by Lucie Tomaňová
Since its emergence, social media has been the target of criticism from older generations as well as an unexplainable fascination for the younger generations. Through a very short time, it has transformed society and created significant differences between those who can use it and those who cannot. The ability to immediately share anything worldwide has created opportunities to share news as it is happening and to make content go viral and seen around the globe. Moreover, the use of hashtags as active links to posts with a similar topic has made it easy to navigate the sites to find specific content.
When the Black Lives Matter campaign emerged in 2013, it was social media like Twitter and Facebook that helped the movement grow from a one-city affair into a nation-wide network of collaborators and representatives of the issues of racism and social justice. Sharing of news, videos, and details about demonstrations, marches, and happenings has made the Black Lives Matter movement an unprecedented sensation. An online community of “social warriors” has built a network that the authorities have been unable to take down.
The informality of the internet has given rise to celebrities and leaders from the protests who had not previously been politically active. The hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #StayWoke have created a viral sensation in the speed and breadth of its reach. Even though the bonds between the members of this community were strongly connected to the message of the hashtags, there has been some controversy that has sprung from who is represented, who is not and who should be able to use these hashtags, as the usage of them makes one part of the community.
As the meaning of the term “woke” grew beyond its original meaning, some supporters and users of the original meaning have started to talk about appropriation. This conflict is especially visible between the black community and the white community. As the allegiance to these hashtags is mostly visible on the internet and on respective social media, it is these spheres where the fight is also taking place.
People of the Internet: Society 2.0
In IT’S COMPLICATED: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014), danah boyd¹ compiles almost a decade of research and interviews with teenagers from all over the United States who grew up in the presence of social media. In this book, she makes several claims about how these teenagers connect online through social media as well as how they connect socially offline.
It is widely believed that smartphones make young people more antisocial and keep them from interacting with people in their surroundings. Boyd claims that this is not true. She states that young people are more likely to use the smart technologies as a pretext for communication while in the company of peers and, later on, as a means of communication to prolong the experience of interaction online by chatting and sharing photos (14-17).
Boyd further says that it is usually the older people, in the age of the parents of those she interviewed, who use phones as an excuse from a conversation or a distraction from present happening (15). The different experience of the online world for these generations form a precedent of misunderstanding and possible conflict between the two. There are, of course, exceptions as there always are young people who do not quite grasp the online social reality as their peers or older individuals who go hand in hand with the modern world.
The ability to connect without physically meeting and communicating without speaking has reformed the idea of building one’s identity since nowadays, everyone who is online has at least two identities: the real-world one for the immediate surroundings, and the online one which can be also different on each type of social media. Throughout the book, boyd points out that not only does social media provide a space to share the identity outside the family connections and to define oneself as an independent individual standing only for themselves, their beliefs, and their conscious choices, but also the dilemma of having to mediate between different audiences continually.
Those, whom the messages and statuses are aimed at, have to share a similar context to understand the message. However, it is not guaranteed that in such a vast public space, the message will only be understood and delivered to those who are part of this context. Boyd presents the idea that the communities created online are possible to be defined by the definition of “imagined communities” introduced by Anderson in Imagined Communities (1983). Boyd’s idea of this community is global and includes the entire social media ecosystem, but she adds that in the broad community of the social media, there are also smaller communities (boyd 21-25) that share similar context (boyd 47-53).
Being part of such a community is part of one’s identity, and there is a shared consensus on “the style in which they [the communities] are imagined” (Anderson 6), and therefore the members of the community have to share certain similarities. From Anderson’s definition, the community is limited mostly by the existence of other communities that work on different sets and areas (7). Although the area of an online community might always be the Internet, it still has parts that are entered by only a narrow part of the occupants. Anderson’s official definition and boyd’s rather modern twist on it share many similarities but also have a number of differences that correspond to the way identities are viewed now (boyd’s book was published in 2014) and the way they were viewed in 1983 when Anderson first published Imagined Communities.
