Online activism is an important part of modern-day activism. However, many people in activist circles on Twitter perform wokeness to gain social currency. By looking at the Black Lives Matter and fourth-wave feminist movements, as well as the 2018 plastic straw debates, I look at how Twitter users fall into the trap of focusing on the performative aspects of activism to gain social currency or relevance.
Many people seem to assume that online activism does not matter. People think that it is lazy, and that it does nothing for enacting change in any tangible way (Simpson, 2018). Online activists are seen as people that are too lazy to get off their devices to instead participate in the types of activism that do matter—like protests, or marches, or writing letters to politicians; the types of activism that raise awareness or change laws and policies. But, online activism is an important component of modern day activism (Simpson, 2018; Zimmerman, 2017). In fact, online activism on Twitter has launched or progressed movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, both of which have encouraged real-world discussions and protests (Simpson, 2018). Because of the accessibility of Twitter many people participate in online activism with actions as simple as retweeting things on Twitter or sharing their opinions with a quick post. People have even gained large followings because of their online activism, such as Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson, who uses the movement as a part of his online identity and has had many opportunities because of his following, such as speaking at a Twitter event (Vis et al, 2019). Although online activists have good intentions, many people speak over the groups they purport to care about in order to gain social currency.
DOES ONLINE ACTIVISM EVEN MATTER?
As mentioned above, many people view online activists as simply too lazy to do any form of activism that actually creates change—how could tweets on Twitter change things? Contrary to what people might believe, online activists understand that older, physical forms of activism, such as protests and marches, are important and participate in them (Simpson, 2018; Vonk, 2019; Zimmerman, 2017). Think of the Women’s March in 2017, or Black Lives Matter protests. Online activism is important because it has a low barrier of entry and is relatively safe (Simpson, 2018). If a person has a Twitter account, they can join in. With a tweet, or even a retweet, they can share their stories, their opinions, or show support for others. They can be a part of a movement even if they live in a rural area hours away from protests or marches, or have reasons they cannot attend such as disability, safety concerns, or responsibilities like children. With Twitter, anybody can make noise; they do not need a march or protest. Movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo began on Twitter. Similarly, things like plastic straws gained such large attention because of Twitter that laws around them have changed (Wong, 2019). These things show online activism, despite popular belief, can actually make a substantial change or raise a lot of awareness for an issue.
Twitter as an organisational tool
Twitter is an important organisational tool for modern activism. According to Simpson (2018), due to the size and accessibility of Twitter and its features like tagging and retweets, it is a useful place for movements to have important “internal” discussions about their issues, as possible as that is with the large size of some movements. People in activist movements use Twitter to talk about how their movement is advancing or evolving, to attempt to make sure as many people within the movement are aware of any new or changed goals, and to try make sure the movement stays unified. This translates into movements being better prepared and more cohesive (Zimmerman, 2017), which is especially helpful in physical spaces such as marches or protests. Primarily, movements keep these conversations organised through the use of Twitter tags (Simpson, 2018), which are not just a way of organising information or categorising tweets. They also allow people to easily join in on a conversation. For example, tweeting or retweeting only a hashtag can communicate to others that they are a part of the group of people affected by the issue, or support others affected by the issue (Simpson, 2018). It allows them to feel as if they are a part of the discussion, to create noise, without feeling like they have to divulge information they are not comfortable sharing or, if showing solidarity, show support without risk of speaking over others. Twitter not only makes activism more accessible, but presents ways of keeping these larger movements organised.
The importance of “woke”ness
Look at the Twitter accounts of young people who identify as politically left-leaning or people who are invested in social justice and you will probably come across the term “woke”. Originating from African-American Vernacular English, “woke” can be understood as a term applied to people who are aware of social justice issues (Vis et al, 2019; Vonk, 2019), particularly to issues regarding race, although this facet is often forgotten (Vonk, 2019). With the widespread accessibility of Twitter, people of colour, people with disabilities, and LGBT+ people are all able to share their opinions and experiences to a potential audience of thousands. In the past, these groups had no way to make their voices heard, or the ways that were accessible to them were easy for people who disagreed to ignore or use against them (Vonk, 2019; Zimmerman, 2017). With the rise of platforms such as Twitter making it easier for anybody to share their experiences and opinions, even things like feminism have changed. Zimmerman (2017) states that previous forms of feminism were largely composed of middle-class white women, and women of colour were either not part of the movement or expected to choose their identity as a woman over their race. However, a major component of fourth-wave feminism that sets it apart from previous waves is intersectionality, which takes into account how a woman’s other identities such as race, ability, sexuality, class, and whether a woman is trans would affect her experiences (Zimmerman, 2017). Because of this concept of intersectionality, fourth-wave feminism works in tandem with this modern concept of wokeness—this importance of being aware of all social justice issues, not just the issues that affect middle-class white women. This shows how important the concept of wokeness is to many people in online social justice communities.
