Attacking the Stream

Attacking the Stream

For many social media critics, the “stream” and its never-ending rush of information are getting overwhelming. But as these critics pine for a return to a calmer, more curated media world, they fail to consider the voices that the old-guard media left out—women of color, for example. People like me.

In a December 2013 article in the Atlantic, Alexis C. Madrigal describes 2013 as “The Year ‘the Stream’ Crested.” In characterizing “the stream,” Madrigal defaults to a simple analogy: “The New York Times on Twitter or Facebook or the Times Wire? That’s the Stream. The New York Times paper or homepage? Not stream.” Are you immersed and connected (in the stream) or distant and directed (taking in traditional mass media)? It’s a binary that’s been around for at least four years, since Erick Schonfeld urged TechCrunch readers to “Jump Into The Stream” in 2009.

For critics like Madrigal, the stream and its never-ending rush of information are getting overwhelming. But as Madrigal pines for a return to a calmer, more curated media world, he fails to consider the voices that the old-guard media left out—women of color, for example. People like me. While Madrigal sees the stream as a gaping maw of “nowness,” with platforms acting as semi-competent filters for an onslaught of information, I see the arrival of the stream as one of the first instances of a medium that allows me to reliably interact with material that matters to me. The stream that disquiets Madrigal is really a flood, and it has burst open the gates of established media, bringing with it things that do not fit so neatly in that locked box.

For the tech industry, meanwhile, my experience and the experiences of those like me are relegated to little more than “data points” in a sea of “content creation.” It’s remarkable, for an industry whose business model is defined by precise analysis of demographics, how poorly tech responds to its new constituencies. A tech culture that continually centers on you is a charming dilemma; I’ve never faced it. Only recently have sites and communities that recognize me been granted any strong traction.  

As part of a tech demographic, I’ve had the deep delight of existing in both the forefront and background of platform creation and adoption. As a 2005 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania—one of the Ivies that got early access to Facebook—it was easy for me to keep in contact with the members of my cohorts in elite education. But I was born in one of the poorer areas of New York City, and it was three years after graduating before I would be able to reliably contact anybody from my neighborhood online.

In addition to being a bit of a sci-fi nerd and theoretician while black, I was a proud member of LiveJournal communities around race, gender, and representation. Around the same time I graduated, I began blogging squarely at the intersections of race and gender issues. The lack of tech platforms that met my needs as someone navigating multiple identities coincided very neatly with a lack of content on any platform that represented my interests. So as recommended by the mythology of our technological neoliberal age, I made my own. My singular self-run blog made a couple of best-of lists, got cited in a few theses, and powered me to some panels. But in the feminist community where I set up shop, the amplified voices still matched the dominant voices in the conventional media: predominantly white or white-acceptable, branded, and consumable. The pre-stream Internet that Madrigal pines for was a place where popularity and visibility correlated to the values dominating society at large.

As an Internet veteran, 2013 felt to me not like an overload but a messy yet necessary rectification. Discontented with hiding behind platforms guided by the anonymizing logic of big data, users pushed themselves back into the forefront. Unfettered access opened the possibility of community building and sharp analysis from previously silenced voices.

Nowhere was this more obvious than on Twitter. Twitter has a strong black presence, with one-third of all black Americans online participating regularly, according to Pew Internet Research. While Black Twitter has been extensively studied in academia since as early as 2008, media engagement with Black Twitter has been limited to little more than listicles until recently. And what media attention it has gotten does not touch on explorations of diasporic black identities through hashtags like #ShamelesslyCaribbean and #ShamelesslyHaitian.

From one incarnation to another, Black Twitter’s power lies in being adept at communicating within and across the stream. How? One method is hashtags. Designed to quantify trends, hashtags are a convenient tool for business, but they have also become political and editorial organizing tools. Hashtags channel communal ideas and shared experiences; they introduce new ideas and focus discussions. From Paula Deen’s racism to Collegiate Bowl games, they allow you to follow what is important to you.

The media establishment is used to regulating conversations. For those who have long had the resources and access to make their voices heard, this new web is daunting.

Beyond cementing communal ties, hashtags have been called on to draw communities out of the margins and into a visible center—including communities that barely register in mainstream demographic analysis. Take Asian Americans: although Asian Americans make up 6 percent of the total population according to the 2012 census, Pew Internet does not report their statistics for Internet usage at all. Meanwhile, Asian-American voices online have become increasingly hard to ignore. Suey Park’s #NotYourAsianSidekick trended and was a springboard for discussions about Asian-American identity all around the web.

