Methodologies V: Using and Analyzing Digital Media Sources

When dealing with social media platforms as spaces of activism these sites can be innovative, powerful, and fast-moving at best, and at its worst chaotic and unfocused. The line between these two distinctions is actually slighter than one might realize. This understanding of cyber activism became clearer when faced with the question “What is contemporary ‘blacktivism’ according to Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/Instagram?”

Being a avid user of the popular blogging platform, Tumblr, and as such well-versed in the language and etiquette of the site, I sought my answer through my dashboard. Tumblr is composed of a endless scroll, comparable to Facebook’s newsfeed, that displays every user you ‘follow”s posts that can consist of either a link, photo, video, mp3, or text file that can be organized by ‘tags’. Like Twitter, there is a give and take between control: you cannot control what users post, but you can control who you follow. You ultimately build up the queue of information displayed on your dashboard.

This rule of thumb on Tumblr already an issue in itself, as it’s not only necessary to have an account to view such information, but it also requires stock knowledge of which users promote social activism the most. Already in this way, Tumblr blacktivism is exclusive in the broader sense of the term.  However because I am an established user of 5 years, this constraint only appeared in my thoughts after my study.

Taking into account the formatting and style of the website (and the advantage of 5 years of knowledge), I began my study of 30 minutes scrolling down my dashboard sure that out of my selected 500 some users one would surely post something under the activism tree. After about a minute of scrolling I saw a linked post that described the new case of Ebola in Liberia as an STD. The random post was one centered on awareness, not truly giving a solution to a possible rebirth of the Ebola crisis. And for a while this was the only post I saw. Because Tumblr is composed as a live feed, the minutes I scrolled down the dashboard before I encountered another post for social justice felt like eons.

It wasn’t until I encountered a post by a rather prominent Tumblr user in both the black and activist circles that my research progressed. This individual posted a series of inforgraphics that described the various levels of Israeli settlement on Palestinian territory, the fraught Palestinian citizenship across Israel and Palestine, and general problematic restriction of Palestinian people. The post was significantly informative as most portrayals of Palestine capitalize on the destruction of the Gaza Strip rather than the conditions that provide for this kind of environment, and the surrounding oppressions widespread through out the country. I then opened up another tab in my web browser to later peruse the user’s account, sure of the rich content in store, simultaneously still looking for another possible user to study. Right underneath their post Micdotcom, an active news source, posted GIFs of Porsha Olayiwola’s  poem that criticizes the misogynoir latent in police brutality discourse and the general dismissal of the pain black women face at the hands of black men.

Having at least two users under my belt and just ten minutes left of study, I decided to quickly delve deeper into each site. The first user’s activism centered mostly on the personal: crowdfunding for a poor black transwoman, a black family nearing homelessness, and written text posts that criticize various tangents of their multiple jeopardies as a queer transman of color. The text posts all had a least a thousand ‘notes’, which consisted of either likes or ‘reblogs’ (when users repost the content to their blogs). Furthermore you could see a constant rapport developing on these text posts that pursued discourse or fermented friendships. On this given users page the queer community of color was strong and accounted for. Switching tabs to Micdotcom, the website served as a curated collection of black internet activism across platforms. Screenshots of tweets raising awareness against recent police brutalities (#JusticeforJason, #SayHerName to name a couple), gifs of award shows and videos, news clips, and original Tumblr user posts decorated the page. Micdotcom served as a hub of generalized activism rather than specific black communal activist space.

It is in this way that Tumblr both triumphs and fails as a platform for social change. On one hand the site is a space for endless possibilities that allow for news sources and user-created online ‘zines to provide a constant stream of information crucial for social justice. These carefully curated hubs of information are a great start for both users and visitors of Tumblr. One does not need membership to view or message the copious amount of blogs present on the site. However their existence does not necessitate the existence of black community on Tumblr, individual users do. One would need to follow both prominent and random bloggers in the black community on Tumblr. These bloggers, your chosen informants, brothers, and sisters dictate your involvement with blacktivism. They raise causes for “Black Tumblr” to rally against, to raise money for, or even formally petition against on “Change.org”. These bloggers can help you through your journey of understanding matrices of oppression in your daily life, as well as navigate questions of gender/sexual/racial identity through direct messages, text posts, photos and videos open for commentary…..provided that you follow them. In addition to this slight oversight black users cannot be streamlined in the fighting of antiblackness. Some users are a part of “Queer Tumblr” or “Transgender Tumblr”or the dreaded “Barbershop Tumblr” (a part of Tumblr which is characterized by pro-black homophobic misogynoiristic users). Various pockets of Tumblr wholesale ignore some oppressions, such as colorism, to maintain their privilege and membership to the black community simultaneously. Tumblr can be a place rife with the schisms that plague physical activist spaces.

Ethical issues aside, in this sort of research Tumblr even fails in organization. Like Twitter it employs the hashtag system to organize posts, in order to make searches easier for users and non-users, however unlike Twitter, these tags are hardly agreed upon and are used liberally. Users sometimes use the tag system to input their commentary to protect the aesthetic integrity of a post. This so-called ‘talking in the tags’ makes for a chaotic black hole of information that can only be retrieved if you search that particular blogger’s archive. Tumblr has the potential to be a mess of epic proportion.

Ultimately Tumblr as a space for cyber black activism continuously toes the line of innovation and chaos. The ample opportunity for commentary and grassroot movement give Tumblr the chance to make virtual spaces of social justice bleed into the real world. However this is constantly mired by the disorganization, petty squabbles between users, and randomization of posts that is present on the site.

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