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What’s the Point of Social Media Anyway?

What follows is an article about the uses of social media platforms presented on a social media platform and shared on at least one other social media platform.

Image of an Unknown Young Woman by Elinor Cook premiered last June at the Gate Theatre in London. In the play, an instance of violence is caught on camera in the middle of a demonstration: a beautiful girl in a yellow dress is shot in the stomach. The video is then spread across the internet, and the world goes into shock. Profile pictures are changed. Tweets are sent. Friends are shamed for not being aware of the Girl in the Yellow Dress. She becomes a world-wide symbol for the tragedies in this unnamed country as it revolts against its oppressive regime. The play takes a look at how social media affects activism and what it means to live in a world connected by a (Twitter) thread. The Guardian called the play “a bold examination of violence and revolution, and the illusions used to create focus and hold power in both personal relationships and those between the state and its citizens.

It’s the best play in the whole world and everyone on this Earth should read it.

In preparing to direct this play for my senior thesis, I’ve been thinking about social media activism and its role in our political landscape. I’m trying to do research. Lots and lots of research. I’m trying to listen to the viewpoints of people across the spectrum of humanity. In my searching, I came across this unbelievable (and flawlessly designed) WIRED article by Bijan Stephen, Social Media Helps Black Lives Matter Fight the Power.

It feels like more tragedies are happening now than every before, but what Stephen explains is that it’s not the frequency of tragedy that’s changed, it’s our way of spreading information about them. Stephen talks about the process of how information about a civil rights protest might have been reached a major audience in the days of Jim Crow: reports of arrests from protests would be compiled in “WATS [(Wide Area Telephone Service)] reports” and mailed out to “organization leaders, the media, the Justice Department, lawyers, and other friends of the movement across the country. In other words, it took a lot of infrastructure to live-tweet what was going on in the streets of the Jim Crow South.” The footage of the protests would be sent to New York to be broadcast that night, and then a few days after that “Martin Luther King Jr. would lay bare the movement’s core media strategy. “We will no longer let them use their clubs on us in the dark corners,” he said. “We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.””

Nothing is different now, except that instead of calling a number of different media outlets you send the video straight to Twitter and track at it moves around the world. We’re still fighting for many of the same things, we’re just fighting differently now. Stephen thinks this is not uncommon or unpredictable, because movements have been using the media to their advantage for much longer than Twitter’s lifespan. Stephen points out that “any large social movement is shaped by the technology available to it and tailors its goals, tactics, and rhetoric to the media of its time.” The voices of the Black Lives Matter movement have learned the intricacies of the platforms available to them and have chosen the ones that make their fight the most approachable, the most understandable, and the easiest to join in with. The use of social media has made activism appealing to all kinds of people. It makes getting involved in the fight capable even from lands far away. You want to be involved in the conversation? Use the hashtag. BLM has learned (and shown the world) that hashtags work. Martin Luther King Jr. and the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1960s knew that “social media could serve as a source of live, raw information,” even when it took so many steps to get the information to its intended audience. But now that social media has become an instantaneous event shared easily all over the world, “it [can] summon people to the streets and coordinate their movements in real time. And it [can] swiftly push back against spurious media narratives with the force of a few thousand retweets.” What a gift.

Social media has also sharpened our wit, made us smart enough to phrase our most complicated thoughts in 140 characters or the length of a Facebook status. Our argumentative skills have improved from all the times we have to defend ourselves to our relatives who don’t agree with what we’re saying. And yet, with access to the internet comes access to information that ranges on a scale from true to definitely-happened-in-someone’s-dream-and-he’s-convinced-it-really-happened.

In Cook’s play, Ali is the one who records the shooting and disperses the video. At first, he feels justified: he’s brought attention to the fact that his country is dying. But then, people begin to use the Girl in the Yellow Dress as a symbol, stripping her of her humanity. Her suffering is only useful so far as it serves the purpose of the people sharing her story on Facebook. Girls search Asos to see if they too can own a Yellow Dress. The guilt begins to consume Ali. Is he abusing the potential death of a young girl to bring attention to the cause? Is that ok? She never gave her consent. The distribution of the video ultimately results in the abuse of Ali’s girlfriend. The video might help the killings end soon, but is the healing of some other people’s suffering worth the suffering of the people Ali loves?

The play gives us no clear answers about how we should use social media or what its place in politics and activism should be. It saves some peoples lives and it ruins others. It gives people the chance to feel involved in the fight, but some of those people have only joined the fight so they can feel better about themselves. What Image shows us is that there are as many different interactions with the media as there are people in the world.

But no matter what other benefits or drawbacks social media brings, it has made it impossible not to see the world as it truly is. Stephen says that social media has made old struggles feel new again:

“I think the new common sense being established now is that racism and the struggle against it do not exist somewhere in the distant past; racial activism didn’t end after King and the Black Panther Party. Technology has helped make today’s struggle feel both different from and continuous with the civil rights era. All the terror and greatness we associate with that moment is right in front of our faces, as near to us as our screens.”

The world is changing. It’s always been changing. But now we can watch it change through the course of a hashtag campaign. Whether the use of social media activism was ultimately beneficial or not will remain to be seen in years to come. All I know is that in March of 2016 there were over 41 million tweets with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Social media gets people talking. Talking leads to awareness. And awareness leads to change.



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