Good Phrasing Makes the Hashtag Go Round
In 2013, when the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets, it was assembled under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter that gave name to the cause and carried the message of the activists. In the documentary “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement documentary (2016)”, Patrisse Cullors states that she has only just learned about the existence of hashtags when she added it under Alicia Garza’s “A Love Note to Black People” which contained the text without the hashtag. By adding the hashtag, Cullors created a link that would serve as a connection among the posts that bore the same message. The particular phrasing of the linking hashtag has given rise to a viral sensation and connected activists and sympathisers all across the Facebook platform and other media. Jason Abbott writes about such phenomenon in Electronic Democracy in which he states:
Such connectivity and the speed with which those connections can now be utilized has given rise to the phenomenon of going viral – a term used to describe when a piece of internet content is shared at such a rapid rate that it quickly becomes ubiquitous, often crossing from the new media into the traditional media and the public consciousness. Thus, although most social media posts get relatively little notice, some capturing the zeitgeist, go viral and have an enormous impact. (84)
The odds of a piece of content getting so much attention on the Internet are very low, it is usually also a fast-passing trend. The documentary offers screenshots of other posts that use more specific hashtags connected to the names of the respective accounts or names of the victims of the shooting that started the movement. However, none of these has had such impact as the all-embracing #BlackLivesMatter.
The commentary in the video is from those who actively participated in the movement and who were there when it took its current form. In 2013, all of these activists were in their twenties or early thirties and therefore are part of the Millennial generation – a generation that is, besides other things, defined by coming of age in the Information Age. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor voices the doubts of by-standers about the amount of online activity that took place during the start of the movement when she states: “People are really beginning to ask the question: ‘Is this just young people that are playing out on Twitter and on Facebook? Is this legitimate activism? Or is it just people using their phone? Is this a moment or a movement?’” (04:32) Specifically, the last question she poses marks the common fleetingness of online trends to which #BlackLivesMatter seemed to belong. This was not the case of this trend, as more and more action took place and activists used the hashtag to share more information about what is currently happening about the vividly racially oriented police brutality and sharing their reactions to it. Twitter and Facebook became discussion forums about what the attitude of this newly formed online community is and what the next step should be. The hashtag led users of social media to content that provoked emotion and action.
The community provoked uprisings in the places where most shooting incidents had happened, and the number of participants gradually grew. The need to participate in this cause was rooted in the instinct to be part of a community that they grew up with (boyd 21) and with the influence that the social media naturally has Abbott shares specific data in Electronic Democracy:
In particular Internet users are nearly two and a half times more likely to have attended a political rally, 78 per cent more likely to have attempted to influence someone’s vote, and 53 per cent more likely to have reported voting or intending to vote than non-Internet users. Additionally, a Facebook user who visits the site multiple times per day is over five times more likely to have attended a meeting than a non-Internet user, 2.79 times more likely to talk to someone about their vote, and 2.19 times more likely to report voting. (86)
From boyd’s research and the “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement documentary (2016)” it is clearly visible that participants of this movement are ever present on social media and constantly in touch with happenings online. The likelihood of them attending a march or a protest is very high.
Picture Says a Thousand Words
As the movement gained popularity, so did its representatives: mostly those who were prominent on social media and shared the most popular statuses and tweets that were consumed by the #BlackLivesMatter audience. One of such people is DeRay McKesson who often streamed live videos from the events. Farida Vis et al. take to analyse one precise photograph of McKesson which took the Internet by storm not only for McKesson being arrested on it, but also by wearing a T-shirt with the Twitter logo and the phrase ‘#STAYWOKE’ directly connected with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and thus linking the social network to the event:
When McKesson travelled from Minnesota (where he then lived and worked) to Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 to join demonstrations against the police killing of Michael Brown, his response was to live-tweet these protests. This involved him publicizing these events at a national level. In the process, McKesson began to gain prominence as a national figure identified with BLM [Black Lives Matter]. (256)
Following this event, the cropped version of the photo was not only shared online but also in traditional print media and on TV news. McKesson gained a wide audience and went from being a school administrator to published author, podcaster and a social media influencer. Other such prominent figures were the three founders of Black Lives Matter Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi who are all women and two of them identify as queer (Dalton).
You Can’t Use That: #Controversial
As judicial proceedings to prosecute police officers were taking weeks and months to reach a verdict, more shooting incidents were happening, going online and being viewed and shared, the movement needed to keep people engaged. After a while, a new hashtag was added to #BlackLivesMatter. In her critical text “Watching the Woke Olympics” Maya Binyam writes: “Black Twitter began using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and urging their followers to “stay woke” — to remain vigilant, but also to keep safe.” To stay woke meant to keep watching the cases the community was fighting for and against, to stay aware and not fall asleep on endless days without change. The #StayWoke hashtag later transformed into a shorter #woke and changed its meaning, as different communities approached it.
