Being There

How marginalized communities can generate presence through digital circulation

In 2010, The New Yorker published an essay by Malcolm Gladwell called “Small Change” in which he compared online activism with historical examples of activism in the “real world.” He opens his essay with a retelling of a 1960 counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, an event which would become a tipping point for sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement, and contrasts this with the so-called Twitter Revolution after the 2009 Iranian presidential election, in which most of those who tweeted about change were located outside Iran. As Golnaz Esfandiari argues in an Foreign Policy article Gladwell quotes, “There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.”

Gladwell opposed “real-world” activism — hierarchical, organized, and built over time along strong ties — to the decentralized networks of social media activism to deride what we do online as being unreal and with no discernible material effect. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss how online and offline affect and inform each other. Presence and the forms of community exceed a reductive description of either. Online activism has evolved beyond Gladwell’s notion of “Facebook warriors,” especially among traditionally marginalized communities who are able to navigate material spaces through their online activities in novel and space-altering ways. Digital protest, as Zeynep Tufekci argues in Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, has enabled activists to “overcome censorship, coordinate protests, organize logistics, and spread humor and dissent with an ease that would have seemed miraculous to earlier generations.” Tufekci is cautious, identifying possible growing pains and coordination problems in the scale and speed of online organizing. Nonetheless, online organizing cannot be considered merely a distraction or of immaterial consequence.

The questions of who and what is treated as an object or a subject plays out repeatedly in online media coverage of disasters, especially as content is no longer filtered through mainstream media outlets

It’s relatively easy to describe material objects. We can verify them against the data of our senses. Even when we can’t touch them, we have the language to name things and the tools to measure them. Consider the sun, for instance: big, round, white. We can feel it, examine its attributes and behaviors: hot, bright. And we can scrutinize its meaning, assign it cultural value, and devise instruments to measure it. We can assign such objects agency, classify them into groups and subgroups, and compare them with other objects. We can apply scientific method to produce a history, anticipate behaviors, complicate our understanding of these discrete things.

But what of digital objects? These are just as impactful, even if they appear to defy these sorts of empirical approaches. They have agency in the physical world and affect it. To paraphrase Saul Williams in The Dead Emcee Scrolls: “Data matters (becomes matter).” This approach to data materiality is important because it allows us to consider the material effects of our online representations of self (profile pictures, browsing history, social network activity), and how these reshape understandings of what it means to be human. It is an object-oriented approach: It recognizes that objects are not inherently neutral tools waiting to be put to use by humans but instead have agency in their own right, based on the behaviors that they assume and afford. With such an approach, we can focus on humans’ relationships with nonhuman objects, which includes nonmaterial objects like online content, to capture how these relationships feed into how who counts as human and who is entitled to human rights is continually renegotiated. As Sylvia Wynter points out in “No Humans Involved,” the human species “realizes itself as human only by coming to regulate its behaviors, no longer primarily, by the genetic programs specific to its genome, but by means of its narratively instituted conceptions of itself; and therefore by the culture-specific discursive programs, to which these conceptions give rise.” In other words, what is read as “human” behavior is not genetically given but cultural, and to understand culture, the word program in Wynter’s sentence should be considered in all its applications. Our interaction with nonhuman agents — which includes the ways our interactions are constructed and organized through platforms, via search algorithms as well as other means — drives us to define and redefine our humanity, and why we consider certain agents as human subjects.

“Tough on bots. Easy on humans”: Google’s reCAPTCHA helps identify us (and helps us self-identify) as legitimate humans — read: not a robot — because we can respond to a particular online prompt. Similarly, our interactions with a variety of online content co-creates us as human and in the process organizes us into audiences, publics, communities, co-conspirators. But at the same time, these interactions pose the possibility of diminished humanity. Does inputting the wrong text for a CAPTCHA lessen one’s humanity? What does this question mean when approached from a disability standpoint? The questions become only more complex when we consider interactions with the full range of online content, when the expected response and the ramifications of diverging from it are not so clear-cut.

Objects are not inherently neutral tools waiting to be put to use by humans but have agency in their own right, based on the behaviors that they assume and afford

The rate at which online content and its associated data can constitute different groups and different relationships shifts us into unstable territory. The questions of who and what is treated as an object or a subject plays out repeatedly in online media coverage of disasters, especially as content is no longer filtered through mainstream media outlets. Anyone can record and upload, watch and distribute scenes of death. From one perspective, this objectifies the deceased and converts them into “content,” but from another perspective, these events can galvanize the formation of communities around media objects that take on agency as they are circulated.

