voices expressing mainstream and conservative values are able to be in direct exchange with innumerable strangers through comment threads. Their national origins, backgrounds, beliefs, religions, gender expression, and sexuality may collide and form tensions and disagreements; however, such contact has productive potential. Whether perspectives warp or solidify in response, a door is cracked open.
This is the first of a three-part essay. The second segment will be published tomorrow, Thursday, April 23rd. The third segment will be published on Friday, April 24th. You can view a Works Cited page for this and forthcoming segments of this essay here.
Featured image: “Untitled” by Taylor Partee. This image has been modified (mirrored) by Adroit for our use with this essay.