The Black Social Media Paradox

Over the weekend, I finally mustered up the courage and focus to finish this piece, which is the longest story I’ve ever written (possibly ever?) about the relationship I have with social media, posting, the long history of my negotiation with platforms, my weirdness with being a brand as a black woman in a country with a legacy of slavery, and my discomfort with helping Facebook — a company that is worth $464.1 billion and now has more than 2 billion people globally sharing stuff over one of its services, whether that’s Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp  — make money from an invisible infrastructure that feels that it has been set up to harm me but at the very least is not an environment meant to do me any good at all.

In it, I go all the way back to when I first started using computers, and in fact, before even that, to when I was in middle school and before I even got online. I think there is a negotiation of loneliness and addiction along with some hypervigilance and trauma that are specific things Black and Latinx folks experience that social media exacerbates that people fail to specifically reckon with for whatever reason.

Here’s how it begins:

For a long time I have been trying to parse out what happened with me and social media, but as soon as I realized I was addicted to it I had to quit for a second and step back. The results of this were stunning, not just as a writer, intellectual, and journalist, but as a Black woman, creative and entrepreneur.

In 2008, I was a newspaper journalist and library school student at the University of Texas Austin when I joined Twitter for the first time; the following year, I joined Facebook. I signed up for Tumblr shortly thereafter.

I prefer Twitter over all of these for ease of use and nostalgia purposes. One of my most bittersweet memories of the earlier days on the platform was watching tweets on a world map displayed from an overhead projector during the Virginia Tech shooting. Twitter became the preferred method for sharing resources and breaking news for a reason — though obviously it’s not immune to some of the problems and challenges of other platforms or networks.

It also appeals to the writer in me. Twitter is also the home of #BlackTwitter, a modern day articulation of myriad aspects of the oral tradition in ample evidence throughout the Black Diaspora. For the best, most complete understanding of #BlackTwitter, I direct you to my colleague Dr. Meredith D. Clark has been leading scholarship on the topic since 2010.

Facebook, though, has been more of a mixed bag. Back then, it had just opened up to allow anyone to join — not just people with .edu email addresses — and I had a tiny community. (My community, I must say, is still not that large.)

It could have been that my life was different, too and vastly so, which I’ll get into a little later, because of course (as you would hope) all of this is connected. But I would go on to have, over the course of nearly a decade, approximately three positive real life outcomes fostered by Facebook. Two of those three were with people I already knew in real life but had no other means of bringing together in real time in another way.

In contrast, I have lost count of how many irritating, alienating, annoying, depressing, draining, exhausting, traumatic and in one recent case, scary encounters I’ve faced as a result of Facebook or one of the properties it owns — WhatsApp and Instagram.

Facebook, it won’t surprise you, is central to this story and my discontent because it is the best example of an extremely valuable — As of March 2018, Facebook’s Market Value was reported by Fortune Magazine at $464.1 billion — global multimedia platform that has profited without governmental regulation from the free and cheap intellectual labor of Black and brown people the world over for many years while simultaneously absolving itself any responsibility to any entity of any kind.

This is important for a couple of reasons.

First, I want to be clear that this is not a Delete Facebook screed. I have friends and allies who work at Facebook and I don’t believe we should throw people or organizations away because they make mistakes and fail to learn from them (though it does give me pause that the majority of people in the world now rely on Facebook for news and even when they suspect it might be fake they go ahead and spread it anyway ; it makes me especially furious that Facebook pretends to be neutral and innocuous in light of this reality.)

But that last point gets to the heart of my conundrum. Everyone, especially those of us in the gig economy, relies on these platforms now for information and, to some extent, to make money; some more than others. I wonder: is it possible to completely divest from Facebook and Instagram as a writer, knowing what I do about how central it is in terms of promotion, sales and global commerce? If I can’t divest, how can I protect my mind and my heart while also being productive, creative and engaged in the real lives of the people I love and care about most?




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