A hashtag, for example, can produce a specific kind of ephemeral belonging to the specific sorts of groupings it organizes. Hashtags constitute spectacles and manifest audiences for the “events” they convene, which can in turn affect material production or change the way we inhabit space. Eric Garner’s and Michael Brown’s last words became hashtags that connected people and organized protests: #icantbreathe #dontshoot. In the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin, the hashtag #jurorb37 provided momentum and support for the resulting withdrawal of a book deal from one of the jurors in the trial. @FeministaJones’ #youOKsis, called for bystander intervention in incidents of street harassment, animating witnesses to transform public urban streets into safer spaces for women to move through.

My own research into the online activities of women of color activists for social justice in Toronto examined how the content they produced and amplified was imbued with agency. I looked at the way that women like human rights educator and writer Kim Katrin Milan and media host and playwright Amanda Parris used their online activities to support their offline work. There’s something alchemical about the way women of color work – these women transmuted their online activities into tangible physical change. Their online activities resulted in the production of presence, which I have described elsewhere as “the creation, management, and distribution of content and stories that center the marginalized individual and reflect the being-in-the-world of marginalized groups in deliberately authentic and representative ways.” These narratives can counter dominant hegemonic discourses, providing alternate retellings and imaginings of everyday lived experiences.

This goes beyond visibility politics that distract with token presence as indicative of structural change — a passive form of produced presence. When members of marginalized communities engage in the production of change, they are not only showing up but also altering the nature of (urban) space in tangible ways.

If presence is understood in terms of impact rather than mere physical manifestation, it is easier to see how online content can generate presence in ways as powerful as physically showing up at protests is sometimes taken to be. Among the women I studied, the content they generated online was inclusive of them and their communities, reflecting their controlled and often underrepresented narratives. Idil Burale and Hibaq Gelle, two Somali-Canadian women I interviewed, identified their online activities as a vital part of the social activism and community development work they undertook in Toronto, reflecting on their experience in finding communities online to provide them with support, access to resources, and help overcome feelings of isolation. Their work formed different kinds of audiences, publics, communities, and markets (which represented the possibilities of converting their social presence into generating income).

When members of marginalized communities engage in the production of change, they are not only showing up but also altering the nature of (urban) space

Some of these publics are oriented toward the potential for call-and-response or conversational engagement, while some are passive audiences. Some call forth consumerism, while others encourage active public engagement. But belonging to any of these groups convened by content, regardless of the actions they call forth, can be ephemeral — as items move below the fold, tabs are closed, or the user clicks away, the communities to can quickly disappear. The staying power depends on such factors as personal investment (is this an issue one feels strongly about?), proximity to the content (is it produced by someone one can identify with?), and the sort of emotional space it structures (can one express emotions in response, such as outrage or joy?).

In shifting toward an object-oriented approach, new opportunities and possible futures reveal themselves, reflecting what filmmaker John Akomfrah describes as the “digitopic” (digital + utopic) tendencies of technology and data. This encompasses the possibilities presented by the deliberate application of user content to change the material world and access and alter material realities through virtual spaces. But in producing ephemeral communities, internet spaces and digital objects also produce the ethical considerations that stem from those communities: Who owns user-generated content? Who should profit from it, especially on social media networks? How should the boundaries of the communities generated by the content be respected? Ernesto Priego, in a post called “Can the subaltern tweet?” writes that “The effects of colonialism still disempower individuals, often reducing them to roles of consumption rather than production.” So what happens when the producers of content belong to traditionally marginalized groups?

This is difficult to moderate. End user licensing agreements and terms of service establish a platform’s legal rights to any content, regardless of the intent of its producer or the desires of the community such content organizes. Does this extend to exploitive uses that undermine the perception of that content’s integrity — its capacity to sustain the trust that allows it to form communities? These questions are especially pertinent when accessing the content produced by members of marginalized communities. They should not blunt our perception of the potential of digital objects to produce presence and generate critical moments of ephemeral belonging. For those engaged in social justice activism, online content has agency that produces presence. This in turn brings into being communities that are not only receptive to alternative retellings but are ready for calls to action.

Nehal El-Hadi is a writer and researcher whose work explores the relationships between technology, the body, and space. She is based in Toronto, where she is currently the Science+Technology Editor at The Conversation Canada and the Editor-in-Chief of Studio. She tweets @iamnehal.