Digital Matters: Voice, Privilege, & the Popular (Digi)lebrity

@ReninaWrites recently reminded me of several pieces that I have, over the years, failed to publish. Who after all, was listening?  My blog was just a place for my fanciful musings on culture, literature, fashion, and race. After a conversation with @ReninaWrites, in which we discussed the role of popularity, marketing, and celebrating in recreating many dynamics of the “real world” in the digital landscape, I mentioned that a few years ago I’d written a piece about just that. But I let it languish; convinced, there wasn’t much I could add to the conversation that many brilliant Black girl, nerds, thinkers, philosophers, and digital afficionados were already kikiing about.

Then @ReninaWrites sent me a very simple tweet: Ok. #PressPublish.  That was more weeks than I care to admit to, however, at last, I am ready to #PressPublish on this piece that speaks largely to the constructions of celebrity that are possible in the digital world. I’ve edited substantially – added pieces that update the essay so that it fits with 2013 – and not 2011 when it was first drafted, worked to make less use of jargon, and to be a bit less convoluted. So…here it goes.

For me, this post began with the thought: do you truly exist in this day and age if you do not leave a digital footprint? Do you matter unless you have a Facebook account, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, or Instagram? Will you be seen unless you can establish a riveting and compelling persona in the digital world, that incites others to want to meet you in real life? in short, if you’re not a (digi)lebrity, do you matter?

This series of questions came to me as I pondered on the number of friends who consistently castigate me for not being on Facebook – and a series of friends who mentioned that if I would just join Facebook then they could hear what was going on in my life better and maybe people would care what I was doing more. Yes, the first instinct may be a neck roll and some choice words, however, a few years ago, I think that this was a very clear sentiment among some people. Unless you left a digital footprint, you didn’t matter. Leaving a digital footprint was what mattered. It mattered, or so it seemed to me at the time, more than the ability to make emotional connections, offer support, and truly listen to friends to build the capacity for a radical community of self care and support. In the last few years, I’ve noticed a distinct turn from this approach to the digital landscape – more disengagement from Facebook – a backlash of sorts. But I have also learned to have a more nuanced understanding of the rich connections which social media can offer.

And I’ve also had the experience of not being seen as important, popular, or properly branded enough to engage with in the digital world. In the landscape of social media, how do we talk about the ways in which we reify pretty politics, class dynamics, ableism, and other forms of privilege. What, I wonder, makes digital engagement, different from the popularity politics that haunted us pre-digital age? In what ways has social media opened the landscape so that the field is flooded with those who may not have always been at the popular table?

I have noticed the rising importance of what I am calling the (digi)lebrity. A (digi)lebrity:

– Wants to make sure that you’re aware of how many followers they have

– Remind you that you can’t build your brand and have a “voice” if  you don’t exist in the digital/social media world – regardless of whether or not you have the time, money, or physical ability to devote to building a digital presence

– Has built a digital empire based on being seen in cyberspace, but doesn’t always necessarily use social media to build beloved community

– Will not favorite, retweet, link, or appear in a photo with or about you unless they have verified that you are at least a rising star on the (digi)lebrity radar.

– When you meet wants you to immediately begin to follow them on Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, et al – because this, they feel, is the best way to get to know one another.

Now. Yes. I know. This is extremely reductive. Maybe even unfair. But I’ve noticed how all this digital social building, does not always translate to in-person kindness, grace, or reciprocal relationships unfettered from the notion of brand building. I’ve also noticed that many of the same body, skin-color, and pretty politics that animate the “real” world have infiltrated the digital world. This means that being seen as attractive, popular, bright, shiny, thin, and the nearly hard to attain “cool,” adds to one’s social capital. And if you don’t make the grade? Well, you don’t get to sit at the table. Plenty of incredible voices go unheard because they are not glistened with just the right sheen or lack the special ingredients that make digi(lebrity) possible.

What I’ve noticed, is that we seem to have created a new world order, in which there always has to be something witty to say – something that we have to share immediately and with everyone; that there are plenty of public affirmations and guidance shared on how to be better, but that conversations about the politics of our interpersonal lives is sometimes not top of mind or on front street; that some folks are being drained and used and asked to contribute – but also tacitly asked not to expect to be recognized; that those people who don’t have the “drive” to pursue an internet and social media presence – because they work too many jobs, or don’t have the physical stamina to engage in the kind of tireless building of the digital self which (digi)lebrity requires, end up erased or obscured. And so, what makes that different than the pre-digital age?

There are many things that I find fascinating, exciting, and powerful about the new digital landscape. The fact that there is  Black Twitter, that Black womyn have a voice on social media that feels affirming and brilliant, that there is the potential to speak, be heard, and to hear an echo with a new line attached to your original thought. But there is also the unspoken dynamic of what it means when:

– You aren’t seen as attractive enough for someone to pause and really talk with you

– Or when your lack of a “brand” means people assume you aren’t worth knowing

– Or when we expect people who have made themselves available in the social media world, to make themselves entirely available to us when we meet face-to-face; disregarding any sense of boundaries.

What do we do when popularity and not content begins to dictate who gets to live on the digital hill?

For my part, I’m still thinking through these issues. There is always something nice in knowing that I write to a void. That at least, is one thing I know – (digi)lebrity is not for me.

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