we are now in a speech environment where power is so concentrated that the whims of a half-dozen tech execs determine – for all intents and purposes – who may speak and what they may say. If you think that power will only be wielded against Alex Jones, there’s a bunch of trans activists, indigenous activists, anti-pipeline activists, #BlackLivesMatter activists, and others who’d like to have a word with you.
What’s more, this situation is a form of government regulation of speech – even if it doesn’t violate the First Amendment. When the government declines to enforce antitrust laws so the market for speech forums is cornered by a handful of companies, when it creates compliance rules that only these companies can afford, when it fails to build publicly owned alternatives bound by the First Amendment, it is making speech policy. Failing to use your legal powers to prevent Big Tech from gaining a monopoly on speech is a form of action. It’s a policy. It’s a regulation of speech.
Just as the Internet and social platforms more broadly have been accompanied by a range of techno-utopian mythologies, so too has participatory culture and micro-celebrity. These mythologies, promoted through mainstream media discourses, technology firms, and at times, in academic scholarship, often highlight the potential of social media to promote progressive ideals of social equality. Specifically, they promote social media—and the micro-celebrity it enables—as a fundamentally democratizing force where anyone can have a voice and help shape public discourse.
In recent years, a range of Internet scholarship has begun to challenge some of these mythologies. For example, scholars of online micro-celebrity and influencer culture have highlighted the inherent neoliberal self-commodification involved in these processes, in which users brand themselves through influencer marketing (Abidin 2018; Marwick 2015). Media historian Fred Turner (2018, 144) has argued that platforms such as Twitter and YouTube have enabled “charismatic, personality-centered modes of authoritarianism” in which the expression of individuality online can ultimately serve authoritarian ends.
By adopting micro-celebrity practices that stress relatability, authenticity, and accountability, they differentiate themselves from both the mainstream media and progressive politics as they perceive them. Thus, the YouTubers in this study align micro-celebrity practices with a reactionary political standpoint. These findings complicate previous mythologies of Internet celebrity that treat participatory culture as inherently progressive.
certain political influencers have specifically aligned micro-celebrity practices with reactionary, anti-progressive, and frequently conspiratorial politics.
Importantly, by stressing the ideals of relatability, authenticity, and accountability—all of which have positive connotations—the practices of micro-celebrity, when paired with reactionary politics, can serve as an entry point for more extreme views. The rejection of mainstream media is often the first step in radicalization for many young people, as their previous worldviews get destabilized (Marwick and Lewis 2017). YouTube provides a fertile environment for this kind of radicalization: its recommendation algorithm frequently encourages users toward increasingly extremist content, and political YouTubers (including those included in this analysis) frequently collaborate with more extreme guests, thus giving them a platform for their views (Lewis 2018; Tufekci 2018).
Platforms are, in a sense, capitalism distilled to its essence. They are proudly experimental and maximally consequential, prone to creating externalities and especially disinclined to address or even acknowledge what happens beyond their rising walls. And accordingly, platforms are the underlying trend that ties together popular narratives about technology and the economy in general. Platforms provide the substructure for the “gig economy” and the “sharing economy”; they’re the economic engine of social media; they’re the architecture of the “attention economy” and the inspiration for claims about the “end of ownership.”
Justice Needs A Platform
Writing long before Mark Zuckerberg was born, and anxiously gazing towards the computer dominated future, the social critic Lewis Mumford tried to understand why people would willingly (even eagerly) embrace technologies with severe downsides. To Mumford there were two types of technologies: democratic ones (such as bicycles) that strengthened personal autonomy; and authoritarian ones (such as computers) that ultimately came to exert total power over their users. In seeking to explain why people, and a society, would opt for authoritarian technologies over democratic ones, Mumford argued that authoritarian technologies (which he also called megatechnics) operate as a wonderful bribe. What this bribe represented was a way in which these technologies, in exchange for acquiescence, offered people a share of the impressive things these technologies could produce. Writing in 1970, Mumford warned that accepting the bribe gradually led to the elimination of alternatives to it, and he noted that for those who accept the bribe, “their ‘real’ life will be confined within the frame of a television screen” (Mumford, 331) – though today we might just as easily say “within the frame of a computer or smartphone screen.” And as he glumly continued, “to enjoy total automation, a significant portion of the population is already willing to become automatons” (Mumford, 332). Granted, as Mumford also noted, it was not that everything offered by the bribe was rubbish, rather “if one examines separately only the immediate products of megatechnics, these claims, these promises, are valid, and these achievements are genuine” but what Mumford highlighted was that “all these goods remain valuable only if more important human concerns are not overlooked or eradicated” (Mumford, 333).
