The biggest shift of 2014 is the acceptance of social media as a force. Whether or not that force is respected is a question up for serious debate. Since December 2013, when I was challenging people’s laments about the “stream” as the loss of something private and elite, that discussion has become laughably quaint. Hashtags have been called toxic, useless and lazy from the pages of The Nation to the halls of the Ivy League, but now everyone has them. Social media coordinators can make six figures targeting populations who can’t get jobs in the companies trying to reach them. When a timeline can get you killed, there is no argument: online IS a matter of life and death.
Recently, I spoke on a panel at Eyebeam about online abuser dynamics. I struggled with how to describe my view of what we need in social media and tech going forward. I kept saying we need a large-scale how. How did we get here? What systems? Erin Kissane was kind enough to provide me with “forensics”: Who are our friends? What does it mean to be a member of a community? What does it mean to be authentic, and what does authentic cost? 2014 has been a year of examining, extending and reevaluating our connections and our communities. As the social aspect of “social media” bleeds into all of our tech, and all our relationships, what it means to be a member of a community is the question we are asking again and again, even if we don’t know it. As everything goes out the window, can we come up with an answer that not only makes sense, but is something we can live with? And more importantly, can we be honest about how we got there?
From Taco Bell to Bounty to Hamburger Helper, the need to seem hip and part of the community was everywhere in 2014. IHOP was praised in AdWeek for growing its Twitter audience 18% with use of “young” “hip” slang. This slang — fleek, bae — are common instances of AAVE, but this goes unacknowledged by either AdWeek or IHOP itself. The youth voice of these brands is bluntly the black voice. While shared, it is also mocked. In 2014, black users pointed out that while corporate accounts use this lingo, very few of them have any black employees to speak of, and anyone who applied to a job speaking the way the account tweeted would not be hired. The tone has quickly shifted from pleasantly amused to mocking Corporate accounts and entities who are quick to appropriate the voice of a community but slow to support that community in any way.
Across social media, that community is often the black one. Black Twitter has gone from small research interest, to eye-rolling nuisance, to massive research project and relevance reviver. Ahistorical appropriations of enslaved women’s public spectacle to revive failed publicity stunts and condescending grammar lessons have become common attempts to incite a reaction. If 2013 was the year people admitted black people online mattered, 2014 was the year media, business, and academia tried to harness its power… while maintaining dominance. Piers Morgan structured his horrific article not around interactions with black people, but web stats. You may be a force, but a force we can manipulate. While Black Twitter’s reactions have been swift, brilliant and decisive, the future brings concerns. If the “secret” of Black social media as a cultural force is out and accepted, will exploitation and abuse ever be far behind?
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