Hashtags have also been battlegrounds, as exemplified by the recent “Twitter wars” within feminism. The most impactful hashtag thus far has been #solidarityisforwhitewomen, which brought its own demographic—women of color—together around the lack of response to their issues by established online feminists and organizations. Introduced by Mikki Kendall in August 2013, it sparked panels and articles, and is still a major talking point across colleges and universities as well as on Twitter.

Earlier in 2013, Kendall had been one of the many outspoken critics of the #femfuture hashtag, which, drawing on a white paper by Valenti Martin Media (with support from Barnard College), sought to capture tech “innovation” to create a space for feminist leadership. Designed to aggregate and encourage women’s tech usage, it focused on a pre-selected group whose makeup reflected not the demographics of women online but the predilections of the conveners. #Femfuture defined the future around the same imagination lock-in that caused tech to be baffled by the stream’s surge in 2013. The report and the hashtag that followed overestimated how much women were moved by innovation. You wouldn’t know it from the #femfuture paper, but women have been online for a long time, and they were less interested in being marked as a technological elite than they were desperate for a feminism that acknowledged their lived realities.

Today’s deluge of information stems not merely from new platforms but from the ability of more people to get into formerly closed spaces and to share experiences with those like them—as well as to confront those who are not like them. While large tech companies seem willing to respond to and exploit this change as it happens, the media establishment continues to fight it. That these new communities and exchange methods drive up stats isn’t enough to make them respected as political forces, even as they are exploited in advertisements and marketing.

Sara Kendzior’s “When Mainstream Media is the Lunatic Fringe” captures a disturbing journalistic response to the ways in which the stream is expanding media conversation beyond accepted roles. From judging cancer patients to outing transgender people (and even prompting one trans woman’s suicide), the responses from old-guard journalists to the stream’s uprooting of media hierarchy has been vicious. When Suey Park initiated #CancelColbert to protest the Colbert Report’s use of anti-Asian racism in its spoof of the Washington football team’s racist mascot and opportunistic foundation, several journalists’ responses ignored her reasoning and methodology in favor of baseless attacks on her right to speak at all.

The media establishment is used to regulating conversations. For those who have long had the resources and access to make their voices heard, this new web is daunting. It’s a madhouse of shouting and unpredictability. But for those of us who have no other options and have spent centuries doing whatever it takes to build the communication networks we need, it works. When it stops working, we’ll move on. We don’t expect technology to conform to our consumption habits; we adapt to the platforms we’re given and make them our own.

When people mourn an inability to have “meaningful conversations,” what they are saying is, “I have not learned to talk to you and don’t feel I should have to.” Katha Politt may see Twitter as a “poisonous well of viciousness and bad faith.” I experience Twitter as one of the few platforms where a man who abused me for years can be challenged openly, and where my experiences as a multiracial black immigrant child are valued internationally. When Nation writer Michelle Goldberg repeatedly attacks Twitter discourse as “toxic,” she misses a basic truth, captured in Brittney Cooper’s brilliant analysis: the emergence of strong and passionate voices of color is not about anything but their own development.

Does it matter that our spaces of communication are operated by mega-corporations and tracked constantly by the government? It may seem naive to talk about tech after 2013 without talking about the NSA. But for those of us in marginalized communities, surveillance is a part of life that we have long been accustomed to. We know we are being watched and measured. Unlike many who bemoan a more innocent era of tech, we have come to accept those conditions because they were practiced on us first. So rather than falling into a fight or flight mentality, we find the cracks in the infrastructure and break through them.

In the process, we remold the technology itself. We ground it in our communities. And we turn it into a tool not only for communication, but for survival. I don’t want to get to the end of Ulysses, necessarily. I may just want to make sure one more black child doesn’t die in vain.

And that’s what it comes down to: survival. We can analyze it to death but ultimately we are using tech to survive, just as the government is using it to kill people. No matter what tools and platforms we are given, we will be ourselves, and we’ll keep fighting—to defend our block, our family, our identity. Twitter or no Twitter, we’ll keep raising hell.

Sydette Harry writes as a philosophy and performs as a healing practice. She’s @blackamazon on Twitter.