Facebook is an excellent example of this bribe at work.
Platforms like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, and the like are all the bribes that convince people not to war against computerized control by offering them a little share of the goodies. A turn of phrase that Mumford returned to repeatedly throughout his oeuvre is the difference between “the good life” and “the goods life” – and he argued that things such as the bribe were the tools by which people came to mistake “the goods life” for “the good life.”
That there are two philosophies does not necessarily mean that one is right and one is wrong: the reality is we need both. Some problems are best solved by human ingenuity, enabled by the likes of Microsoft and Apple; others by collective action. That, though, gets at why Google and Facebook are fundamentally more dangerous: collective action is traditionally the domain of governments, the best form of which is bounded by the popular will. Google and Facebook, on the other hand, are accountable to no one. Both deserve all of the recent scrutiny they have attracted, and arguably deserve more.
That scrutiny, though, and whatever regulations that result, must keep in mind this philosophical divide: platforms that create new possibilities – and not just Apple and Microsoft! – are the single most important economic force when it comes to countering the oncoming wave of computers doing people’s jobs, and lazily written regulation that targets aggregators but constricts platforms will inevitably do more harm than good.
“Google was just trying to imitate their social media competition, not realizing that they had a much more powerful platform for encouraging the use of the open web that could have disrupted the disrupters.”
Millions of people use social media to navigate identities too complex for single analytical frames like race, class, gender and sexuality to fully capture. We are messy and complicated and we seem to want our digital tools to reflect that. But, intersectionality was never intended to only describe lived experiences. Intersectionality was to be an account of power as much as it was an account of identities (Crenshaw 1991). Here, the potential of intersectionality to understand the reproduction of unequal power relations have not yet been fully realized.
In brief, intersectionality is one of those rare social theories to combine precision of theoretical mechanisms with broadness of method (Lykke 2011). That combination has served intersectionality’s diffusion through social sciences and humanities quite well. It has also created tensions about what intersectionality really means and how best to measure it (or, if it should be measured at all!).
In the black feminist tradition, examining the points of various structural processes where they most numerously manifest is a way to isolate the form and function of those processes in ways that can be obscured when we study them up the privilege hierarchy (Hill Collins 2000). Essentially, no one knows best the motion of the ocean than the fish that must fight the current to swim upstream. I study fish that swim upstream.
A roaming autodidact is a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, culture, history, and markets. The roaming autodidact is almost always conceived as western, white, educated and male. As a result of designing for the roaming autodidact, we end up with a platform that understands learners as white and male, measuring learners’ task efficiencies against an unarticulated norm of western male whiteness. It is not an affirmative exclusion of poor students or bilingual learners or black students or older students, but it need not be affirmative to be effective. Looking across this literature, our imagined educational futures are a lot like science fiction movies: there’s a conspicuous absence of brown people and women.
Intersectionality theories or methods have not yet been fully realized in the study of digitality and education, a critical institutional axis of social stratification.
The privatization of critical institutional arrangements like higher education is a serious challenge for digital sociology’s focus on studying inequalities. And, to keep expenditures low and profits high, faculty at for-profit colleges largely do not have a research imperative and physical campuses have few unstructured spaces for observation. Financial imperatives of privatized public goods shifts institutional responsibility from knowledge production to market penetration, privileging market competition over social inquiry.
Social media platforms afforded students who are rendered invisible in analysis because of privatization and intellectual enclosure to speak their experiences into legibility.
However, to move beyond giving voice to uncovering the ways in which power and privilege are often unmarked in social science research (Bonnett 1996; Zuberi 2008) intersectionality demands that we examine process and power relations. That is part of intersectionality’s political imperative.
Intersectionality theory argues that narrative methods de-centers privilege in rational actor theories. Therefore, I conceptualized the social media data I collected as autoethnographies rather than content. While content can absolutely be analyzed as narratives, they are most often analyzed as quantitative abstractions or without attention to qualitative differences in the power that frame content. In contrast, ethnographic data’s imperative is to situate meaning among various relational dynamics like power, privilege and social location (Ellis and Bochner 2006). Autoethnographies resist hegemonic sensemaking paradigms by centering self-authored texts and the co-construction of meaning. These theoretical imperatives, mechanisms and methodological choices are consistent with black cyberfeminism’s focus on intersectionality and unique characteristics of digitized social processes.