“Woketivism” in Memes: Race and Visual Culture
by Lauren Hamersmith
In “The Racio-Visual Logic of the Internet,” Lisa Nakamura discusses the rise of avatars in the early 2000s to contest the media invisibility of marginalized members of society (particularly POC and women.) Pregnant women and Muslims hacked their profile images to represent parts of their physicality often hidden in the visual playground of the internet (as well as off-line, and in other media sites).
Nakamura cautions: “Yet this encouraging use of Internet for non-normative bodies to be displayed, circulated, and modified, to be made to signify racial and gender identities that exceed or resist already-existing templates, must be understood within the larger frame of early-twenty-first-century cultural politics.”
She discusses the pre-Y2K trend of ideas circulating around a techno-utopia e.g., the unlimited connective power of the web. Some of these techno-enthusiasts and post-humanists still debate their ideas today, but despite the ubiquity of smart phones and the percentage of internet users on social media, most online activity mimics or appendages offline, embodied behaviors. A #Blacktivist user protesting police brutality on Twitter is likely to speak out off-line as well (provided they are safe and physically able to do so). The difference is that online, the wielding of social capital and virtue-signaling make it hard to discern how social media activism affects systemic change in the super-structures of collective life.
The threat, of course, is that the prevailing media platforms (including Instagram) are owned by companies with interests in pleasing investors and attracting advertising revenue. As Nakamura remarks, (in her case about message boards and online profiles, but the same holds true for Instagram), the expressive potential of the medium is limited by a set of templates– and content follows form, with conventions ruling the medium. On Instagram, messages are moderated and anything flagged as inappropriate is removed promptly, the user banned for good. Moreover, Instagram and Facebook present huge concerns for the erosion of privacy– Instagram owns all the data on the app and the terms of agreement clearly state that the company may use the data as they see fit, for all eternity. Of course, after 9/11, the Patriot Act dismantled any semblance of internet privacy.