Amanda Hess writes in “Earning the ‘Woke’ Badge” that “These days, it has become almost fashionable for people to telegraph just how aware they have become. And this uneasy performance has increasingly been advertised with one word: ‘woke.’ Think of ‘woke’ as the inverse of ‘politically correct.’” What has been part of the identity of a community has become a mainstream trend. Originally, coming from the black community and to the black community as a warning to be aware of the racial and social injustice, the phrase became a global sensation and disconnected itself from the original context. Afrin Ahmed writes about what the term means to her as a queer person of colour and criticizes the members of the “white community” for misusing the phrase: “But, like so many things that belong to or originate from Black communities, the origins of woke are often lost on middle-class, white, privileged teens who adopt it as a trendy ‘aesthetic’ without considering the meaning behind it.”
Ahmed expresses the same distaste to white people linking themselves to the movement that is all about black people, just as Amanda Hess and Maya Binyam do in their articles on this topic. The sense of misappropriating a defined identity and trying to steal it is present in all three texts. Later on in the article, Ahmed writes that it does not matter what race a person is but that it is more important to know and to stand for what they say when claiming to be ‘woke’. She also says that following the term on social media has led her to follow specific personas connected to the movement and movements connected to it, such as feminism.
Ahmed’s experience of following the hashtag and finding a cause that she identifies with is a journey of discovery that is similar to that of many young people who learn about social injustice on social media. “There are intersecting parts of my identity that I can’t talk about with most people but it’s different when I’m speaking to someone who is woke” claims Ahmed three years after the Black Lives Matter movement showed how social media, if used correctly, can help fight injustice. Clicking on the hashtag #woke gives Ahmed and anyone else an opportunity to find people who express the same interests and beliefs concerning the system. Whether the term is added to the post for this reason or to get more attention is up to the level of critical thinking, and media literacy that boyd says is not too high, not even among the children of the Internet Age.
In Conclusion and Further into Future
Using social media as a platform to fight social injustice and to counter traditional news outlets – the truthfulness of which has been questioned by some – has helped the Black Lives Matter movement earn a prominent place among the loudest voices against the mistreatment of black people. With leaders who have come of age in the Internet Age and through the power of creating a message that speaks to those who shared and still share similar experiences, the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter, #StayWoke and later #woke have bound these people into an online community that provided a connection to the centre of the action which could also be experienced in the real-time. Thus, even those who were not present at the first protests learned what it was like directly from the present sources. The social media used in this context has provided a stable network for the young people involved.
The outcome of the movement was a new representation of those previously oppressed, a stronger voice in the issues prevailing for far too long and a secure place to turn to for those who needed it. Even though there still are ongoing problems regarding appropriation of using the phrases of the movement, the action has provided a new way to self-identification in the online sphere for those who care about political correctness and justice. The online space, being still quite young, has been shown to be a useful tool to support political and social causes for those who are not directly involved in their legislative creation and to give such people the voice they have been missing.
This article, however, does not cover the issues that social media might bring when it comes to the social media provider appropriating content to support certain political views or specific candidates. As these scandals are only getting newly uncovered and the policies are still being developed, there is space for a future revision of this specific media phenomenon behind this movement.
This article is a revised version of a final paper which the author submitted as a requirement in her Master’s degree course at the Masaryk University in Czechia.
1 Boyd’s whole name is stylised in lowercase, however, when it occurs at the beginning of a sentence it is capitalised (boyd, danah. “a Bitty Auto-Biography / a Smattering of Facts.”a Bitty Auto-Biography / a Smattering of Facts, 2006, www.danah.org/aboutme.html.)
boyd, danah. Je to složitější: sociální život teenagerů na sociálních sítích. Praha: Akropolis, 2017. Print.
Abbott, Jason. “Social Media.” Electronic Democracy, edited by Norbert Kersting et al., 1st ed., Verlag Barbara Budrich, Opladen; Berlin; Toronto, 2012, pp. 77–102. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvddzwcg.7.
Vis, Farida, et al. “When Twitter Got #Woke: Black Lives Matter, DeRay McKesson, Twitter, and the Appropriation of the Aesthetics of Protest.” The Aesthetics of Global Protest: Visual Culture and Communication, edited by Aidan McGarry et al., Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2020, pp. 247–266. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvswx8bm.18.