PERFORMING TO FIT IN WITH A COMMUNITY
Using social media is inherently performative. People are aware of their possible audience—the entire world—so they are aware of their heightened ability to broadcast to others who they are (Pearson, 2009). This means that people take pains and make conscious decisions to signal different things about themselves depending on what they want others to know about them and how they want others to see them (boyd, 2007; Pearson, 2009). These signals could be all sorts of things, ranging from the obvious such as how they customise their Twitter profile pages—header image, profile picture, the information they supply like birthday or location and their bio—to the less obvious such as who they follow, because on Twitter the accounts a user follows is publicly viewable. Do they want it to be public knowledge that they like a certain celebrity, or author, or follow a politician that is affiliated with a certain political party or certain beliefs? What does all this information mean about them? Is that how they want others to view them? This careful curation of signals that a user broadcasts to others also includes the things they tweet and retweet. A Twitter user is always aware of their possible audience and their community, or the communities they are adjacent to. People cannot help but be aware of their followers, their mutuals (the people they follow that also follow them back) and their mutuals’ mutuals (Gruzd, 2011). Community and identity are inherently connected; people see what communities they are a part of, or wish to be a part of, as a part of their identity (boyd, 2007).
Performing wokeness for social currency
As previously mentioned, the concept of wokeness is important to people in social justice circles online. A good way to illustrate exactly how important it is would be to look at popular Twitter activists like DeRay McKesson who use their activism as a part of their self-branding. According to Vis et al (2019), McKesson’s beliefs are not as radical as those of many others in the Black Lives Matter movement, who are usually anti-capitalist and against law enforcement in its current form. Instead, McKesson protests violent police officers, not the system as a whole. Most of the other popular figures in the Black Lives Matter movement share similar views as McKesson, and use their activism to build upon their identity/self-brand (Vis et al, 2019). This suggests that their more mainstream views are a large part of their popularity, possibly that their beliefs are less likely to rock the boat. The large following of such activists—McKessen was on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2016 and, as of April 2020, boasts over one million Twitter followers—also shows that being perceived as woke can be used to gain social currency online (Vonk, 2019).
How performing wokeness harms minority and oppressed groups
As mentioned earlier, Twitter users are always aware of their communities (Gruzd, 2011) and that people see the communities they are a part of, or wish to be a part of, as a part of their own identities (boyd, 2007). Add to this that the concept of wokeness can be used to gain social currency in online social justice circles (Vonk, 2019), and it is not a far stretch to believe people in online social justice circles often take part in online discussion or activism in a way that is not truly helpful. People might claim to care about an issue or a minority group but not actually know anything about the issue past surface-level knowledge. Or, they might claim to care for a minority group but not understand the issues unique to that minority group.
If we look back to intersectional feminism, we can see examples of this. Many black women have voiced feelings of anger and frustration that, even in a time of intersectional feminism, problems particular to white women still take centre stage or that white feminists will often forgive other feminists for instances of racism (Zimmerman, 2017). It is also a popular, well-known narrative among feminist groups that a white woman, when instances of her racism or ignorance are pointed out, no matter how nicely, will publicly breakdown about being bullied online—shifting the narrative to focus on the white woman’s mental health and victimhood, derailing the initial conversation (Vonk, 2019; Zimmerman, 2017). In these instances, white women signal their victimhood in the situation to stop receiving comments and feedback about what is oftentimes innocent ignorance and making themselves the centre of the conversation, when they could just as easily take the opportunity to open up and continue a conversation about an issue faced by a minority group.
According to Wong (2019), another example of performative activism on Twitter would be the 2018 plastic straw conversation that gained momentum on Twitter before becoming a topic people all over the world were talking about in real life and even had real-world legal ramifications, resulting in some cities in the U.S. banning single-use plastic straws. As the conversation was gaining momentum many people with disabilities shared on Twitter that they required plastic straws and were subsequently ignored, or their problems minimised. Many of them said that they could not drink without a straw, and cited reasons that various reusable straws would not be suitable as a substitute. The city of San Francisco, in a bid to show the city cared about disabled people, made an exception to the plastic straw ban that stipulated disabled people could ask for a straw, putting the decision of who was disabled enough for a straw in the hands of waitstaff or cashiers. This decision was made without proper input from people with disabilities (Wong, 2019). There are various performative aspects surrounding the plastic straw conversation. Firstly, that people with disabilities were not listened to, despite the disabled community being a group that most people would claim to care about. People with disabilities reported feeling like they had to prove they were disabled enough for a straw (Wong, 2019). The second, that while climate change is an important issue, single use plastic straws are only a small part of the problem and such a small impact is not worth people with disabilities feeling as if they have to prove their disability to others.
These examples show that people in social justice and online activism circles are willing to put opportunities to perform wokeness and gain social currency over properly doing any real good.
Twitter users in online activism to build and manage their online identity. Sometimes, users might fall into the trap of focusing on the performative aspects of activism to gain social currency or relevance. This is, however, most likely not malicious or even purposefully misleading. Simply that they see themselves as good and probably well-informed members of social justice circles, so of course they care about these things. It is more likely that they have not put in the effort to actually learn about the issues and minority groups that they purport to care about. This seems common among people with less facets of their identity that fall into minority or oppressed groups, and means that they should take greater efforts to listen to others.
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